Saudi frigate hit by suicide boats – taking a deeper look at the conflict in Yemen.

Earlier this week, as reported by several news outlets, three Houthi “suicide boats” approached a Saudi frigate, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels, west of Hudaya, Yemen. According to a statement by Saudi officials, one of the boats rammed the rear of the frigate and exploded, causing a fire, albeit later extinguished, as a result of the blast two crew members were killed and three others were injured.


Source: BBC.

The attack puts the spotlight on an often overlooked conflict in the region. With all eyes fixated on the campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq where Iraqi forces with the help of a broader coalition have just liberated the eastern portion of Mosul, the conflict in Yemen is often overshadowed. So what is even going on in Yemen? Who is fighting who and why?


Yemen, located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and is what is commonly referred to as a failed state. The country has been in a bloody civil war since March of 2015 and according to the United Nations between the start of the conflict and the end of 2016, close to 7,500 people have been killed, more than 40,000 injured and as many as 3.1 million displaced. On top of that, the conflict has triggered a humanitarian disaster in the country leaving 80% of the population in need of aid, with 14 million people suffering from food insecurity and approximately 370,000 children under the age of five suffering the risk of starving to death.

Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.


In late 2011, an uprising forced the country’s longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdulla Saleh, to hand over power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his deputy. Hadi took over the government, however he was facing some major problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, military distrust, continued loyalty of many officers to Saleh, corruption, unemployment and food insecurity. In a nutshell Hadi’s government was weak and a weak government mixed with a poor, unemployed and starving population as history has shown is a prime mixture for civil war.

In 2013, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference came together to write a new constitution and to create a federal political system, however the Houthis, a Shia Muslim minority that had already fought a series of rebellions against the previous president Saleh, withdrew from the process because the conference intended to keep Hadi’s transitional government in place and to make matters worse, two Houthi representatives to the conference were assassinated.

Fast forward to 2014, the Houthis seized the opportunity of the transitional government’s weakness, rose up and took control of the northern heartland of Saada province and some of the neighboring areas. The Houthis advanced further and by September 2014 took control of the capital, Sanaa. By January 2015, the Houthis grip of Sanaa was solidified and they surrounded the presidential palace and other key points effectively placing Hadi and his government under house arrest. Shortly after Hadi escaped to the southern port city of Aden. The Houthis and security forces loyal to Saleh then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Hadi to flee the country in March 2015. Although, Hadi and his government have since returned to Aden from where they are organizing their fight against the Houthis.

Al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist group the West knows all too well, had a presence in Yemen since before the start of the conflict in 2015, commonly known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However since the conflicted erupted, al-Qaeda has used the power vacuum to advance its interests and launched several attacks on the Shia Houthi rebels, which al-Qaeda regards as infidels.

ISIL also has a presence in the country and in December of 2014 announced the formation of a state, in Yemen. In March 2015, it claimed its first attacks in the country, which were suicide bombings in mosques used by Zaydi Shia Muslims. Reportedly the attacks killed more than 140 people.

So in a nutshell one the one side we have forces loyal to the government of Hadi, which consist of soldiers loyal to Hadi and predominantly Sunni southern tribesmen and on the other side we have the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels supported by separatists and Saleh and his supporters. To make things more complicated as outline above jihadist militants from AQAP and ISIL have meanwhile taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory of their own. While this covers all the internal players, with AQAP and ISIL arguably being somewhat external players, the list of external players even further complicating the situation in Yemen.


Following the territorial gain of the Shia Houthis, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni countries (the Coalition) launched an air campaign aimed at restoring Hadi’s government. The Coalition consists of Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. By now several of these countries have sent troops to fight on the ground in Yemen, while others have only carried out air strikes. The Coalition has received logistical and intelligence support from the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom and France.

The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

So while Saudia Arabia and its Coalition support Hadi, it is believed that the Houthis on the other hand are backed militarily by Iran. Iran has denied arming the Houthis, but according to the U.S. military it intercepted arms shipments from Iran to Yemen. Iranian officials have also suggested they may send military advisers to support the Houthis.

