Egypt, Qatar, others add ground troops to Yemen mess

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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The Economist – “A downward spiral”:

More troops have poured in since the [Sept. 4 2015] attack [on coalition troops]. Saudi Arabia dispatched more elite forces to join the 3,000-strong coalition force already on the ground, while Qatar, hitherto only participating in air operations, has sent 1,000 soldiers. Egypt, which has long warned of the folly of putting boots on the ground given its disastrous intervention in the 1960s, this week sent in 800 men. Sudanese troops are reportedly waiting to be shipped out of Khartoum. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said his two sons will join the battle.
[…]
Quashing the Shia Houthis is nigh on impossible. Gulf officials and media talk bombastically of preparations to take back Sana’a from them and reinstall Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as president (the Houthis drove him out of the country in March). But Yemen has long been treacherous territory for foreign invaders, and Gulf armies are relatively inexperienced.

Since committing ground troops in August, the coalition has taken control of Aden, the southern port city, and is advancing on Taiz. But it is struggling in Maarib, the gateway to Sana’a, where the extra troops, backed by armoured vehicles and missile launchers, are said to be massing. The fighting will only get harder since the Houthis’ remaining strongholds are in mountainous redoubts.

[…] a rising generation of young, ambitious Gulf royals appears unwilling to pare back their newfound military adventurism.

 
Related Reading: “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires” — my August 13, 2015 op-ed with Stephan Richter for Al Jazeera English.

The war in Yemen has begun in earnest now

After years of slowly building chaos, The Houthi force is moving against Aden, the government-in-the-south has fled the country, and — as of tonight — the Royal Saudi Air Force has launched an operation into Yemen under the GCC (or possibly the Arab League) at the request of the fallen government.

Flag of Yemen

Flag of Yemen

10 countries are participating in the operation already: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan are all said to be participating, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

The involvements of Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan are very unexpected and indicate a much wider operation than anticipated. It also strongly suggests that Saudi Arabia was leaning heavily on every government in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia to whom it has given a lot of money previously. Saudi Arabia is cashing in every favor for a blistering war against the quasi-Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, unlike with the rather lackadaisical coalition to support the United States against ISIS in Syria. Qatar, which sent no jets at all in the Syria campaign, sent 10 tonight.

Bahrain, which only participated minimally on the first day of the Syria raids, also sent 15 jets. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy also “owes” Saudi Arabia for brutally suppressing their own Shia uprising in 2011 (during the Arab Spring) with GCC shock troops.

The UAE and Jordan also sent plenty of bombers over Yemen in the initial hours, in a marked contrast from their wavering in the Syria campaign.

This massive undertaking should, in my opinion, also be taken as a clear signal that Saudi Arabia firmly prioritizes the “threat” from Iran and Iranian proxies (which include the Houthis in Yemen but also 100,000 anti-ISIS fighters across Iraq and Hezbollah anti-ISIS units in western Syria) well above the threat from ISIS, despite tough talk on the latter some months ago.

Meanwhile, Iran has countless military advisers and trainers on the ground assisting the huge Iraqi campaign to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, has been providing close-air support and bombers against ISIS all over the Iraqi skies, and reportedly may even have 30,000 regular troops fighting in Iraq directly.

If I’m looking at the facts and figures, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in general — the purported American allies — are doing far less to combat ISIS than Iran, even if you buy the theory that Iran’s support for Assad accidentally helped create ISIS in the first place.

This war in Yemen against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia has been stirring up violently for years, seems essentially to be more of an indirect war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch the actual al Qaeda presence in Yemen.

Inherent Resolve: And then there was one?

Tuesday night the news broke from U.S. government officials that the United Arab Emirates had quietly withdrawn participation in the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria, back in late December.

The United Arab Emirates, a crucial Arab ally in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, suspended airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in December, citing fears for its pilots’ safety after a Jordanian pilot was captured and who the extremists said had been burned to death, United States officials said Tuesday.

 
This suspension of UAE participation stands in stark contrast with their very bold statements about the necessity of entering the war against ISIS in the first place (as well as with their surprising covert bombing run in Libya last year). It particularly contradicts the country’s “bolder stance” that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has reportedly been trying to project as he acts on behalf of his brother, the president, who had a stroke last year.

But the apparent exit of the United Arab Emirates from the coalition could have a greater effect than a mere propaganda blow. It leaves the coalition essentially in tatters as far as the 6-member Syrian campaign was concerned.

That coalition, helmed by the United States, also consisted of five Arab states: the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Qatar — from the beginning in September 2014 — only participated in an undisclosed “support” role without flying any missions. Bahrain, according to reporting by the Boston Globe in November 2014, dropped out of flights after the first day of action over Syria. Just enough to count as a coalition member, I suppose. Jordan suspended flights after their pilot was captured at the end of December. Now we know the UAE did at about the same time.

