Is France at War in Yemen?

For France, the United States and the GCC states, Yemen is now a focal point for regional instability and a problem requiring further attention as satellite imagery continues to attest. (Photo: Assab airport. Google Earth image)

By Chris Biggers,

Satellite imagery suggests that French war materiel, if not French personnel, is supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen. If confirmed, it represents a previously unreported escalation of French support.

The satellite imagery, some of which Google Earth published recently, shows two unique hangars deployed on an expanded parking apron at the Eritrean airport of Assab. The hangars match those of other known French deployments.

How they ended up at the airport remains an interesting question. Given recent developments between France and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, it appears France is deepening its relationship with the region in a substantive way.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen after the Houthi rebels forced Western-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, from the capital of Sanaa.

Despite numerous groups vying for influence — notably Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS affiliates — the Iranian-backed Shia movement remains the greatest threat to the regional power.

In response, the Kingdom enlisted a coalition of states including GCC members, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Other states including Egypt, Jordan and Sudan also sent military support while the United States provided aerial refueling tankers and intelligence for targeting.

The Saudi coalition’s espoused mission — restore Hadi to power as the legitimate, U.N.-recognized head of state.

French-style hangars at Assab. Google Earth image

The jury is still out whether Saudi Arabia and company can accomplish its goal, let alone maintain the relatively limited gains achieved to date. Some commentators see the Yemen campaign as another Vietnam, a grim outcome.

Chapter VII sanctions imposed under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 provide little in way of effect, and violations during this year’s ceasefire remain too high to count.

By all appearances, things are getting worse. The lack of progress toward a unity government peaked last month when the Shia movement announced the formation of a 10-member “Supreme Council” to govern territory it controls.

Put simply, the peace talks taking place in Kuwait are effectively failing. The U.N. special envoy suspended talks, to be resumed at an unspecified date. As a political solution slips farther from reach, the return of military action targeting the Houthis is in full swing, despite brief moments of calm.

One chief Saudi partner is well poised to continue providing military support — recent public positioning aside. Satellite imagery shows that the UAE is in the process of constructing a naval port just outside Assab’s airport in Eritrea. Jane’s outlined the developments in February and April issues of Defense Weekly.

Imagery from 2016 continues to show the landing craft at the existing Eritrean port, approximately 10 miles south of the airport. Imagery as recent as April showed the craft docked at the port, fully loaded.

A review of historical imagery shows corresponding activity at the airport in Assab. According to space photography, cargo aircraft from both the UAE and Saudi Arabia touched down at the airport since the beginning of the year, and probably prior.

Landing craft at the Port of Assab. Google Earth image

Imagery from April and May show gray-painted tactical and strategic airlift platforms, the C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III, parked on the apron. A tandem-rotor CH-47 Chinook medium lift helicopter is also visible in previous space shots. Handheld images have shown an unmarked Chinook in Yemen’s Marib.

While these aircraft were likely from the UAE, March imagery in Google Earth shows a Hercules painted in desert camouflage parked on the southeast turnaround. The desert camo pattern is consistent with C-130s in Saudi inventory. While we currently lack an estimate of the overall flight activity occurring at the airfield, imagery revealed the addition of nine new portable fuel bladders since operations in Yemen began.

Space snapshots also show three camps located southeast of the airfield’s expanded parking apron, two military and one associated with the site’s construction activity. Located between the two military camps, a motor pool containing UAE Union Defense Force ground equipment is visible.

Groups of French-made Leclerc main battle tanks, Russian-built BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and South African-manufactured G6 self-propelled artillery are parked in formation. Observers of the conflict spotted all three platforms operating in Yemen, their presence documented in video and handheld photography.

While imagery observations of Assab fit the bill of a coalition transshipment hub, the French hangars still remain unexplained. Recent developments between France and the GCC states, however, provide some insight. Since Yemen operations began, France announced political support for the Saudi coalition as early as April 2015 when Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with his Saudi counterpart.

The following month, French president Francois Hollande attended the GCC-France summit and launched a strategic partnership with the group. During his speech, Hollande made several statements that reinforced France’s political commitments to the coalition, while others suggested the French head of state was prepared to extend military support.

