Saudis taking lead in battling Houthi rebels


One month after Saudi forces struck back after rebels carried crossed the border in a brief but deadly raid, Saudi jets, helicopters and artillery continued to attack Houthi positions along the Yemeni frontier early this week, according to Saudi press reports.

On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz stressed that the goal of the biggest Saudi military mobilisation since the 1990-91 Gulf War is protecting Saudi sovereignty, not encroaching on Yemen.

Saudi Arabia “will not allow anyone to gain a foothold on its land,” he said. But analysts say the kingdom’s goals are much broader, and they expect the fighting to continue for some time. The conflict has crystallised two deep Saudi concerns, they say.

Firstly, there are fears that regional rival Iran could gain a foothold on Riyadh’s southern flank. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have accused Tehran of backing the Houthis, but there is scant evidence to support such charges.

Secondly, the Houthi incursion exposed the ease with which anyone, including the Yemen-based Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), could sneak in to launch attacks against Saudi targets.

The Houthis, minority Zaidi Shias concentrated in Yemen’s northwest corner, have been fighting the government for five years and came under heavy pressure when President Ali Abdallah Saleh launched Operation Scorched Earth in August to finally crush them. The campaign pressed the Houthis up against the border where Saudi forces had been quietly assisting Saana with money and logistics.

But with Saana’s effort flagging, Riyadh took advantage of the November 3 incursion, in which Houthi fighters killed a Saudi border guard and occupied two small Saudi border villages, to jump into the fray.

Saudi forces loosed fighter-bombers, heavy artillery and special forces against Houthi positions along the border.

Shelling well into Yemen’s Saada province was a risky break in Riyadh’s insistence that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbours.

Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said Riyadh has probably taken the lead in battling the Houthis.

“Its probably true that the Saudis have taken the initiative with Yemeni support,” Karasik said. “From the Saudi point of view the existence of a Houthi ‘state’ with the support of Iran is intolerable. They are going to squeeze the Houthis, to shut them down,” he said.

“For Saudi Arabia it is an existential threat,” said a foreign analyst, explaining the huge Saudi mobilisation. The border incident was “not a big deal”, but for Riyadh it was the “last straw.”

The escalation reflects Riyadh’s dismay at the weakness of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime. Its focus on the Houthis has allowed other challenges, like AQAP and a secessionist movement in the south, to gain strength.


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