That leaves only Saudi Arabia still participating (at least as far as we’re aware). Their resolve appears to be far stronger: a suicide attack that left three Saudi border troops dead in early January did not appear to bring a change in course. Nor did the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

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True, the Royal Saudi Air Force is still probably the largest and most plentifully equipped air force of the five countries that joined the United States (or the four that were flying in the September air raids), but the Saudi contribution was already fairly minimal by most accounting. That same Boston Globe report that outed Bahrain’s non-participation found the United States had flown 75% of all missions from September 23, 2014 to mid-November 2014 in Syria and Iraq combined (i.e. even counting the European/Canadian/Australian air campaign participation in Iraq).

Plus, with Saudi Arabia being the biggest ideological force and financial accelerant behind the rise of global hardline Sunni extremism in the first place, it’s hardly comforting or useful to have them by our side in this fight against ISIS.

In any case, unless any of these dropout partners rejoin the fray — and it’s possible Jordan might do so, now that the hostage has been executed — these Syria bombing runs at the heart of the so-called Islamic State will be shouldered by the United States and trailed by an almost imperceptible coalition of one: Saudi Arabia. The irony of the name “Operation Inherent Resolve” could hardly be more obvious.

Confusion in Libya as Egyptian jets bomb Benghazi

It’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on in Libya right now, even for the people there…

First, a quick recap of the year to present before today’s big event:

Earlier this year, an anti-Islamist former Army general, Khalifa Hifter, attempted to seize power in western Libya unsuccessfully. That effort having failed, Hifter regrouped and launched a rogue “security operation” to try to unilaterally clear eastern Libya of pro-Islamist militias in the city of Benghazi. This appeared to work for a time, and he tried to seize power in western Libya again, also without much effect. That was probably the high point of his efforts, in hindsight.

In August, the newly elected anti-Islamist government fled to Tobruk (in the east, in the coastal district next to Egypt) from Tripoli (the capital, in the west) as the latter city fell to pro-Islamist militia forces who supported the previous government. I speculated that this geographical repositioning — to the safest possible area away from Islamist factions — might signal either an imminent coup or an impending request for intervention from the anti-Islamist military government of President Sisi next door in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, mysterious fighter jets appeared over Tripoli and bombed rebel positions. The United States government announced after several days that it believed the airstrikes had been from the United Arab Emirates Air Force with support from Egyptian air bases, a claim Egypt denied officially and loudly.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Instead of those airstrikes beating back the pro-Islamist militias in western Libya, the militias simply gathered themselves up and launched a concerted offensive on eastern Libya. They entered the city of Benghazi in recent weeks, leaving many Hifter sympathizers to flee to places like Tobruk (though he himself is reportedly still in Benghazi). Military barracks and other key sites of the anti-Islamist renegades and the official armed forces rapidly fell.

So what happened today?

Well, nobody is sure exactly, but we do know that mystery jets appeared again and bombed Islamist positions, this time in Benghazi (AP).

So who’s behind it?

The Associated Press got anonymous sources inside the Egyptian military to say that this was an Egyptian Air Force operation:

Egypt deepened its involvement in the fight against Islamist militias who have taken over key parts of Libya on Wednesday, with officials saying Egyptian warplanes have bombed their positions in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.

 
Publicly, and at the highest levels, Egypt again denied this had occurred.

The official line either way seems to be that the anti-Islamist government internally exiled to Tobruk, not far from the border with Egypt, authorized whatever happened:

The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

 
A prominent Libyan legislator, whose father heads the Libyan Air Force, also denied that Egypt itself had bombed Benghazi, claiming to the AP instead that they were loaner planes:

Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were “rented” by the Libyan administration from Egypt. Al-Jorushi is awaiting confirmation of his appointment on the Tobruk-based parliament’s national security committee, which is responsible for such issues. He is also the son of the head of Libya’s air force, Gen. Saqr al-Jorushi. He said he learned that the planes are Egyptian from the new chief of staff

 
A Benghazi militia commander opposing the militarists and the Tobruk government offered this intelligence to the media:

Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi said Egypt sent its warplanes to hit his group’s positions.

“We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya’s eastern city of Bayda.

Bayda is a coastal city about halfway between Benghazi and Tobruk.
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Iraq PM committed to rival countries bombing Iraq’s neighbors, just not Iraq

The juxtaposition of the new Iraqi Prime Minister’s views, in a BBC interview, on which Arab countries should be bombing other Arab countries produces some pretty amazing (and unsurprising) geopolitical NIMBYism:

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has told the BBC he “totally” opposes Arab nations joining air strikes against Islamic State in his country.

vs.

Mr Abadi said he had sent a delegation to Damascus to inform its neighbour of Iraq’s request for the coalition to target IS in Syria, saying it was crucial to stop “transient border terrorism”.

 
Don’t bomb us without permission — bomb them without permission!

iraq-map-ciaNow, again, it’s not that surprising. I’m sure Prime Minister Abadi doesn’t really want a precedent established that he, the leader of his country, is so weak he must seek help from his neighbors and invite their interference. Moreover, it probably hurts him, as the political head of Iraq’s majority Shia faction, if he welcomes Iraq’s Sunni-ruled neighbors’ armed forces bombing Iraq, even if they’re targeting armed groups in Iraq, and even if those groups happen to be Sunni insurgents this time. (After all, bombing Sunni Iraqis is a job for the Shia-dominated Iraqi Air Force, with as much cruelty and incompetence as possible.)

