Bahrain/Iran – Bahrain's interior minister accused Iran of harbouring 160 Bahrainis convicted of terrorism and stripped of their citizenship, in an interview published on the 18 Oct 17. All 160 "fugitives" had been stripped of citizenship in "terrorism cases" targeting Bahraini police and security forces, Sheikh Rashed Al-Khalifa told the Arabic-language daily Asharq Al-Awsat. He accused Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards of having trained the group, who were convicted of attacks that killed 25 security personnel and wounded 3,000 others, according to Asharq Al-Awsat. Bahrain, a Shiite-majority kingdom ruled by a Sunni dynasty, has seen sporadic violence since the repression in 2011 of a protest movement demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister. Authorities have since tightened their grip on dissent, jailing hundreds of protesters and stripping a string of high-profile activists and clerics of citizenship. Bahrain has drawn harsh criticism for its treatment of demonstrators but maintains it does not discriminate against the country's Shiites. The kingdom, a key US ally located across the water from Iran, regularly accuses Shiite Iran of meddling in its internal affairs, an allegation Tehran denies. US President Donald Trump has eased restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain, which on the 17 Oct 17 announced it had signed a $3.8 billion deal with US company Lockheed Martin to acquire 16 upgraded F-16 fighters. Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and a British army base is currently under construction.
Iran/Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards said on the 19 Oct 17 that the country’s ballistic missile programme would accelerate despite pressure from the United States and European Union to suspend it, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. In a major US policy shift, President Donald Trump last Friday (13 Oct 17) refused to certify Tehran’s compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, signalling he would take a more aggressive approach to Iran over its ballistic missile programme. “Iran’s ballistic missile programme will expand and it will continue with more speed in reaction to Trump’s hostile approach towards this revolutionary organisation (the Guards),” the Guards said in a statement published by Tasnim. The Trump administration has imposed new unilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s missile activity. It has called on Tehran not to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear bombs. Iran says it has no such plans. Tehran has repeatedly pledged to continue what it calls a defensive missile capability in defiance of Western criticism.
Iran/United States/al-Qaeda – CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the CIA will soon publish documents revealing Iran’s work with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Pompeo described the connection between Iran and al-Qaeda as an “open secret”. “It’s an open secret and not classified information that there have been relationships, there are connections,” Pompeo said during an event held by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies on the 19 Oct 17 in Washington DC. “There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside al-Qaeda.” Pompeo added that they have cut deals so as not to come after each other. He said that the intelligence community is still monitoring those ties, especially given the complexity of the situation in Syria. The director also discussed Iran’s interference in regional state affairs, sponsoring terrorism and causing unrest. He also spoke about Iran’s ballistic missiles program and their nuclear efforts. He confirmed that US President Donald Trump had given the security services greater potential to carry out their work. This comes days after the US president announced his policy towards Iran. National Security Adviser H.R McMaster stressed that the strategy would use all means at its disposal to counter Iranian actions. Washington now insists it wants a strong Iraq that does not fall into the hands of Iran and will dry the sources of funding for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The US administration also issued an ultimatum to Iran to stop its use of armed militias in the region and said it would implement the strategy in cooperation with its partners in the Middle East.
Iran: Quds Force’ extensive record of assassinations, bombings, al-Arabiya, Tony Duheaume (20 Oct 17) – The Quds Force (QF) is the most secretive unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, tasked with the export of the Iranian regime’s own unique brand of Islamic revolution and fundamentalism, which it spreads through its proxies across the globe. Over the years, the QF has perfected the art of terrorism, a tactic it brought into the world in the 1980s, which was then adopted by al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s to carry out “martyrdom operations”.
