Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rocket Fire Could Signal New Offensive on Mariupol | Stratfor

Reports of heavy rocket artillery firing on the eastern parts of the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, as well as a statement made by a separatist leader, indicate the potential preparation of an offensive on the city. While this would be a significant escalation and an indicator of Russian intent to push further into Ukraine, potentially forming a much-rumored land connection to the northern border of Crimea, there are also several indicators required for such an offensive that are currently still missing.

Reports of heavy rocket artillery firing on the eastern parts of the city of Mariupol have been widely reported, with the death toll rising to 27 people. Mariupol has been shelled in the past, notably in early September, but as the cease-fire took affect separatist forces generally conducted attacks only outside of the city. It is not clear whether this is simply an intensification of relatively static fighting along the front between Russian and pro-Russian forces on the one side, and Ukrainians, or the beginning of a Russian-led offensive to widen the pocket, or the opening move in a broader strategic offensive to link up with Crimea, 200 miles to the west of the pocket.
The widespread use of Grad Multiple Launch Rocket Systems indicates that this is a planned action with significant logistical support that it involves extensive use of Russian troops, though Grad fire has been widely used throughout the conflict. There have been indications that Russian forces, including Russian Marines, have moved into the eastern Ukraine pocket controlled by pro-Russian forces, giving the Russians offensive options. Heavy artillery preparations frequently precede Russian attacks, particularly by concentrated MLRS attack. Given the amount of munitions needed to supply concentrated fire, the Russians tend not to use them casually. The presence of Grad missiles indicates the possibility of artillery preparation for a broader offensive.
The attack comes days after the Russian forces secured the Donetsk Airport, important in defending the right flank of any offensive westward. It also comes days after Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, came to Ukraine and publicly announced that a small number of U.S. Army trainers would be arriving in Ukraine. While any large-scale offensive would have been considered and planned for much longer, the decision of the United States to send Lt. Gen. Hodges could have affected the dynamic of internal Russian calculations.

In any event, we do not yet know Russia’s strategic intentions. This could simply be an attempt to signal the danger Russia could pose to their negotiating partners in the west. It could be an attempt to extend the pocket they hold modestly. It could, finally, be the opening of an offensive toward Crimea.
The Russian position in Crimea is untenable. Crimea is easily isolated should Ukranian forces strengthen or Western forces get involved. Russia holds Crimea only to the extent that the West chooses not to intervene, or to the extent that it extends a relatively wide and robustly defended land bridge from Russia to the Crimea. Crimea and the Sevastapol naval facilities are of strategic importance to Russia and the decision to hold these facilities but not extend their power makes diplomatic sense, though it is not militarily rational. Either Russia can build the geographical structure to support Crimea, or it becomes a permanent weak point in the Russian position. The Russians do not want a massive confrontation with the West at a time of economic dysfunction, yet at the same time, having made the decision to hold Crimea, they will not have a better moment for consolidation.
This is an ongoing conversation in Moscow. It is not clear that it is over. The artillery may simply be a minor probe or it could be the preface to an assault. We know that there has been a significant increase in Russian presence in the pocket, but it does not seem to us that the Russians are logistically ready for a major offensive yet.
Taking Mariupol is a first step to a broader offensive. It is also an end in itself, anchoring the southern flank in the city, though may not even be that. However, the MLRS barrages on Mariupol open the door to multiple avenues of exploitation and have clearly moved the fighting to a new level, not so much in intensity, but in raising serious questions of strategic intention.

Read more: Red Alert: Rocket Fire Could Signal New Offensive on Mariupol | Stratfor
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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Yemen's President, Cabinet resign -

Caption:BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 04: Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, President of the Republic of Yemen, arrives at the Chancellery to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 4, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. President Hadi succeeds former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh following bloody uprisings in Yemen months ago. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Sanaa, Yemen (CNN)Yemen's President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down -- seismic changes in the country's political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a tentative peace deal meant to end days of turmoil.
The resignations of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and other officials are the latest fallout from the Houthis' move in recent days to gain power in the capital, which included kidnapping Hadi's chief of staff on Saturday and taking over the presidential palace on Tuesday.
The chaos in Yemen is cause for concern far beyond the country's borders. For the United States and its allies, Yemen's government has been a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group linked to attacks such as the recent slaughter at French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
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Why chaos in Yemen worries Western nations 02:39
The Cabinet and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah resigned before Hadi did on Thursday night, with Bahah telling Hadi in a letter that they essentially wanted to wash their hands of "destructive political chaos," an apparent reference to the deal that was to give Houthis more power.
"(We resigned) so that we are not made party to what is going on and what will happen," Bahah wrote in the letter, which Yemeni Information Minister Nadia Sakkaf posted on Twitter.
    Hadi's resignation followed soon afterward. It wasn't immediately clear who would succeed Hadi.
    The Houthis' latest push to power picked up steam on Saturday.
    The Houthi rebels -- Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country -- kidnapped presidential Chief of Staff Ahmed bin Mubarak in the capital, Sanaa, on Saturday. The rebels then took over the presidential palace Tuesday, prompting talk of a coup.
    The tentative deal reached Wednesday called for bin Mubarak's release, as well as measures to give the Houthis more political power, according to a Yemeni official with access to a draft text of the agreement.
    But by Thursday, before the top officials quit, Sakkaf questioned whether the rebels would live up to their side of the pact.
    "Ahmed Mubarak is still #Houthis hostage despite deal. They got what they want why should they fulfill their promise?" she said on Twitter.
    She added, "I have been following up the promises to release Dr. Ahmed bin Mubarak since the beginning. Conclusion: Buying time."

    Power vacuum concerns

    Mistrust was hampering the implementation of the peace deal, both sides said Thursday.
    One Yemeni presidential adviser told CNN the government was waiting for the Houthis to release bin Mubarak -- and they have not -- but acknowledged that the rebels have withdrawn some forces.
    Ahmed Al Bahri, a Houthi official, said that they were unsure of how serious Hadi was about the deal, and that they were keeping 20% of their militia numbers in the presidential palace and other key buildings as a guarantee.
    Questions about who was in charge over the past few days have sparkedconcerns that a power vacuum could help terrorist groups get a stronger foothold.
    Besides the Charlie Hebdo attack, AQAP also tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit in 2009. ISIS is also recruiting in Yemen to expand its ranks.

    Constitutional changes

    Under the peace deal, the Houthi rebels agreed to withdraw their militias from key government institutions if officials take a significant step: rewriting parts of the country's constitution, according to the Yemeni official.
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    Who is really in control in Yemen?02:35
    Under its terms, the government would accept changes in the draft of the new constitution that would grant the Houthis more political power.
    Word of the deal still leaves many questions unanswered: What could the reshaped constitution look like? How much power will the rebels get?

    Details of tentative agreement

    Several of the constitutional changes sought by the Houthis would emphasize the characteristics of Yemen as a federal state and push for more inclusion of diverse groups.
    The Houthis call for marginalized political groups to have the right to partnerships in state institutions and fair representation, according to the text of the tentative agreement.
    In return for these government concessions, the rebels basically agree to withdraw their fighters from the capital, where they control or blockade several government installations: the presidential palace, the presidential residence, the Prime Minister's residence and a military installation where missiles are housed.
    A Houthi official said the rebels would abide by the deal if the President follows a timeline specified in the negotiations for the political process.
    This isn't the first time the rebels and the government have hammered out an agreement.
    Houthis swept into the capital last year, sparking battles that left more than 300 people dead in a month. In September, they signed a ceasefire deal with the government, and Houthis have since installed themselves in key positions in the government and financial institutions.

    Audio leak links ex-Yemeni leader to Houthis