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Yemen

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Yemeni Missiles: SSDD

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is – a threat to the peace and security of the whole world,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last December, trying to drum up support for stronger international sanctions against Iran, and maybe even an actual attack on the country. Here we go again.

Those old enough to remember the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq will recall the deluge of doctored American ‘intelligence’ reports about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the attack. ‘Everybody’ was in danger, presumably including Bolivia, Switzerland and Nepal, so everybody must support the invasion.

President George W. Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the American intelligence services worked overtime to come up with reasons for doing it. We were told that Saddam had been trying to buy ‘yellowcake’ uranium in Niger (false, based on forged documents). The US could not afford to wait for final proof of Saddam’s intentions “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, said President Bush.

And former general Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, showed the United Nations General Assembly a vial containing a powder – harmless, one hopes – in order to emphasise that just a tiny amount of a lethal biological weapon Saddam was allegedly producing would kill gazillions of people. (Powell, basically an honest man, later called the speech a permanent “blot” on his record.)

In the end the United States got its war – and found no evidence whatever of an active Iraqi programme to build weapons of mass destruction. But no lessons have been learned. Ms Haley at the UN was laying a foundation of lies for a comparable Trump adventure in the Middle East. Same Story Different Day.

The story-line goes as follows. Iran is an aggressive and expansionist power that threatens everybody everywhere. The proof is that it is helping the bad guys in Yemen, known as the Houthis, to launch missile attacks on innocent Saudi citizens. In fact, it is actually giving the evil Houthis the missiles.

The Houthis, a large Shia tribe in northern Yemen, are indeed rebels, and they now control most of the country, including the capital. This greatly angered the Saudi Arabians, who installed the previous government in 2012 as a way of shutting down the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.

The Saudis didn’t like seeing their man overthrown, so they created a nine-country coalition of Sunni Arab states and started bombing Yemen in 2015. According to the UN, at least 8,670 people have been killed and 49,960 injured since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s war. But on 25 March one of the highly inaccurate Houthi missiles killed one person in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The anti-Iran propaganda machine went into high gear. “This aggressive and hostile action by the Iran-backed Houthi group proves that the Iranian regime continues to support the (Houthi) armed group with military capabilities,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki. And the inimitable Nikki Haley said that the missile “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it.

This is the nub of the matter: is Iran actually supplying missiles to the Houthis that are being fired at Saudi Arabia? If so, then the United States, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, has an excuse to attack Iran.

The American accusation basically depends on the ignorant but widespread belief that Yemenis, and in particular Shia rebels from the north, are too ‘backward’ to be able to make or upgrade missiles themselves. But most of the Yemeni armed forces’ weapons, including a variety of short-range ballistic missiles based on the old Soviet ‘Scud’ series, fell into the Houthis’ hands in 2015-16.

None of those original missiles could have reached Riyadh, but extending the range of a simple rocket like the Scud is not rocket science. You just reduce the weight of the warhead and lengthen the body of the rocket to carry extra fuel.

The Houthis have lots of people with metal fabrication and basic engineering skills, and it appears that they did exactly that. The upgraded missile is inaccurate (only one Saudi casualty in at least 40 launches) because lengthening it and lightening the warhead changes the balance, but it cheers the Houthis up because it lets them retaliate for all the bombing.

Jane’s Information Group Ltd, established in 1898, is the world’s leading independent provider of intelligence and analysis on defense matters. Here is what Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said about Yemen’s rockets in 2017 in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

“The Burkan-2 appears to use a new type of warhead section that is locally fabricated. Both Iran and North Korea have displayed Scud derivatives with shuttlecock-shaped warheads, but none of these match the Yemeni version. The range of the Burkan missiles also appears to have been extended by a reduction in the weight of their warheads.”

No nonsense about ‘made in Iran’ stickers. The Yemenis aren’t stupid, and they did it themselves. But the other story suits the Trump administration’s purposes better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“President…record”)

The End of Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh seized power in Yemen in 1978, when he was only 36 years old. He lost it in 2012, when the ‘Arab spring’ was in full spate, and had been trying to get it back ever since. Thirty-four years was not enough. But on Monday, his truly astonishing ability to switch sides got him killed.