Terrorism and other subversive activities
Running a network of thousands of operatives allows the QF to carry out terror attacks across the globe. But apart from its involvement in such attacks, its operatives also actively deal with intelligence gathering, the financing of terror groups and their operations on foreign soil, and the infiltration of foreign political parties, social groups and religious organizations. Its operatives also engage in the surveillance of foreign government officials, religious officials and speakers to spot sympathisers to its cause, which is part of its recruitment drive to sow seeds of its revolution in foreign lands, much of which is coordinated through its special operations branches. Since their establishment in the early days of the Iranian regime, the sleeper cells of QF and Hezbollah have always been kept up and running, hidden within the population of their host countries, as they await orders from their masters. Under the control of both entities are thousands of agents, many of whom have entered their targeted countries under the guise of immigrants, students, journalists or construction workers.
Assassinations across the globe
In recent years, QF has been linked to numerous terrorist actions, including the October 2011 plot to murder the Saudi ambassador, which proved to be a setup by its secret service apparatus MOIS. Then on 12 January 2012, Hezbollah militant by the name Atris Hussein (Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent) was arrested for storing four tons of bomb-making material in a warehouse just outside of Bangkok. Then on 24 January, 2012, a three-man terror cell run by Iran was busted before its planned attack on the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan. Then on 13 February, 2012, Hezbollah was alleged to be behind an assassination attempt against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi. A magnetic bomb was attached to an Israeli embassy car by a passing motorcyclist, which on explosion injured four people, including the wife of the Israeli defence attaché. An Indian Shiite journalist Syed Mohammed Kazmi, having connections with Iran, was arrested over his involvement in the bombing. An Indian court also issued arrest warrants against three Iranian citizens in this case. However, before these suspects could be apprehended, they managed to flee to Iran. In the same month, there was an attempted bombing of an Israeli diplomat in Tbilisi, Georgia. In this incident, the bomb was defused and the trail of the crime reached the door of Hezbollah. In both attacks (New Delhi and Tbilisi), “magnetic bombs” that can be attached to a vehicle were used. Then in March 2012, four members of the QF were arrested in Turkey with weapons they were going to use against Israeli diplomats. However, the deadliest attacks by Iran’s proxies took place in July that year, when Hezbollah evidently conducted a suicide blast in a bus filled with Israeli tourists in Burgos, Bulgaria, which killed six people. Besides these attacks, Hezbollah and QF were suspected of being involved in terrorist acts against embassies and overseas properties owned by Israel, America, and other Western countries. US officials believe that these attacks were carried out by the Quds Force and Hezbollah in retaliation for the assassination of the Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyah, who died in a car blast in Damascus in 2008. These strikes were supposedly carried out to deter Israelis from conducting attacks on personnel involved in Iran’s nuclear program, following the murder of four Iranian scientists. By striking at targets across the globe, Quds Force was issuing a warning that it could hit at anytime and anywhere, should more Iranian scientists be attacked.
Terror and sedition against Sunni regimes
When dealing with its Sunni neighbours, the Quds Force conducts both full-scale terrorist attacks — such as the Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 22 and injured 25 — as well as other subtler means for undermining the Sunni regimes it strongly detests. It teams up with branches of other proxy overseas terror groups such as of Hezbollah to infiltrate Shiite political opposition groups, as well as disgruntled members of different communities across the Gulf States, inciting them to organize anti-government marches and riots. Two years after the Iranian Revolution, a Shiite proxy group staged an unsuccessful coup in Bahrain, and since that time Tehran has constantly issued threats against this brotherly GCC member state, which eventually culminated in the 2011 disturbances. Authorities believe Iran had stage-managed the protests and planned them to end in extreme violence. The whole protest was said to have been orchestrated by agitators connected to Hezbollah. Since that time, various disturbances have occurred and many terror plots have been thwarted. As Iran’s proxy war intensified, a huge cache of arms and explosives was seized in December 2013, which was destined for Shiite extremists.