As part of the borader U.S. campaigns against terrorists, the U.S. regularly launches air strikes on AQAP and ISIL targets in Yemen and has Special Forces on the ground fighting both groups.


Despite the Coalitions air campaign and naval blockade, pro-government forces have been unable to push the Houthis from their northern strongholds, including Sanaa. The Houthis have since mounted attacks inside neighboring Saudia Arabia to retaliate against the Coalitions military intervention.

To this day no side appears close to a decisive military victory and the conflict is likely to carry on for years to come giving organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL the perfect breeding ground as we have seen in Iraq and Syria.

Stages of War

Iraqi forces liberate eastern Mosul – the end of ISIL?

The United States of America (U.S.) stepped up its involvement in Iraq and in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the Group) back in 2014 as highlighted in our article “U.S. commences airstrikes against ISIL – too little too late?” from August, 2014.

The U.S. involvement announced by President Obama in August, 2014 has since transformed into the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR). CJTF–OIR is the international coalition composed of U.S. military forces and personnel from over 30 countries that came together to support Kurdish and Iraq forces in the fight against ISIL.

Since the start of the Coalitions operations in October of 2014, the Coalition has trained more than 50,000 fighters and launched more than 17,000 strikes on ISIL targets. The Coalition has trained and equipped, both Kurdish and Iraqi forces and assisted them in liberating more than two million people and major population centers such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Qayyarah, and Sharqat.

In our article from August, 2014 we came to the conclusion that:

“Prolonged airstrikes should help the Iraqi and Kurdish Forces to dismantle ISIL in Iraq, however largely because the U.S. support came so late, this will take a long time and should be thought of in years rather than months or weeks.”

More than two years after the creation of CJTF–OIR, our initial assessment from 2014 seems to be coming true, ISIL is on the retreat and Kurdish and Iraqi forces have made substantial gain, however as we predicted, despite the airstrikes, a significant involvement of embedded Western Special Forces and large quantities of equipment supplied, it took years to come to this point.


92851967_mosul_bridges_locator_624mapSource: BBC.

The prolonged efforts of the Kurdish and Iraqi forces as well as the Coalition resulted in a major milestone earlier last week, the liberation of eastern Mosul, as announced by Haider Al-Abadi Prime Minister of Iraq:

It took over one hundred days of intense house to house combat to clear the portion of the city east of the Tigris River. The fight was especially tough since ISIL had two years to convert the city into a fortress with elaborate tunnel systems that made it especially hard to retake the city. While any military would have had a tough time to take the city, particularly in light of the many civilians held captive by ISIL as human shields, without Western support both in the form of airstrikes and embedded Special Forces, Iraqi forces would have had an even more difficult time to take the city and a liberation may have taken much longer.

Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commanding general of CJTF–OIR put it this way: “this would have been a difficult task for any army in the world. And to see how far the Iraqis have come since 2014, not only militarily, but in their ability to put their differences aside and focus on a common enemy, gives real hope to the people of Iraq that after years of fighting and instability, peace and security are attainable”.

In the fight for Mosul, since October, 2016, the Coalition has assisted the Iraqi forces with “558 airstrikes using 10,115 munitions against ISIL targets. These munitions have destroyed at least 151 VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices), 361 buildings/facilities, 140 tunnels, 408 vehicles, 392 bunkers, 24 AAA, and 315 artillery/mortar systems.”

We by no means want to downplay the success of liberating eastern Mosul and its importance in the overall campaign, we believe that while an important victory, it is just one of many that will be necessary to drive ISIL out of Iraq. It took one hundred days to liberate just the eastern portion of the city how many more months will it take to clear the remainder of Mosul and Iraq?


With every day that passes ISIL suffers more losses and is more likely to break down, however the Group will also have more time to fortify the territory and the towns they have left under their control, consequently taking the last ISIL bastions will be a tough fight for the Coalition.

