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NightWatch 20150329

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For the night of 29 March 2015

Yemen: Reliable open sources reported that the Houthis recaptured Aden airport on Saturday. A press source claimed that pro-Hadi fighters captured it again on Sunday, but that is not confirmed. Multiple sources reported that Houthi militiamen clashed with pro-Hadi fighters in central Aden for the first time.

Reliable open sources reported that pro-Hadi tribes repelled the Houthi attempt to push into Shabwah Governate. They claimed they killed 30 Houthis in the effort. The Houthis are reported to be continuing to try to seize control of more territory in central Yemen.

Evacuation update. India, Pakistan and China are in the process of evacuating thousands of their nationals. Pakistan has chartered large civil air transports to fly its nationals from Sana'a. China has sent a navy ship to Aden to assist in the evacuation of some 500 Chinese nationals. India is sending two navy ships to Aden and is using civil aircraft to evacuate 3,500 guest workers. The Saudis have already evacuated their diplomats from Aden.

Comment: The evacuation of diplomats and guest workers is a prudent precaution, but it always signifies that leaders in the several countries judge the security situation is and will continue to be unsafe. In this case, unsafe means the countries supporting the Hadi government expect the Houthis to take Aden soon.

Saudi Update: On 29 March, in his fourth daily update, Brigadier General Asiri said that prior to Decisive Storm, the Houthis managed to transfer a "huge inventory of ammunition and weapons." He claimed that "a regional country" had helped distribute the supplies by air throughout the country.

Asiri said that coalition aircraft continue to target air defenses and ballistic missile sites and they are "roaming the skies" searching for moving targets, i.e., targets of opportunity. He said the operation is "delayed" because the Coalition leaders want to avoid destroying Yemen's infrastructure.

He restated that all air and sea access to Yemen is now controlled by the "Allied Forces."

He also said that the Saudis are actively defending the southern border of the Kingdom from the Houthis.

Comment: The reports over the weekend indicate that a low intensity civil war is in progress, mainly in the south. The Houthis thus far are winning it. They show no signs of complying with League of Arab States', Saudi or Hadi government demands. At this early stage of this fight, no side shows signs of willingness to compromise.

The pro-Hadi fighters have outside air support, but outside intervention is not yet degrading Houthi dominance in western Yemen.

The theme in official and in a few individual statements over the weekend has been that the fight to remove the Houthis from Sana'a will be harder and take longer than it seemed before the campaign started. Initially, the private speculation was that the air campaign would last a month. By the 29th, some leaders privately mentioned up to six months or as long as required.

Every daily briefing has included a summary of military activity along Saudi Arabia's southern border. The border summaries reinforce the overall message that the Saudis are defending themselves.

One of the NightWatch mantras is that aircraft never take and hold ground. The air campaign is still young, but General Asiri's reference to "roaming the skies" implies the aircrews already have run out of fixed targets. No organized, well-armed and well led southern ground forces exist to force the Houthis to return to north Yemen or even to take advantage of the air campaign.

The Houthis remain defiant and refuse to budge, except to control more territory. No source has reported Houthi militia casualty estimates from the air attacks. Whatever the numbers are, they are not yet forcing the Houthis to leave Aden, much less Sana'a.

The Sunni Arab monarchies have no option but to succeed, now that they have escalated the confrontation with the Houthis and Iran into a war. If Decisive Storm fails, the Saudis will have been the agents of a strategic shift in favor of Iran.

The Houthis have the option of outwaiting the air campaign. They also know that a Coalition ground invasion would involve urban fighting and the likely destruction of much of Yemen's urban sector. It would not be easy or quick and easily could bog down.

Operation Decisive Storm involves multiple large gambles about Houthi behavior and Iranian advice under military coercion. Some Coalition statements suggest the leaders already appreciate that they misjudged Houthi resilience. They also might need to reevaluate their strategy.

Syria: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Saturday that, "The al-Nusra Front and its allies have captured all of Idlib," after five days of intense fighting.

Government media admitted Syrian forces lost Idlib, but reported that military leaders were preparing to take back the city.

Comment: Press commentaries have noted that Idlib would be the second governate capital to fall to the opposition. This opposition, however, is a coalition of Islamist militants. The al-Nusra Front is affiliated with al-Qaida. This would be its first significant success in a year.

Last year the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) tried to destroy al-Nusra Front forces in the north. ISIL obviously failed, but the Front, even in coalition with other groups, has not displayed the capabilities required in capturing an important government-held town. The Front probably has received outside help recently, most likely through Turkey.

The government appears to have dropped its guard in this area, where it held out against sustained attacks in 2014. The real test of the opposition's strength at Idlib will be the coming fight to hold it against government counterattacks.

Tunisia: On 29 March, Tunisians held a large rally in Tunis, chanting "Tunisia is free! Terrorism out!" Ralliers marched to the Bardo National Museum, where terrorists killed 21 tourists and one Tunisian on 18 March.

Speaking at the museum, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi told the rally, "The Tunisian people proved today that they do not bow to terrorism, and that as one man and one woman, they defend the nation. When Tunisia is targeted, the whole nation stands as one."

French President Francois Hollande and other world leaders attended the ceremony at the museum.

Earlier in the day, Tunisian security authorities announced that security forces killed one of the primary suspects in the attack.

Comment: Tunisian authorities have now killed 9 terrorists during and subsequent to the attack on the 18th. The rally and patriotic comments are essential for helping to rebuild public morale, but the authorities must also rebuild public confidence. The authorities have learned a hard lesson about the consequences of lax security. Public confidence and the tourism industry will rebound in time, provided the authorities show they have fixed the security lapses that enabled the attack.

Nigeria: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that voting in the Nigerian presidential elections had been "largely peaceful and orderly."

The turnout was so great and the numbers of technical problems were so many in some areas that the voting in some districts had to be extended to the 29th. Results are expected to be announced on 30 March.

Nigeria used hand-held biometric scanners to prevent the traditional stuffing of ballot boxes and other forms of electoral fraud. This is the technology that failed in some locations. Overall, the technology appears to have helped reduce fraud.

Violence: Political partisans and Boko Haram were sources of violence. Political violence generally was minor, but in one southern state, press sources reported no voting was held. This will result in a challenge to the outcome, regardless of the declared winner.

Boko Haram terrorists executed a few noteworthy attacks. A Boko Haram force in 20 vehicles attacked villages on the outskirts of Bauchi, with the aim of attacking Bauchi and disrupting the election. Nigerian forces, supported by combat aircraft, drove off the attackers.

In another attack, press reports indicate Boko Haram fighters decapitated at least 23 people in the village of Buratai. They burned much of the village. Local authorities considered this a revenge attack for Boko Haram having been driven from the village. They said soldiers killed 20 militants.

Comment: The attacks near Bauchi probably are the work of an Islamist militant group that is affiliated with Boko Haram, but was separate from the groups operating farther to the northeast. This group has not shown its capabilities for some time and operates too far inside Nigeria for the central African forces to be interested in dealing with it.

Boko Haram opposes all forms of elections and vowed to disrupt those held this weekend. The group clearly failed. Boko Haram's leader, Shekau, posted no videos or statements. Even in the Bauchi area, voting continued.

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End of NightWatch for 29 March.

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