Terror funding and weapons smuggling
Apart from such activities, QF has also been using its vast business interests to fund overseas terror groups allied to the regime, hidden from the scrutiny of foreign governments behind a facade of several “legitimate” front companies under its control, which allows money to flow undetected. QF also uses charities, cultural centres and education to indoctrinate the impressionable. It has also established liaison offices in the vicinity of Islamic holy sites, which supposedly tend to the needs of visiting Iranian pilgrims but are in reality recruiting offices used to entice new operatives. With the use of various fronts, the Quds Force also has a well-established weapons smuggling ring under its control, which smuggles arms to various locations in both the Middle East and Africa. Among its customers are rebel groups based in Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia. They have also been supplying Hezbollah with weapons and ordinance since the group’s creation, which includes everything from light weapons to missiles. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, QF has also been supplying weapons and military assistance on the ground to President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Following the invasion of both Iraq and Syria by ISIS, Iranian assistance was requested by both nations, and the military arm of QF entered the conflict. Acting as an expeditionary force under the command of Qasem Soleimani, the role of QF has been viewed as very important one by the Iraqi regime. With the ISIS now being virtually obliterated, Iran has gained effective control of both Iraq and Syria, which will not only provide its leadership two satellite states, but will also give its military forces access to the Mediterranean Sea. The overland route will be used for providing arms to its proxy Hezbollah and shall provide the regime a springboard for launching attacks at Gulf States. Whilst acting as a military strike force in foreign interventions, QF trains local Shiite recruits to swell the ranks of militia groups under its control. These militias are then used to spearhead attacks against the enemy, in areas where the most intense military action takes place. Fighting alongside other foreign militias allied to Iran, which includes its proxy Hezbollah, these militias take part in the heavy end of the fighting, which keeps QF casualties to a minimum, avoiding heavy body counts to reduce impact on public opinion as regards the QF back home.
Ethnic cleansing of Sunnis
In many cases, highlighted in several reports by both the UN and human rights groups, regarding Iranian involvement in both Iraq and Syria, these Iranian-backed militia have been accused of carrying out harrowing atrocities against Sunni civilians, including ethnic cleansing. Much of this violent behaviour stems from the fact that most of those fighting in the ranks of these militias, have been heavily indoctrinated with extremist Shiite dogma, and have been taught to despise Sunnis. With fanatics across the globe being under the control of QF, should a conflict ensue between the US and Iran, no country can consider itself safe. Not only is the Middle East riddled with its operatives, QF activities in the Balkans has also increased, with terrorists being recruited, trained and equipped ready to infiltrate Europe. Quds Force is also well-established in South America through Hezbollah and its recruiting, training and arming of operatives has been taking place there for many years. At the moment, Hezbollah is busy smuggling drugs into the US to boost its coffers, and should the US find itself in a conflict with Iran in future, Quds Force will be using its proxies to awaken and coordinate sleeper cells that are already in place there.
Iraq – Islamic State jihadists attacked villages south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on the 18 Oct 17 exploiting the growing crisis between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the area. Three villages near the town of Daquq were briefly captured by Da’esh in a night-time assault. The region had until recently been controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, but they were driven out earlier this week by Iraqi forces looking to claim zones disputed with the Kurds after they voted last month to secede. ISIL had been mostly driven out Kirkuk province after an Iraqi army offensive in the major city of Hawija saw more than a thousand of its militants surrender. But the current chaotic security situation has given Da’esh room to manoeuvre.
Syria/Da’esh/Raqqa – The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the United States, have announced the capture of Raqqa after a four-month operation to drive out ISIL it was reported on the 17 Oct 17. SDF spokesmen announced the takeover of the strategic Syrian city on the 17 Oct 17 after a final battle at a sports stadium where ISIL fighters made their final stand. The SDF launched its offensive on Raqqa on the 6 Jun 17. Intense aerial bombardment and land operations by the US-led international coalition had cut the city off from the rest of the territories held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. More than 3,000 bombs have landed on Raqqa since January, devastating schools, hospitals and residential buildings. In mid-Oct 17, the humanitarian REACH initiative estimated that less than one percent of Raqqa's 300,000 pre-war population remained in the city. The city has no electricity or potable water and its last functioning bakery was destroyed recently. Destroyed and depopulated, Raqqa also faces an uncertain political future. The US and SDF have pledged to hand over the city to civilian rule, but the shape and political make-up of this civilian entity remain unclear. Various ethnic, tribal and geopolitical factors will complicate the handover.