Leclerc tanks and other vehicles staging at Assab. Google Earth image

“France was and will always be your friend,” Hollande said. “It is determined to remain a strong, credible and reliable ally and partner. We are faithful to our friends and to our commitments. France never hesitates to do the right thing, even if it is military action.”

Despite the speech, no reports mention French troops supporting the conflict. Nevertheless, there are telltale signs that the two may be working more closely than previously believed. For example, in March 2016 Hollande extended the country’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor, to the Saudi Crown Prince in a low key event at the Palais de l’Élysée.

While downplayed in the French press, the Saudi Press Agency reported that parties “reviewed bilateral relations … and ways of enhancing and developing them in all fields, particularly joint cooperation for combating extremism and terrorism.”

While the statement remains vague, it hints at a deepening relationship and a growing strategic relevance for the western European country, one moving beyond the mere supply of arms.
If France is helping the Saudi coalition, it would not be the first time French troops deployed in secret. During Operation Serval, the French military intervention in Mali, French troops were on the ground prepping the battlefield from neighboring Niger well before operations publicly commenced.

In a statement that perhaps even speaks to a French role in Yemen, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told the press at the time that “special forces are there, of course, to help and to make sure France is present everywhere in the struggle against terrorists.”

And everywhere appears to include Yemen. For France, 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre magnified the country’s importance after AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack. Two of the attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, traveled to Marib to receive training from the terrorist group. For observers, it comes as little surprise that as France re-engages militarily with the region, it also becomes the target of more terrorist attacks.

The country’s strikes against Islamic State in September 2014, represented the first intervention in the region since patrolling Iraqi skies with the United States and the United Kingdom, prior to the second Iraq war. As Yemen’s civil war rages, AQAP continues to gain operating space and influence in the country.

For France, the United States and the GCC states, Yemen is now a focal point for regional instability and a problem requiring further attention as satellite imagery continues to attest.

27 thoughts on “Is France at War in Yemen?

  1. Assab Lease = 30 Years · Edit

    I knew the Gulf Cooperation Council countries led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE were in Assab, but I had no idea there were also French troops supporting them. Oh, well. For Eritrea it’s not bad. I also like the fact that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have leased Assab and are constructing a new airport. That will make Eritrea important going forward in regional and international politics. I believe the lease of Assab is said to be for 30 years? I like the idea generally. I’m usually against such kind of things, but in this case I like it. I like the rental of Assab. I like that Eritrea is making money off Assab by renting it out.

    1. Ethiopia is actually with plenty of Great and wonderful news these days, it is only that we (Eritreans and 94% Ethiopians) see the glass half full, while Woyane & their puppets see it as half empty. Stay tuned as the glass containing good Ethiopian news is filling up 🙂

    2. Fre: what’s TN supposed to do? It’s hard to close your eyes when you see a train wreck happening. That’s what TPLF’s Ethiopia is right now. A train wreck.

  2. This relationship should be nurtured as a strategic one. This will have a positive influence in Eritrea’s political economy and security. This affords Eritrea the time and space to focus on other important aspects of the national strategy.
    Eritrea needs to retain influential strategic partners for the long run. Eritrean port, Assab, Massawa and others, shall be geared towards servicing international transhipment.

    1. A not-so-bright former TPLF Prime Minister (I won’t name any names here) once said, “Assab is useless if Ethiopia doesn’t use it. It would just be a place for camels to drink water.”

      Never mind for a moment the wisdom of that sentence because camels can’t drink the salty Red Sea water. I mean, it would dehydrate and kill them quickly.

      1. That former TPLF thug weren’t as smart as his followers would like to believe. He was always shortsighted and promote his short term advantages with out giving due regards for their long term consequences. For instance, the war with Eritrea, Ethnic federalism, damming the Nile (size), abandoning the use of Assab port, access to the sea for potash mining (<80km through Eritrea than 400Km via Djibouti), etc …

        1. The late TPLF Chief was good at getting down on his knees and licking Western boots. But he was NOT a good, long-term strategist for his country.

          1. he don’t even need to go to his Knees to lick boots, he has the right height to do it without bothering to get down, that is why he felt and was good at it.

