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Reprieve | January 15, 2016
UK personnel are working in a Saudi Arabian “control centre” assisting with targeting as part of a bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been accused of attacks which “may amount to a war crime” by the UN Secretary General.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told journalists today that “British officers were working alongside Saudi and other coalition colleagues in the campaign’s operations rooms,” according to media reports. The campaign has reportedly hit several Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) facilities, as well as a centre for the blind and a wedding hall.
The Saudi minister’s revelations go further than previous British Government statements, which have said that nearly 100 UK personnel are embedded in ‘Coalition HQs’ but have failed to specify which coalitions those are. It now appears that the Written Statement published by the Defence Secretary in December last year may have been referring to UK personnel embedded with the Saudi coalition, but did not make this clear at the time.
Whether or not the British personnel in the Saudi centre are ‘embedded’ is significant because the UK Government has previously stated that such personnel fall under the control of the ‘host nation’ – in this case, the Saudis. In a July 2015 statement to Parliament, Michael Fallon said that “Embedded UK personnel operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel, under that nation’s chain of command, but remain subject to UK domestic, international and Host Nation law.” Therefore, there are concerns that the UK personnel in the centre could be under the command of the Saudi authorities.
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at international human rights organization Reprieve said:
“The Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, hitting Medicins Sans Frontieres clinics, a school for the blind and a wedding hall.’
“It is shocking to discover that our Government has embroiled British personnel in the targeting process that is creating this mayhem. More disturbingly, we’re learning about the UK’s involvement not from the our Government, but from the Saudi authorities who now appear to be more transparent than their British counterparts.
“Crucial questions remain unanswered: whose command are British personnel in the Saudi operations centre under – British or Saudi? Are they ‘embedded’ personnel referred to in the Defence Secretary’s vague December statement, which stated that 94 British personnel were embedded in ‘Coalition HQs?’ And what part have ministers played in signing off their activities? The British public has a right to know.”
The great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the long-time dictator of crude oil prices for the world – is struggling on all fronts.
The Saudis are losing their proxy wars in both Syria and Yemen; their OPEC leadership is under threat; they are not winning the crude oil price war; and its long-running alliance with the West is in question.
From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Iran seems to be gaining ground everywhere. Saudi Arabia has several weaknesses that help explain the current anxiety emanating from Riyadh.
1. Saudi Arabia losing its leadership in the OPEC
Saudi Arabia has been the default leader of OPEC; however, despite Saudi insistence to the contrary, the U.S. shale boom, increased Russian oil production, and a very resolute Iran are challenging this leadership.
The result is that Saudi Arabia now finds itself powerless in supporting oil prices. Instead of the much-needed production cuts, during the 4 December 2015 meeting, the OPEC nations refused to adhere to any ceiling, which has been the practice for years.
2. Burning through reserves—fast
Iran is waiting for the lifting of sanctions, expected sometime in 2016, to pump more oil to improve its economy, whereas the Saudi’s are losing they are burning through their cash reserves quickly. The above chart speaks for itself, depicting the kind of damage low oil prices are inflicting on Saudi reserves. By the most optimistic opinion, Saudi Arabia can survive low oil prices only for four years.
3. Iran has assumed a very significant leadership role among Shia Arabs
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently locked in a bitter proxy war on two fronts: Syria and Yemen.
Iran has the support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, along with support from the majority of Shiites in Iraq. More to the point, Iran has even managed to grow its Shiite support base among Sunni-ruled nations. The execution of Shia Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr by the Saudis is an indirect acceptance of the growing influence of Iran among the suppressed 15 percent Shiite population in Saudi Arabia. This shows that the Saudi leadership is feeling threatened on their own soil.
4. Saudi Arabia cannot defeat Iran in a direct war
Iran is a much larger nation than Saudi Arabia by population and has held its own in numerous long wars. By comparison, the Saudis have an army that is inexperienced, led by loyalists of the Royal family who occupy plum postings. These are not the war-hardened generals of Iran.
While Saudi Arabia has a nice arsenal with the latest weaponry, the kingdom is heavily dependent on the West for its use and maintenance. Its indecisive and ineffective handling of three conflict fronts—Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—give us no confidence in its ability to take on Iran.
5. Saudi Arabia knows it won’t have U.S. support for a direct war with Iran
The painfully misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are enough to deter the current U.S. administration from entering into full-fledged war in the Syrian and Yemen theaters. Washington’s non-committal stance, along with efforts to broker a deal with Iran, should serve as very loud signals to Saudi Arabia. The message to the kingdom is this: Don’t go to war with the hope that that U.S. will support you. And without the West, Saudi Arabia knows it stands no chance of winning a war against Iran. The royal family will probably not take the risk of losing power by indulging in such a war.
These relationships are anything but clear, and everything about balance. So the U.S. will continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia to allow it to maintain a bit of balance—with the latest deal approved in October—and Washington and Tehran will continue to play cat and mouse as they near a nuclear deal and a removal of sanctions. This is best illustrated by the recent detainment and then quick release of U.S. sailors for an incursion into Iranian waters, and the statement and then denial by Iran that it had completely closed off a key nuclear reactor that would have sealed the nuclear deal.
The Saudis are in a state of panic all around – from its OPEC status and dwindling reserves to its proxy wars that absolutely cannot turn into full-fledged wars and its growing friendlessness. The fact that oil fell briefly below $30 a barrel on Tuesday for the first time in 12 years won’t have helped.
At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia has overextended itself, and overestimated its prowess and it does not have the clout that it once had to be able to do this effectively.
If you’re wondering whether there will be an all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s unlikely. At this point, the Saudis are likely to continue the proxy war and hope that the Iranians do something foolish to upset the nuclear deal with the West. Until then, Saudi Arabia will make a lot of noise and attempt subversive activities, but nothing more.
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