Saleh was Saudi Arabia’s man in Yemen for a long time, but when Riyadh turned against him in 2012 and put his vice-president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in power instead, Saleh went rogue. A lot of the army was still loyal to him, so he made an alliance with the powerful Houthi tribes in the north (exactly the same people whom he had attacked six times in the past), and started working his way back.

In 2014 the Houthi militia and Saleh’s forces seized control of the capital, Sanaa, and Saudi Arabia’s new placeman, President Hadi, fled south to Aden, the country’s second city. Later Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi-Saleh alliance took over most of the country.

Yemen matters a lot to the Saudis, because it is the other big country in the Arabian peninsula, with 27 million people (same as Saudi Arabia), but it is very poor and very unstable. The fact that almost half the Yemenis follow the Shia branch of Islam (in their own Zaidi variant) is of particular concern to the Saudi regime.

Such distinctions didn’t stop the Houthis (who are Shia) from getting together with Saleh’s people (who are mostly Sunnis), because Yemenis are not much troubled by such things. But the Saudi Arabian regime, all Sunnis, is obsessed by the ‘Shia threat’. That mostly means Iran, their rival across the Gulf, but the Saudis sees Iranian plots everywhere, especially if there are Shias involved.

The current Yemeni civil war is about the twentieth such power struggle in the past thousand years, and little different from all the others. Iran no doubt enjoys the Saudi Arabian panic about it, but there is no evidence that it is sending the Houthis anything except good wishes. Whereas Riyadh and its allies are sending bombers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia and eight Arab allies launched a bombing campaign against the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, with the United States and the United Kingdom both providing political, logistical and propaganda support to the operation. More than 8,000 Yemenis have been killed by the coalition’s air strikes and around 50,000 wounded, but the lines on the ground have scarcely shifted in the past two years.

The air war has been very costly for Saudi Arabia both in money and in reputation, and it has been getting increasingly embarrassing for the man who started it, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. So Ali Abdullah Saleh calculated that this was the right time to change sides: he could get a good price for ratting on the Houthis, and maybe even recover the presidency he had held for so long.

He pretended to be driven by humanitarian motives. In a televised speech on Saturday, he called on “the brothers in neighbouring states and the coalition to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded, and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighbourliness.”

The bit about “aggression” was meant to placate his Yemeni audience, which does not love the Saudis, but he was actually offering to change sides. The Saudi-led coalition immediately responded, welcoming Saleh’s decision to “take the lead and to…free Yemen of…militias loyal to Iran.”

The Houthis, however, had seen his treachery coming. They accused Saleh of staging a coup against “an alliance he never believed in,” and Sanaa was engulfed by heavy artillery fire as the Houthis went to war against their former ally. Despite Saudi air strikes to help Saleh’s forces, the Houthis had fought their way to within 200 metres of Saleh’s house by Monday morning.

Reports differ about what happened next. Some say Saleh died in the wreckage of his house, which was blown up by Houthi fighters. Others say he made a run for it in his car, which was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. What the internet images show is a fatal wound in his head. The old fox is definitely dead, and the civil war within the civil war is probably over.

Bits of Saleh’s army may fight on for a while, but without him to bind them together most of Saleh’s soldiers will eventually either go over to the Houthis or go home. The Houthis will be a bit weaker without Saleh’s support, but so long as the the coalition’s members are not willing to put large numbers of their own troops in the ground in Yemen – and they are not – the Houthis will probably keep control of most of the country.

And the war will go on until Mohammed bin Salman gets tired of it, or the Saudis get tired of him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He…Iran”)

Saudi Arabia: Gambler in Charge

By the end of 2015 the BND, the German foreign intelligence service, had grown so concerned that it warned the government about Saudi Arabia’s new Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman. “The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family,” it wrote, “is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”

At that point Prince bin Salman had been defence minister for just one year, but he had already launched a major military intervention in the civil war in Yemen and committed Saudi Arabia to open support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war. He had also taken the bold decision to let oil production rip and the oil price crash.