In his defense: It’s just generally not a great idea to invite neighbors — especially ones with a tense and sometimes bitter history of rivalry (or even past territorial disputes) — to feel welcome to bomb you. In contrast, it’s probably (somewhat) less objectionable to request air support from halfway around the world. It’s one thing to publicly invite the strongest air power in the world to help you because your own air force is under-equipped and terrible and useless; it’s a very different matter to draw attention to the fact that the surrounding Arab states of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait (which hasn’t participated so far) all have vastly superior air forces to Iraq’s.

And, to top it off, the recent unilateral airstrikes in Libya by the United Arab Emirates, following up on their Arab League authorized operations in 2011, might also have made Abadi cautious about opening that door now and laying out the welcome mat for future meddling in Iraq, as in Libya.

But telling them to target insurgents in Syria seems to be another matter for Abadi — and one without a whole lot of additional logic, other than that it’s not Iraq, so it’s not his problem. It might also be that he needs to emphasize his “request” for coalition airstrikes in Syria to strengthen the case that the US-led coalition isn’t violating international law by intervening in Syria without permission because it is simply targeting a Syrian-based threat to the Iraqi state. (I’m a little skeptical of that reasoning, given that most people don’t consider it legal during the Vietnam War for the US to have bombed Vietnamese insurgent / North Vietnamese Army supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, even to defend the South Vietnamese government.)

At any rate, the more things change, the more things stay the same — and that includes Gulf-area countries trying to play each other off each other constantly to try to gain tiny edges momentarily.

October 1, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 101

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Topics: UAE and Russia milestones for women in air and space, illegal contraception co-pays in the US, death penalty in Kenya case, Big Ideas in voting and internet technology, Thai government’s food robot. People: Bill, Persephone, Nate. Produced: September 29th, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– The 1st UAE female combat pilot, the 4th female cosmonaut, CVS charging illegal co-pays on contraception, and more
– Big Idea: Could the U.S. use the goal of secure internet voting as a moonshot project to strengthen internet security in general? What interim measures should be taken to make voting easier?
– Why Thailand’s government is trying to build a robot to measure Thai food authenticity

Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya:
Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya – AFD 101
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech:
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech – AFD 101
Part 3 – Thai Food:
Part 3 – Thai Food – AFD 101

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: Russia & UAE: A big week for women in air and space
Gawker: Fox News Host Calls Female Fighter Pilot “Boobs On the Ground”
House.gov: Congresswoman Speier Discovers CVS Illegally Charged 11,000 Women for Contraceptives
AFD: Kenya sentence an urgent reminder of the need for legal abortion

Segment 2

Wikipedia: Electronic voting in Estonia
ThinkProgress: Georgia State Senator Complains That Voting Is Too Convenient For Black People

Segment 3

New York Times: You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge
The Globalist: Exporting Japanese Food Culture

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iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Russia & UAE: A big week for women in air and space

This week saw the 4th ever female cosmonaut go into space and the first ever United Arab Emirates female combat pilot go into action in Syria.

Russia’s Yelena Serova launched into space yesterday aboard a Soyuz flight from Kazakhstan and arrived overnight at the International Space Station. She is the first woman in Russia’s space program to go to space since Yelena V. Kondakova‘s space shuttle flight (STS-84, Atlantis) in May 1997, which went to the Mir station.

Kondakova, now a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) for the ruling party, went to space twice during her career as a cosmonaut, but was actually only the 3rd ever Soviet or Russian female cosmonaut — making Serova the 4th in the entire program’s history. The Soviet Union, notably, sent a woman into space two decades before the U.S. did the same, but failed to capitalize on that milestone (not even sending its second until 19 years later). This stands in contrast with the opportunities opened to many women in NASA and space programs around the world since then.

In another part of the world, the United Arab Emirates announced on U.S. television that their pioneering female combat pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, led the UAE’s airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria, as part of the US-led coalition:

[UAE Ambassador to the US] Al Otaiba also confirmed that Major Mariam Al Mansouri, 35, an F-16 pilot, will lead the air strike missions on ISIL.

“I can officially confirm that the UAE strike mission on Monday night was led by female fighter pilot Mariam Al Mansouri,” he said.

“She is a fully qualified, highly trained, combat-ready pilot and she is on a mission.”
[…]
Maj Al Mansouri has an undergraduate degree in English literature and is the first woman to join the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College, graduating in 2008.

 
She is expected to continue commanding the UAE’s missions in Syria in the coming days and weeks.

Ambassador Al Otaiba cited her as a positive example of how Arab states and Muslim societies can be more moderate and open than the stereotype, while retaining their identities. The example was offered in contrast to both ISIS and some of the Emirates’ neighboring countries. You can read more about Major Al Mansouri and her path to the skies here.

Cosmonaut Yelena Serova (via NASA/Wikimedia) and Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri (via WAM/The National)

Cosmonaut Yelena Serova (via NASA/Wikimedia) and Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri (via WAM/The National)