Two competing councils
Two councils are asserting the right to take over the city, including the Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC), founded in Apr 17 and backed by the SDF; and the Raqqa Provincial Council (RPC), backed by the main Syrian opposition body based in Turkey, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The RPC claims to be a successor of the civilian council that began administering Raqqa in 2013 after the Free Syrian Army and Islamist armed groups took the city from the Syrian regime. It rejects the RCC's legitimacy over its links to the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group at the core of the SDF. Along with its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), it dominates most of north-eastern Syria and is a close US ally. As the YPG and Arab allies pushed into Raqqa province, the Syrian opposition accused it of carrying out ethnic cleansing against Arabs - an accusation YPG officials have denied. Like other SDF-sponsored councils, the RCC has joint Arab-Kurdish leadership. The Arab cochair is tribal leader Mahmoud al-Borsan, and the Kurdish cochair is Layla Mohammed, the former co-mayor of her hometown of Tal Abyad on the Syria-Turkey border. Borsan heads the Walda tribe, which was forced to move to Hasakah province from the area near the city of Tabqa in Raqqa province after their lands were flooded during the construction of the Euphrates dam. According to Abdel Aziz al-Hinnedi, a Syrian activist from Raqqa who fled to Germany after ISIL took the city in 2014, the RCC is not representative of the people of Raqqa, but its main strength is that it functions on the ground and provides services, as opposed to the rival RPC, which is exiled in Turkey. In late Sep 17, the US made an effort to reconcile the two councils and create a joint one. Council members and Syrian civil society activists were invited to Rome to meet European Union government representatives. According to Noah Bonsey, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group, EU countries have been reluctant to engage with the RCC, since they have worked with the SNC in the past few years. The reconciliation attempt failed, however, when the Turkey-based RPC refused to attend the meeting. The RPC's dependence on Turkey, combined with the RCC's affiliation with the YPG - which Turkey deems a "terrorist" organisation - make a merger between the two impossible, Bonsey said. The handover of Raqqa to the RCC could be rocky if the YPG maintains significant influence over the council. "In YPG-held areas, a lot of times the local officials with major roles on paper; in practice, don't actually have a lot of influence, and we've seen aspects of governance basically managed by cadres within the YPG and the PYD. That has been a source of tension in some areas," Bonsey said.
Where does the Syrian regime fit in?
Another contender for post-ISIL legitimacy in Raqqa is Qamishli-born Ahmad Jarba, a former president of the SNC and a member of the Shammar tribe of eastern Syria. In 2016, backed by Saudi Arabia, he founded the Tomorrow Movement and its military arm, the Syrian Elite Forces. In Feb 17 Jarba announced that his 3,000-strong US-trained armed group would participate in the Raqqa battle, but according to Hinnedi, the SDF was not comfortable with its presence and the group withdrew. Jarba has been trying to recruit young men from Raqqa's tribes to join his Tomorrow Movement and the Elite Forces. Although he does not currently enjoy much popularity in Raqqa, he may have a role to play in administering Raqqa, Hinnedi said. Yet another potential player on the political scene in post-ISIL Raqqa is the Syrian regime. The SDF has not sought to openly fight regime forces, although more recently there have been deadly confrontations. According to Bonsey, while it is unlikely that the regime would have a military presence in Raqqa after its capture, it may pay for some services or state employee salaries, as it has done in other areas under YPG/PYD control. The RCC has already agreed to use regime-printed textbooks in schools in the areas under its control.
The province of Raqqa has been traditionally inhabited by a number of Arab tribes, which various sides in the Syrian war have tried to co-opt. In 2011, as protests spread across the country, President Bashar al-Assad sought the reassurance of tribal leaders in Raqqa that the province would stay quiet, and he received it. Three years later, one of ISIL's Syrian leaders, Abu Loqman, is said to have used his connections as a member of the Ajeel tribe to facilitate ISIL's takeover of Raqqa. Members of different tribes have also fought under the SDF's flag, including Daham Hadi Jarba, the head of the Sanadid Forces, leader of the Shammar tribe and cousin of Ahmad Jarba. According to Hinnedi, however, tribes are not necessarily unified and can easily change loyalties. "You would not find a tribal leader who carries the national interest and that of the Syrian people," he said. "They seek power and money and personal protection."