No wonder the BND characterised Prince bin Salman as “a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.” Not just a gambler, but one who was betting on the wrong horses.

The first bet to fail was his intervention in the Yemeni civil war, with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis (around half of them civilians) and cost Saudi Arabia tens of billions of dollars.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known in diplomatic circles) sold the war as a short, sharp intervention that would defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and put Saudi Arabia’s own choice for the presidency, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back in power. It has turned into a long, exhausting war of attrition: the Houthis still control of the capital, Sana’a, and Hadi will not be going home any time soon.

Then the Deputy Crown Prince’s second big bet, an open commitment to support the Syrian rebels, failed when the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian help, reconquered eastern Aleppo last December. Not one of Syria’s big cities is now under rebel control, and Saudi Arabia will have to live with a victorious and vengeful Assad regime.

MBS’s biggest gamble was his plan to restore the Saudi kingdom’s dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition, the American producers who get oil out of shale rock by fracking, into bankruptcy.

The frackers had doubled American oil production in eight years, but the extra US production was creating an over-supply in the market and depressing the price of oil. Then the prince decided to make matters worse.

He reckoned that the frackers were high-cost producers who would go broke if the price of oil stayed low enough for long enough. So Saudi Arabia kept its own oil production high and persuaded its partners in the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) to do the same.

At several points in the past two years the oil price fell below $30 per barrel, compared to a peak of $114 in 2014, but the strategy didn’t work as MBS had planned.

The US frackers shut down their less profitable operations temporarily and some
smaller players went bankrupt, but the survivors are ready to ramp production up again as soon as the oil price improves. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been burning through $100 billion a year in cash reserves to keep government services and subsidies going.

Last November the prince admitted defeat. Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, and Russia and Kazakhstan chipped in with another half million barrels. The oil price is up to $55 per barrel, Saudi Arabia’s cash flow has improved, and the political stresses at home due to wage and subsidy cuts have eased off.
But many people are asking: “What was all that about, then?”

The prince is not a fool. He should have known that foreign interventions in Yemen rarely succeed, that the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war meant that Assad was likely to win, and that the American frackers could probably wait him out. In fact, he probably did know.

The problem is that Muhammad bin Salman is in a hurry to produce some positive results. His prominence at such an early age owes everything to the support of his father, King Salman, who ascended to the throne just two years ago. But the king is 81 and in poor health (suffering from mild dementia, according to some), and his son is not his obvious successor.

Normally the successor to the Saudi throne is not the current king’s son, but a senior prince chosen by his peers as best fitted to rule. The current Crown Prince is 57-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Even the title of Deputy Crown Prince is new, and MBS owes it entirely to his father.

So to have any hope of succeeding to the throne when King Salman dies, Prince Muhammad bin Salman must prove his worth quickly. That’s why he was open to such high-stakes, long-odds gambles: one big success could do the trick for him.

He is probably still up for another roll of the dice.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10, and 15. (“The frackers…worse”; At several…planned”; and “Normally…father”)

Yemen: The Stupidest War

“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”

No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll – “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain – but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday’s strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundred of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an air-strike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.

Even the White House, which has loyally backed Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, said that it is launching an immediate review of its policy. US National Security Council spokesman Ned Simon said it was part of a “troubling” pattern of Saudi air attacks on civilians, and warned that “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.” But it is, actually.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.

However, none of the “coalition” members wants to risk the casualties and the consequent unpopularity at home that would come from fighting a major ground war in Yemen. The intervention therefore consists mostly of air strikes, which produce lots of civilian casualties – some deliberate, some not.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief (or at least claim) that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathise with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis”, faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground – and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy (although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part).

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.

Yemen is of no imaginable strategic value to Iran, nor could the Iranians help the rebel government there in any concrete way even if they wanted to. And while Iranian influence has undoubtedly grown in the Gulf region in the past decade, that is entirely a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, not of some nefarious Iranian plot.

Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 15. (“Even…actually”; “However…not”; and “Yemen…plot”)