“There is still a long way to go before ISIL is completely eliminated from Iraq, and the fight for Western Mosul is likely to be even tougher than the Eastern side,” said Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of CJTF–OIR.

We have no doubt just like we had no doubt in 2014 that militarily ISIL will be defeated if the Coalition sticks together, however the point of military defeat for ISIL is likely still many months away. Additionally, as we noted in 2014, defeating ISIL means to dismantle an ideology, which is a difficult task. All we have to do is look at Afghanistan, where more than a decade of ISAF did not manage to fully erode the Taliban. Much more than just defeating ISIL militarily will have to be done to truly defeat them and he idilogy that goes along with the Group.


ISIL will be driven into the underground eventually, the real questions is if Iraq will be able to find peace even after ISIL in its current form. As we said in 2014, the Kurds in the north are likely to demand independence from Iraq’s central government and other groups may want the same. Iraq is a patchwork of religious believes and ethnic groups, finding peace even without ISIL will continue to be a major challenge for the country and the region.

U.S. commences airstrikes against ISIL – too little too late?

In a move to counter the rapid advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the Group) in northern Iraq and Syria, the United  States of America (U.S.) increased its involvement in the conflict. On August 8th, 2014, President Obama announced the U.S. would commence to provide humanitarian aid to civilians fleeing the ISIL advance and would simultaneously initiate targeted airstrikes against the Group.

Source: BBC.


ISIL has been spreading the Group’s sphere of influence throughout the region for months, driving back Iraqi Forces using speed and violence of action. As a consequence of the rapid advance and the Iraqi’s hasty retreat, ISIL was able to capture substantial amounts of Iraqi military equipment, including equipment provided by the U.S., such as, Humvees, Abrams tanks, M4/M16 rifles and M198 howitzers and other non U.S. provided hardware common to the region including T-55 tanks, T-72 tanks and RPGs.

Using the captured equipment, ISIL was able to transform from the average “toyota pickup rebel group” in possession of Ak47s, RPKs and RPGs into a more serious fighting force. Iraq Forces who already struggled to deal with ISIL, now seem to have an even tougher time to counter the Groups offensives, in part due to the low morale and low training standards present across many units of the Iraqi military.

Kurdish Pashmerga fighters in the northern provinces of Iraq were able to put up a stiffer resistance, in part because ISIL was focused on Iraqi Forces at the beginning of the conflict. Since the beginning of August, however, ISIL has changed course and launched a new offensive towards Erbil (ھەولێر), the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Aside from being the capital of Kurdistan, Erbil, is important because it is home to a U.S. Consulate and base to US military advisors assisting Kurdish and Iraqi Forces. Should Erbil fall to ISIL it would be a strategic blow to the Kurdish and Iraqi Forces as well as the U.S.

Additionally, last week ISIL managed to take Qaraqosh which is home to Iraq’s largest Christian community causing thousands to flee. ISIL also advanced onto towns home to the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq, again causing thousands to flee their homes. Many are seeking shelter on nearby Mount Sinjar, however the people on top of the mountain are now facing starvation and dehydration if they stay or death by ISIL if they come down.

Source: BBC.

ISIL was also able to seize Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam near Mosul. The dam is a key asset to control water and power in the area, with the Tigris River south of the dam running all the way to Baghdad.

Source: BBC.


Over the last months, the Iraqi government has called for the U.S. to intervene numerous times as the country grew increasingly desperate. However, having just pulled its troops form Iraq and considering that  a renewed involvement in Iraq  is a tough sell to the American people,  the Obama administration has been hesitant to get actively involved in the conflict. However, with the continuous military successes of ISIL, the destabilization of the region and in light of the human rights violations carried out during the Groups advances, it became clear that looking away would become increasingly difficult for the Obama administration. Consequently, on August 8th President Obama announced a humanitarian mission to help the civilians on the ground as well as a military operation to support Kurdish and Iraqi Forces.