Will Raqqa be part of Rojava?
It is unclear whether Raqqa, with its SDF-backed council, would become part of the Kurdish autonomous project of Rojava, which has worried Turkey. Ankara has been embroiled in a bloody conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), in which more than 1,700 people were killed between 2015 and 2016. The PKK considers the YPG its sister organisation. In March, Saleh Muslim, the former PYD cochair, told Reuters it was "likely" that Raqqa would join Rojava. Responding to a question on the subject, Mustafa Bali, the SDF's head of media relations said in Jul 17: "Raqqa is part of Syria and Rojava is also part of Syria … The councils formed in those [liberated] regions will decide what form their administration will take." According to Bonsey, the YPG has thus far not incorporated into Rojava certain Arab-majority areas it has taken from ISIL, such as Manbij.
Policing and rebuilding Raqqa
To help secure Raqqa, the US has been training the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF). A statement by the international coalition's Operation Inherent Resolve said that the RISF consisted of 500 coalition-trained and vetted officers, and their number was expected to grow to 3,500. In Jun 17 it was reported that a Kurdish man had been appointed as head of the RISF. The force has already started policing liberated areas around and inside the city of Raqqa, Bonsey said. In the coming weeks, these forces, along with the SDF, will face the challenging task of demining Raqqa. ISIL is known for placing booby traps and mines not only in strategically significant positions during the fighting, but also in civilian housing and farming fields. A much bigger challenge will be the reconstruction of Raqqa. According to Hinnedi, the city today is unliveable, and it will be so for years. It remains unclear who will foot the bill for the massive destruction caused by the thousands of bombs the US-led coalition dropped on Raqqa. While the coalition is spending about $13m daily to run Operation Inherent Resolve, it has not officially allocated funds for the reconstruction of areas it bombed in Syria. In Mar 17 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a meeting of the 68-nation coalition: "As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction." In Aug 17, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said that the US would perform what he called "stabilisation" in Raqqa. Apart from demining, "stabilisation also means rubble removal so that trucks and equipment can get into areas of need. It means basic electricity, sewage, water, the basic essentials to allow populations to come back to their home," he explained. Whether that will be enough for the close to 300,000 Raqqa residents to return to their city remains to be seen.
Yemen/Da’esh/United States – The US military said on the 16 Oct 17 it killed dozens of ISIS fighters at the group’s training camps in central Yemen, in the first such strikes in the country’s conflict. Witnesses said villagers were prevented by tribal leaders from approaching the area and retrieving the dead and wounded for fear of additional strikes. Locals said the camps, both in Bayda province, were named after prominent ISIS figures: Yemen chief Abu Bilal al-Harbi and former global spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, killed last summer in a US air strike. “US forces killed dozens of ISIS members in a strike on two ISIS training camps... in Al-Bayda Governorate, Yemen, disrupting the organization's attempts to train new fighters,” US Central Command, which oversees US forces in the region, said in a statement. “ISIS used the camps to train militants to conduct terror attacks using AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and endurance training.” “Strikes against ISIS targets disrupt and destroy militants’ attack-plotting efforts, leadership networks and freedom of maneuver within the region,” the CENTCOM statement read. “ISIS has used the ungoverned spaces of Yemen to plot, direct, instigate, resource and recruit for attacks against America and its allies around the world,” the CENTCOM statement said. “For years, Yemen has been a hub for terrorist recruiting, training and transit.”
