This past weekend, Yemeni Armed Forces spokesman Brigadier Yahya al-Sari clinically described how Ansarallah, also known as the Houthi rebel movement, aided by what Yemenis describe as “popular committees,” captured three Saudi brigades of 2,400 ragged soldiers, plus Yemeni and Sudanese mercenaries as well as several hundred battle vehicles. At least 500 Saudi soldiers were killed, Ansarallah said. (A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition denied the claim.)
This was part of the significantly named Operation Nasrallah in Najran province, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, who did learn a lot, tactically and strategically, from Hezbollah, duly praised mujahideen and “popular committees” involved in Operation Nasrallah.
Col. Pat Lang, in his blog, offers a particularly useful observation on the captured Saudi vehicles. Some belonged to the Saudi National Guard (SANG):
Highly disruptive drone attacks on Aramco oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia are arguably the most significant military operation yet against the US-allied kingdom’s critical infrastructure.
Saturday’s attacks on petroleum and gas processing plants in Khurais and Abqaiq, which Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for, knocked down approximately 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of total Saudi oil output.
When, a couple of days ago, Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facilities were attacked with drones – it is thought by the Houthis in Yemen – our media repeatedly characterised this event as a “game-changer”. But was it really this? In some sense yes, since it perturbed the global oil supply and made a large armed conflict in the Middle East much more probable. However, one should be careful not to miss the cruel irony of this claim.
Houthi rebels in Yemen have been in an open war with Saudi Arabia for years, with Saudi armed forces (and the US and the UK supplying arms) practically destroying the entire country, indiscriminately bombing civilian objects. The Saudi intervention has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the century with tens of thousands of children dead. As it was in the cases of Libya and Syria, destroying an entire country is obviously not a game-changer – just part and parcel of a very normal geopolitical game.
A recent surge in fighting in southern Yemen is part of an overarching Saudi-UAE strategy to keep the Arab world’s most impoverished nation in a perpetual weak state in order to serve their own objectives, according to analysts.
The battles this month in the city of Aden between government forces loyal to Saudi Arabia-based President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the United Arab Emirates-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) have added another layer of complexity to Yemen’s already multifaceted war.
Zij kan hier niet blijven slapen.’ De beheerder van de kazerne, die ons een paar uur eerder vriendelijk had ontvangen, is onverbiddelijk. We zijn in een kazerne in Mokka, een havenstad aan de Rode Zee in Jemen. Na een dagje aan het front, waarbij we op sleeptouw zijn genomen door qat kauwende strijders, ons konvooi zich schietend een weg naar de oorlog baande en de frontlijn zich onverwacht snel aandiende langs een strand met mijnen links en de vijand in de struiken rechts, is het te laat om nog veilig terug te rijden naar ons hotel. Wij – mijn chauffeur, mijn fixer, een intelligente dertiger die fungeert als mijn gids, vertaler en lokale toeverlaat, en ikzelf – blijven daarom slapen op twee uur rijden van het front, in de kazerne van Mokka.
Ik ben niet dol op overnachtingen in Arabische kazernes. Dat komt omdat ik een vrouw ben. Daar is in mijn beroep niets bijzonders aan. In de conflictjournalistiek zijn de tijden van Martha Gellhorn voorbij. Was een vrouwelijke journalist aan een Arabische frontlijn begin jaren negentig nog reden tot verwondering, tegenwoordig geldt dit als het summum van doorsnee. Meer dan de helft van de Midden-Oosten-correspondenten in mijn standplaats Beiroet, Libanon, is tegenwoordig vrouw, becijferde een Amerikaanse collega vorig jaar. Dat heeft een praktische reden. In Arabische landen, waar het voor een man cultureel vaak ongepast is om lokale vrouwen aan te spreken, is het voor een vrouw gemakkelijker werken. Zij kan in tegenstelling tot een man met iedereen praten. Met een hoofddoek om valt een vrouw ook nog eens minder op, wat in onveilige gebieden een voordeel is.
Our leaders know how to bang the war drums and, by and large, we go along with them. The US threatens Iran with war – so will Iran close the Strait of Hormuz and attack American warships in the Gulf? Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria after rockets fall on Golan – so does an Arab-Israeli conflict loom closer than at any time since the 1973 conflict? Jared Kushner plans to reveal Trump’s “deal of the century” for peace in the Middle East – but is it dead in the water?
Meanwhile the real stories get pushed down the page – or “to the back of the book”, as we journalists used to say.
Take Donald Trump’s desire to furnish Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with billions of dollars of extra weapons so that they can increase the ferocity of their war in Yemen against the Houthis – whose support from Iran, such as it is, prompts much of the international abuse against the Islamic Republic. French intelligence officers in Washington have apparently discovered that this is no routine request from Riyadh but a desperate appeal to Washington, because so promiscuous has been the Saudis’ use of US munitions against Houthi rebels (and civilians, hospitals, aid centres, schools and wedding parties) that they are running out of bombs, guided and unguided missiles, drone parts and other “precision” arms to be used on one of the poorest countries in the world.