In his statement President Obama stated that the U.S. military is directed to conduct airstrikes against ISIL convoy’s should they move towards Ebil. Obama also said, “We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.”. This broad statements indicates that US operations will go beyond the narrow scope of only attacking ISIL forces headed for Erbil. However, Obama made specifically clear that the U.S. would not send combat troops to Iraq to directly fight ISIL.

Shortly after the announcement by President Obama, the U.S. Navy conduced the first airstrikes against ISIL targets in northern Iraq.

The video provided by U.S. Central Command shows two targeted airstrikes against ISIL targets. The first strike was carried out at approximately 06:45 EDT, when two F/A-18s attacked and destroyed mobile artillery pieces near Erbil using 500-pound laser-guided bombs. Later in the day four F/A-18s struck and destroyed a stationary IS convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position also near Erbil. Additional airstrikes on ISIL targets have been carried out since and more are likely to follow.

As outlined by President Obama, the U.S. has also launched a humanitarian mission under which the U.S. has conducted four airdrops to bring aid to the civilians fleeing from or trapped by ISIL.

The above video shows an airdrop mission that included one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft that together dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The C-17 dropped 40 container delivery system bundles of fresh drinking water totaling 3,804 gallons. In addition, the two C-130s dropped 32 bundles totaling 16,128 meals ready to eat. According to  Admiral Jogn Kirby the US has dropped more than 74,000 meals and 15,000 gallons of water during the four airdrops conducted thus far.


The question remains whether the military actions taken by the U.S. are enough to halt  ISIL advances and/or to drive them back and ultimately dissolve the group.

ISIL is currently using it’s heavy weapons to successfully soften defenses before swiftly attacking with motorized elements. This Blitzkrieg style of warfare has been highly successful against the ill prepared Iraqi Forces. If U.S. airstrikes are able to eliminate ISIL’s heavy weapons and motorized elements it will likely tip the balance of power to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces and should halt ISIL’s advances.

While the US air support will give Iraqi and Kurdish forces a significant advantage, as seen in Libya, where opposition forces were able to cripple the regime of Gadaffi under the shield of western air superiority, US air support will have its limitations. The U.S. will likely be very careful when it comes to bombing ISIL targets in urban population areas where the risk of civilian casualties is high. The last thing the U.S. wants or needs is causing civilian deaths, further increasing anti American sentiment in the region. Additionally it has to be noted that ISIL will be able to draw supplies and resources from its operations in Syria an area that is currently out of the scope of U.S. air operations and therefore represents a quasi save haven for the group.

Ultimately, previous operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have showed that a significant number of boots on the ground is necessary to permanently control and defend an area against insurgent groups such as ISIL. Consequently to drive back and/or eliminate ISIL Kurdish and Iraqi forces have to use the American air support to push forward on the ground.The U.S. is currently not likely to provide a significant number of ground troops due to budgetary constraints and the lack of support for “boots on the ground” by the American public. While American Forces are providing advisory support and likely have Special Forces as well as intelligence assets operating in Iraq their actual combat role will likely be extremely limited if possible. Iraqi and Kurdish Forces will have to fight the ground war largely on their own.

Prolonged airstrikes should help the Iraqi and Kurdish Forces to dismantle ISIL in Iraq, however largely because the U.S. support came so late, this will take a long time and should be thought of in years rather than months or weeks. Even with airstrikes, defeating ISIL means to dismantle an ideology, which is a difficult task. All we have to do is look at Afghanistan, where more than a decade of ISAF did not manage to erode the Taliban. So the real questions is if Iraq will be able to find peace at all even after ISIL has been defeated from a military standpoint. The Kurds in the north are likely to demand independence from Iraq’s central government and other group may want the same. Iraq is a patchwork of religious believes and ethnic groups, finding peace even without ISIL will be a challenge.

Source: BBC.

However the tensions between all the players in the region are nothing new, remember what Dick Cheney said 1991 during the first Gulf War:

“… That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it — eastern Iraq — the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey…”

If one adds the tensions between Shia and Sunni groups into the equation, it becomes clear that Iraq will remain a volatile place even in a post ISIL world.

Stages of War