Yemen faces a drone doom loop that is a harbinger of things to come for many countries.
The increasingly rapid diffusion of drone technology offers endless new opportunities for non-state, near-state, and terrorist groups to attack governments, rivals, infrastructure, and commercial interests. While Yemen’s Houthi rebels currently field more advanced drones than any of their domestic rivals, that is slowly changing as the technology and know-how spreads among their rivals.
The Houthis, therefore, are going to soon find it harder to defend against drone attacks by their rivals. They and, sadly Yemeni civilians, are going to be stuck in an escalating drone doom loop.
The capabilities of commercially available drones increase every month. The development of military grade drones proceeds even faster. The war in Ukraine has further spurred the development and rapid deployment of cheap and deadly drones. Yet these advances and their diffusion come at a time when states across much of the world, especially in the global south, are being hollowed out by corruption, environmental degradation, and the concomitant rise of armed groups who fill the voids.
Yemen was a hollow state long before the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital in 2014. The Sana’a-based government of Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, never fully controlled Yemen. Instead, it relied on non-state groups, namely tribes and militias, to help it maintain security and keep its enemies off-balance.
And as is typical in hollow states, a circle of elites based in the capital were the primary beneficiaries of Yemen’s post-1990 oil wealth. After the 2010 “Arab Spring,” Yemen transitioned from a hollow state to a failed state, a status from which it is unlikely to emerge any time soon.
The Houthis control most of northwest Yemen and are now the foremost military and political power there. Yet dozens of other armed groups hold sway in other parts of the country. Almost all of these groups are, at a minimum, using off the shelf drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Militias and armed units with the backing of either Saudi Arabia or the UAE use military-grade armed and surveillance drones to target their enemies.
On any given day, the skies above Yemen’s larger cities and those above contested areas like the besieged city of Taiz are crisscrossed by surveillance drones of all sizes. The drones range from military grade UAVs equipped with wide angle lenses and thermal imaging, to stripped down commercial drones with upgraded batteries for added range.
Armed gangs, which target commercial transport on Yemen’s roads, use drones to track and assess valuable cargoes before seizing them. They use the same drones to then make sure their escape routes are clear. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has used drones to carry out multiple attacks and locate and track individuals targeted for assassination.
Meanwhile, the Houthis have incorporated drones into almost every aspect of their security services and armed forces, even to track individuals and gather evidence that is later used to blackmail persons of interest.
Individuals with experience modifying, building, programming, and operating drones are a hot commodity in Yemen where they command high salaries. Many of these men are happy to freelance and work for whichever group pays the most. In Yemen’s thriving arms markets, high-end drones are the most sought after military gear.
For the Houthis, their drone and missile programs, both of which are aided by the Iranians, are their foremost military priority. The armed drones and missiles helped provide the Houthis with the needed leverage to bring their external rivals to the negotiating table.
It is this ability to target vital infrastructure in Saudi Arabia that has encouraged the Kingdom to enter into bi-lateral negotiations with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia cannot implement its ambitious 2030 agenda if there is an ongoing threat of aerial attack from its populous southern neighbor. While Saudi Arabia is upgrading its air defenses, the Kingdom is reluctant to continue to spend billions trying to defend its airspace against armed drones and missiles that cost a tiny fraction of what it costs to defend against them.
The militants ’expanding drone and missile capabilities not only give them leverage abroad but also at home where they have succeeded at stopping Yemen’s internationally-recognized government (IRG) from exporting oil. They have targeted oil handling infrastructure and threatened to target tankers that attempt to dock at oil terminals located in areas outside of Houthi control. They want their cut of the revenue and are happy to starve the IRG and southern separatists of funds.
The collateral damage is the Yemeni economy and increasingly impoverished Yemeni citizens.
However, the Houthis’ rivals are rapidly developing their own drone capabilities. In the case of those armed groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they are also beginning to deploy counter-drone systems to protect vital installations.
But the counter-drone measures, even the most sophisticated, will fail to keep up with the production of cheaper and harder to detect drones. The advent of 3D printing — which the Houthis already use for some parts for their drones and missiles — will ensure that access to top-notch drones spreads even further. Add to this the dissemination of accessible artificial intelligence and virtual trainers, all of which are coming online in Yemen, and the possibilities for sowing mayhem are endless.
Many of Yemen’s tribes have a long history of taking hostages or attacking infrastructure as a means of addressing grievances. Now, many of these same tribes and allied armed groups use drones as tools to facilitate both. Even in the unlikely event that some kind of peace deal is achieved in Yemen, the spread of drone technology will continue to ensure that investment in critical infrastructure is limited. Yemen’s oil and gas pipelines and pumping stations are all easy targets for any group wanting to ensure that they receive their share of revenue, jobs, or development funds.
Yemen was in most respects a broken state long before the proliferation of this technology and it will help ensure that Yemen remains a failed state for the foreseeable future. The unchecked spread of a technology that allows even the least sophisticated armed groups to monitor and attack distant targets with few risks, means that many other fragile states will become mired in a drone doom loop.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?