Yemen/UAE – After a tumultuous marriage of more than 27 years, South Yemen appears to be edging closer to divorcing the north in a move politically and financially sponsored by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) it was reported on the 20 Oct 17. In the southern coastal city of Aden, unified Yemen's familiar flag of three horizontal bars has all but vanished, replaced by the former Communist nation's emblem of a red star within a sky-blue chevron, while pictures of Emirati royals adorn the hallways of government buildings and ministries. Military units once loyal to the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are also distinctly absent. Instead, local militias and Yemeni soldiers are flanked by Emirati troops - tasked with guarding key installations and protecting Aidarous al-Zubaidi - the UAE's 'man in the south' and leader of the southern secessionist movement. Perceived by some as the only credible rival to Hadi, the 50-year-old militia leader set out his vision for the region on the 20 Oct 17 saying an independence referendum would be "held soon." Speaking to a raucous crowd of southerners hungry for secession, he announced the formation of a new 303-member parliament, a body analysts say will be administered under his presidency. Mansoor Saleh, a senior member of Zubaidi's Southern Transitional Council (STC) said that plans to hold a referendum were still under review, but the STC would be willing to push ahead without the approval of Yemen's internationally recognised government. "The only way to restore our country [south Yemen] is through liberation," Saleh said. "A referendum will be held on terms set by the STC. Hadi is a partner to us, just like the Arab coalition. But he has never supported the STC and is not playing any role in this process." Hadi's government, which was forced by Houthi rebels to relocate to Riyadh two years ago and has made only sporadic visits to Aden, has yet to comment on the announcement. But sources close to the presidency said they were ready to thwart any effort to divide the country. One Yemeni official said that the government "didn't feel compelled to respond to the announcement and for now, would ignore it." Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: "The referendum was announced shortly after events in Spain's Catalonia region and Kurdistan, and we believe [Zubaidi's announcement] was a reactionary move - we think it's unlikely it'll go ahead." Zubaidi, a prominent southern secessionist, emerged from relative obscurity in late 2015 after helping purge northern Houthi fighters from Aden. He was later rewarded and made governor of the city, but soon fell out of favour with Hadi and was dismissed along with Hani Ali bin Braik, a former minister of state, after reports emerged they were both receiving patronage from the UAE to campaign for secession. The media reports are said to have sent Hadi into a frenzy; he was still angered by a firefight at Aden's international airport in February when Emirati-backed forces refused to relinquish control of the facility to Hadi's son. Hadi later accused Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of behaving like an "occupying power rather than a force of liberation," remarks which are said to have enraged Emirati officials. Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai's outspoken Chief of Police and Public Security, demanded Hadi's dismissal, while Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, said in a tweet: "Among the rules of political action is that you should build trust with your allies, that you should not stab them in the back, that your decisions should be commensurate with your capabilities and that you put public interest ahead of personal ones." Zubaidi admitted to receiving "money and forces" from the Gulf emirate, amid claims that the UAE was seeking to seize control of the strategic Socotra island, located in the Indian Ocean, and Aden port. The UAE has confirmed carrying out military operations on Socotra, famed for its flora and fauna, with local media reporting that the UAE was leasing Socotra and the nearby Abd al-Kuri island for 99 years. Hadi's government has refused to comment on the issue.