I was in Kabul a decade ago when WikiLeaks released a massive tranche of US government documents about the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. On the day of the release, I was arranging by phone to meet an American official for an unattributable briefing. I told him in the course of our conversation what I had just learned from the news wires.
He was intensely interested and asked me what was known about the degree of classification of the files. When I told him, he said in a relieved tone: “No real secrets, then.”
When we met later in my hotel I asked him why he was so dismissive of the revelations that were causing such uproar in the world.
The withdrawal of Houthi rebels from three of Yemen’s ports as part of the December 2018 ceasefire agreement should have been the basis for further talks to expand the truce to other parts of the country. But while the withdrawal was under way last week, Houthis, who are reportedly getting support from Iran, carried out a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline, and in retaliation Riyadh launched airstrikes on Sanaa, the capital city controlled by the rebels, killing at least six civilians, including children. Yemen now risks falling back to the pre-ceasefire days of conflict with fighting having broken out in parts of the government-controlled south. What makes the resumption of hostilities more dangerous is the regional angle. Tensions are on the rise in West Asia over the U.S.-Iran standoff. The U.S. had earlier warned against possible attacks by either Iran or Iran-backed militias against American interests or its allies in the region, and has deployed an aircraft carrier and a bomber squad to the Gulf. Immediately after the pipeline was attacked, the Saudis blamed Iran for ordering it, an allegation which both Tehran and the Houthis have refuted. Whether Iran was actually behind the attack or not, the incident and the subsequent Saudi airstrikes show how the Yemeni conflict is entangled with the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Four years ago, Ayman Askar was in a prison in south Yemen, serving a life sentence for murder. Now he is a wealthy and important man whose friendships cut across the many lines of the fragmented civil war that has destroyed the country. Askar has recently been named the chief of security for a large district in the southern port city of Aden – appointed by the government of Yemen, on whose behalf Saudi Arabia has been bombing the country for three-and-a-half years. But Askar is also a friend and ally of the United Arab Emirates – the most aggressive partner in the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced from office by the Houthi rebellion in 2015.
The Saudis have attracted the bulk of the world’s displeasure for their bloody intervention in Yemen, but the UAE plays a more forceful role on the ground – and its allies in the south, including local militias, Salafi fighters, and south Yemen separatists who want to break away from Hadi’s government, have been known to fight against the Saudis’ own proxies in the country.
Dahyan, a town in the far
northwest of Yemen, is a farming settlement about two hours’ drive from
the Saudi border. On its dusty, unpaved main street, a large crater is
still visible near a fruit-and-vegetable stand, marked out by flimsy
wooden stakes and red traffic tape. It was here that a laser-guided bomb
dropped by a Saudi jet struck a school bus taking students on a field
trip on the morning of Aug. 9, killing 44 children and 10 adults. Even
for a population that had grown accustomed to tragedy after more than
three years of war, the bus bombing was shocking. Shrapnel and tiny
limbs were scattered for hundreds of yards around. The bomb that hit the
bus, several local people told me, bore markings showing it was made in
the United States. The site has now become something of a shrine. On a
brick wall a few yards from the crater, large painted letters in both
English and Arabic proclaim, “America Kills Yemeni Children.”
Not far away was a fresh graveyard where the
victims were buried. At each grave, a color portrait of a victim stood
over a coffin-shaped mound of dry, rocky earth. Beyond a low stone wall
was the carcass of the bus, a mass of twisted and burned metal. A boy
was standing silently by a grave as I arrived, staring down at the
headstone. “We were all in school together,” he told me. He was 14. He
might easily have been on that bus, he said, but he’d already gone on
the school trip. He was on the way to the market to help his father when
the bomb struck. His father wasn’t hurt, but he soon found out that
most of his friends and teachers were dead. He now goes to the graveyard
almost every day to visit them, he told me quietly.
For the Houthi movement, a powerful and enigmatic militia that rules most of Yemen’s people, the bus bombing was something of a turning point. Unlike most of the civilian bombings that have taken place over the years, this one made headlines around the world, prompting angry reactions from political figures, human rights groups and even the actor Jim Carrey. After I saw the site, an official took me to a crowded auditorium nearby, where ushers handed us pamphlets showing gruesome pictures of dead and bleeding children. A few locals gave angry speeches about the evils of what Yemenis call “the aggression.” There was no mention of the ballistic missiles the Houthis have lobbed at Riyadh, or of their own war crimes. A small boy who had survived the airstrike was brought onstage, where he recited a prepared text in a high, strident voice. As I listened to him, I couldn’t help thinking about another tragedy of this war: Many of those fighting it are themselves children. The boy on that stage might soon be one of them.