  3. Eventhough Eritrea’s main purpose in joining this coalition is to contribute in stopping al-qaeda from establishing itself in Yemen and nothing more, the french have helped the al- sauds once before in history. In 1979, the grand Mosque was occupied by a group, led by a guy called Al- Otaibi, to remove the monarchy and to declare his cousin called Al- qahtani, as the new Mahdi. The saudis used french special forces in recapturing tye grand Mosque back. Al-Qahtani got killed during the fighting but Al- Otaibi and 67 others captured, were all beheaded.

  4. French intelligence has never won victories in terms of stopping terrorism from happening (abroad or at home) but as political strategic leverage, I say why not? We can use this reference to show the same gov or people who falsify on COI report are the same one working on our backyard to do honorable work. Goodness gracious. Lol

    1. Yes we can and a lot more, the fabricated accusations will evaporate into the thin air by the day as the world comes to accept the truth about Eritrea and her selfless hard working people in general. Truth is on our side.

      1. Time will tell. I have no doubt GoE will make the right decisions for our national security and development of people and opportunities. At the same time, we must not be content and must empower our officials to bring up current constrains so that it can serve it’s mission better. A major one is Economy. UAE and Saudi to pressure France (Being one of the VEO powers along Russia, China) in changing their view regarding the illegal sanctions imposed on Eritrea and lift it as soon as possible during these Yemen campaigns/affairs or else we’ll miss the opportunity even with EU bring intel unit of the coalition and have say and U.S. will follow suit

  5. I will remain skeptical until it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But if it is in fact true that the colonial French military are stationed in Eritrea, it will be safe to conclude that our long struggle for being truly independent is officially OVER!!!
    The headache we’ve endured for the past decade or so was because we did not want want to be roped into the U.S. AFRICOM subjugation, why make an about face now and simply hand over our precious land to the highest bidders. For that matter, why even fight for independence from foreign armies in the first place?!?
    I believe Eritrea made a huge tactical mistake by allowing the corrupt gulf states to perch on our land while committing untold atrocities against our closest neighbors. As it appears presently, the Saudi’s are getting their collective behinds kicked in this war and sooner or later, they will be forced to concede defeat and retreat with their tails tucked between their legs, the Yemeni’s will not forget and the untrustworthy colonial armies will come up with all kinds of reason to remain on our land for good. What will be our option then, will we go complain to the UN, which is ran by these same corrupt forces?
    This better not be true!!!

    1. Eritrea is a sovereign nation that can do as it pleases and decide to engage or not engage with anyone it wishes at anytime for any reason.
      But you sound like you are from south of the international border (Tigray Kilil)

      1. Don’t accuse me of something I’m not, would be more than happy to exchange eri tax information to see which one of us is actually paid up.
        As to answer your question, Sovereignty does not equal freedom to allow any foreign power to come and park their military on your soil. Example:
        Most nations in Africa have now capitulated to NATO/AFRICOM DEMANDS that they “allow” them use their land for their military adventures. On the contrary how many military powers are allowed on sovereign American soil. And please don’t site Germany or Japan, for reasons that are too obvious to state.

      2. is that all what you have to say?AS YOU PLEASE go sell your ASS and do it alone and leave Eritreans out of that dirty game,OK.Eritreans are just saying enough is enough.Eritrean land is sacred and should not be leased or sold to any foe or friend.Leasing or selling our land to this people is same like committing genocide on the Kebessa people as far as the Kebessa people are concerned ,which is the majority.It seems Eritrea is heading where the Semharis(the leaders in Shaebia) want to which is very dangerous for the High-Lander-Kebessas whose existence is threatened by the encrochment of….peace for the Ethio/Eri people.

        1. What?!? Dude that is not what I’m saying at all. Miss me with that enough is enough talk, and please don’t confuse my intent, I am an ardent supporter of the government…just to clarify, I just do not want any thing to do with the west is all. Wherever they go, they leave behind them nothing but death and destruction. Whatever monetary gain we think we will gain will be paid back in blood, and I don’t want that.

        2. Satin, who is “WE” here? Stay out of the Eritrean kitchen as you have a lot to to worry in your little Ethiopia. How quickly you forgot the Arba Minch drone base and the secret CIA detention centers that your government leased to the U.S.?

          Eritrea as an independent and sovereign state, Eritrea have every right to align its foreign policy depending on situations and national interest. Unless you are a hater, the leasing out of the defunct Assab port and the airport et al for our all weather GCC states is, by far, the best decision the Eritrean government made. It was timely and its diplomatic, economic and security advantage to the country is enormous.