'The South will never be governed by Sanaa'
Another Yemeni official said that since the UAE had paid out at least $3bn on infrastructure projects in the south, and spent several billion more on equipping Yemeni forces with light and heavy weaponry, it was inevitable they would seek to enlarge their footprint in the country. "The UAE has spent a considerable amount of money in the south, and this isn't without reason." "The south will never be governed by Sanaa ever again. The UAE has spent considerable time and energy and is on the verge of splitting Yemen in two. In subsequent years, we're going to see Abu Dhabi playing a more prominent role in our affairs." The UAE entered Yemen's war in Mar 15 as part of a Saudi-led Arab coalition after Shia Houthi rebels, traditionally based in the northwest of the country, seized the capital Sanaa and claimed they were the legitimate government of the country. Triggering a protracted power struggle with Hadi, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis perceived the Houthis' advance as an Iranian-orchestrated plot to destabilise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, the UAE's interests in the conflict also stemmed from the security of the Bab-el-Mandab strait, one of the world's busiest oil and gas shipping lanes. Protecting the flow of oil and gas shipments in the Red Sea and Egypt's Suez Canal is of vital interest for its ability to trade with Europe and North America. In the last few years, the UAE has acquired several ports in the Middle East and Africa to secure those interests, extending its influence from Dubai's Jebel Ali port, to Berbera in Somalia, Assab in Eritrea, and onto Limassol and Benghazi in the Mediterranean. After 2011's Arab Spring protests swept the region and flared in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, the UAE began flexing its muscles in conflicts. The UAE sent security forces to Bahrain, launched military attacks against rebel fighters in Libya, backed the Sisi regime in Egypt with billions of dollars after the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in 2013; and despite having a relatively small army, sent a high number of ground forces to Yemen. In contrast, Saudi Arabia was cautious to deploy troops to Yemen, with the Saudi National Guard and Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) playing a minimal role in the conflict. In the last 18 months, the UAE's war effort has had little effect on the military capabilities of the Houthis - who still hold the capital and continue to fire rockets and shells into Saudi territory from their northern heartlands. In the north-eastern province of Marib, the UAE has largely failed to recruit tribal fighters capable of capturing Sanaa and have only been to push back small pockets of al-Qaeda fighters in the south. Since April 2016, when AQAP was purged from Hadramout province's capital Mukalla, the UAE has made slow ground against the armed group, taking a back seat on operations such as last month's assault on Mudiyah, a village some 200km east of Aden, an area which had once been an al-Qaeda stronghold.
'Saudi-UAE divided over southern Yemen'
Maysa Shuja al-Deen, a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies said that the Emiratis seemed disillusioned by Saudi Arabia's plan for the country, and were exploiting southern calls for independence to oust Hadi. "The coalition is divided and no longer knows what they want," she said. "The Saudis believe any talk of secession will delegitimize the war effort, which they have repeatedly claimed is about restoring the government of President Hadi. Meanwhile, the Emiratis don't want to see any party close to Hadi and Islah (the main political party in Yemen opposing the Houthis and seen as having links with the Muslim Brotherhood) anywhere near power. "But through supporting Zubaidi and the secessionist movement, the Emiratis are strengthening the position of the Houthis, and their claim of being the legitimate rulers of the north. "Ultimately, this could lead to a regional power struggle and possibly even violence, as Hadi draws his support from Abyan and Shabwa while Zubaidi draws his power from Dhale." While many Yemenis perceive Emirati forces as pursuing an agenda to seize strategic regions and ports, others, however, blamed Hadi for the rise of the secession movement, accusing him of failing to properly administer the south. Despite Hadi hailing from the south himself, Abyan province, he has repeatedly demonstrated weakness in office since becoming president, and during the 18 years he served as vice president under Ali Abdullah Saleh, he said. "The people are suffering due to Hadi's mismanagement. He's repeatedly failed to provide essential services such as water, electricity and fuel, and despite repeated calls to stop," Murad Abdu, a south Yemen youth activist said. Since the UAE intervened in Yemen, Islah, the only political party to oppose the rise of the Houthis, has tried to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood movement in an effort to ease Abu Dhabi's anxiety about its Islamist ideology. For more than two decades, the UAE has clamped down on Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, jailing dozens of activists in the Emirates on trumped-up charges including Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, a member of the Ras al-Khaimah Emirates' ruling family, and pursuing the same aggressive policy abroad. The UAE has operated a network of 'black sites' in south Yemen, where hundreds of men have been kidnapped by local militias backed by the UAE, with local media reports claiming some of those apprehended were members of Islah. Islah's rejection of secession and desire to keep the Arabian Peninsula state intact has made it a target for security forces, who have arrested several of its members and raided its offices in Aden. Summer Ahmed, a writer and south Yemen activist said that even before the bombs started raining on the south, many southerners were already tired of the political set-up. "The south is in turmoil. Its institutions and infrastructure were destroyed during the invasion by the Houthis and their allies loyal to Saleh in 2015. "And as Hadi continues to send the wrong message to southerners ... it's our right to disengage from this unity that's brought us only war, death, and destruction."