          Of course, like any kind of deal, these military based have its own cons. Even the Bisha mine deal with Nevsun have its own cons. But as long as the pros outweigh the cons, why are we complaining? Let our enemies and detractors do the crying and the whining. Because it was the least they have expected and frustrates all their foreign policy agenda against the country. They have been checkmated. Who can teach an old dog new tricks? Eritreans have over confidence on Shaebia.

          Now STOP pretending like Eritrean behind the computer screen as you are Ethiopian and we all know why this developments makes so agitated. Bye bye Satan.

          1. To “as we please” ever since this deal was inked with the Gulf nations, I have thought about it a great deal, and to be perfectly honest I’m not all the way on board, but in the end I still stand behind that decision, because the people of Eritrea chose the best option available to them at the time.

            But I must say, that I do object in the strongest terms with the idea of having any western nation coming into our land. Do I need to point out that france is a member of nato,and so is amerikkka and if the french military comes into our land that will mean that nato and africom will also come into our land and if history is any indication, amerikkka comes but it never leaves. I really think that this is a bad idea.

    2. True how could the GoE alwed such thing to happen from his land to neighboring country Yemeni and finally to Arab those who don’t even control there own security
      Did the Eritrean gov now the the American Hv 60000 soldiers at the prince Sultan Air base in saudi & 10’000 in Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar so what for they need Assab if so why he didn’t rent it from the beginning of the independent to the American or Russan did he thing by renting to the Saudi the really believe that the Saudi are using Assab if so my be they are wrong they don’t need broker from the beginning they just make it straight a head my be they are not going to wait until that from know 30 years so they don’t Care and before the leasing or rent or even sale did they as to the people or cabinet they only told as after they journalist ralize it after that like always even not in offical way just they told as a joke there is now time from when to when so please guys let as pray the we don’t get trouble at the end who knows may be its frother than the 30 years of time or what garintie did we have they leave by 30 years as we don’t see any document

      I hope the Yemeni war end fast becouse we may think that we are Earning money but the Yemeni people as suffering from the bomb that are going from out port

      The same thing was happening to as from the derg so we no the mistake but still doing that for money and if the GoE is thinking that by helping the Saudi or Qatar they will win the war in Yemen they must be calculated wrong and we hope to be end soon as possible even the rent of Assab as well .

  6. US pushes for new Yemen peace initiative
    US, UN and Gulf Arab states agree to offer Houthi rebels participation in unity government to end 18-month conflict.

    By Al Jazeera,

    US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a new initiative to restart Yemen peace talks, offering Houthi rebels participation in the country’s unity government in exchange for a transfer of their heavy weapons to a third party.

    Kerry said on Thursday that the “fair and sensible approach” to end the 18-month conflict was agreed in talks with Gulf Arab states and the United Nations in Saudi Arabia.

    “The bloodshed … has gone on for too long,” he said, speaking at a press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir in the Saudi city of Jeddah. “It has to stop … There is no military solution.”

    Kerry said that the restoration of stability to Yemen was vital in order to ease the suffering of the civilians and to prevent the armed groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group from taking further advantage of the power vacuum.
    “It is essential for Yemen, for countries in the region and for the world community in general to agree on a plan to end the fighting and achieve a lasting peace,” he said.

    Kerry said UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed would immediately begin series of consultations with Yemen’s warring sides to push for the renewed peace talks.

    “The final agreement … would include in the first phase a swift formation of a new national unity government, the withdrawal of forces from [the capital] Sanaa and other areas and the transfer of all heavy weapons including ballistic missiles, from the Houthis and forces aligned to them to a third party,” Kerry said.

    The conflict has killed at least 6,500 people, half of them civilians.

    A Saudi-led Arab military coalition started air strikes against Houthis in support of the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in March 2015.

    Yemen descended into chaos after the 2012 removal of long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose forces are now fighting alongside Houthi rebels.

    Security deteriorated further after the Houthis swept into Sanaa in September 2014 and pushed south, forcing Hadi’s government of to flee into exile.

    The government returned to Yemen after coalition air strikes started, turning Aden city into a makeshift capital.

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