Iran and Saudi Arabia drawn to Yemen
By Olivier Guitta
A new front on the war against radical Islam is on fire. While one immediately
thinks of Afghanistan or Iraq, the flashpoint now is Yemen, which has become a
haven for al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and has also
come under attack from Iran-backed Houthi rebels. A new element of this
equation is the entry of Saudi Arabia, pitting it against Iran.
The conflict between the central government of Yemen and the Zaidite - a
Shi'ite sect - Houthi rebels has been going on intermittently since 2004. Since
August, the intensity of the fighting has risen as a result of regional players
becoming involved behind the scenes.
While Yemen is supported by Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are backed by Iran, which
has been more aggressive in the past few
months in supporting and financing its allies. It has also mounted a campaign
to convert people to Shi'ism, targeting several tribes, especially in the
Yemen recently seized an Iranian ship transporting weapons to the Houthi
rebels. The Saudi daily, al-Watan, has reported that the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards Corps is training Houthi elements. The Saudi-owned al-Arabiya newspaper
also reported that a dozen Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon were killed during
battles in October. On October 16, the Kuwaiti al-Seyassah added that three
Hezbollah experts in explosives had also been killed and 19 more were taken
prisoner by the Yemeni army.
Houthi rebels recently accused Saudi Arabia of intercepting ships carrying
weapons destined for the rebellion and also of hosting the Yemeni army at a
Saudi base in the Jebel Dukhan area. Riyadh estimates that the Houthi forces
number between 4,000 and 5,000, including Iranians and Hezbollah elements.
On November 3, matters escalated violently and Saudi Arabia was left no choice
but to enter the conflict. On that day, Houthi rebels entered Saudi territory,
killing one border guard and injuring 11, and took control of some Saudi
territory. That was a red line that pushed the Saudi army into responding.
Saudi F15s and Tornado fighter jets went into action, bombarding Houthi
positions at the Saudi-Yemeni border for a few days. Saudi Arabia also massed
troops at the border with Yemen and dozens of border Saudi villages were
evacuated and declared military zones.
Riyadh later regained control of the area, Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin
Abdul-Aziz, the assistant minister for defense and aviation, said at the
weekend, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
While some Saudi officials say they do not intend to enter Yemeni territory, an
adviser to the Saudi government told al-Watan that this latest operation was
not just a one-time shot but would be much longer and may include a ground
incursion to clean up the rebels' camps.
According to the French Liberation, a column of tanks and motored infantry did
enter Yemeni territory to target rebel positions. Even after this heavy
fighting, Houthi rebels have succeeded in killing at least five Saudi soldiers
and allegedly have taken four more prisoners.
Saudi Arabia blames Iran for this proxy war, with a Saudi official accusing the
insurgents of working for Tehran and wanting to take their front to the Saudi
At the same time, Yemen is also fighting al-Qaeda in the east, in the province
of Hadramuth. Al-Qaeda has mounted daring operations, such as a brazen attack
on a convoy of high-ranking security officials that resulted in the death of
three of them on November 3. Several media reports evoke the probability of
complicity with al-Qaeda among members of the Yemeni army.
Yemen is under multiple assaults and the next few weeks are going to be crucial
if Iran and Saudi Arabia are to avoid being dragged further into this conflict.
A tiff over the upcoming hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia does
not help matters. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said Tehran would take
"appropriate measures" if Iranian pilgrims faced any restrictions during the
pilgrimage. This follows a warning from Saudi Arabia that pilgrims must not
stage protests at the hajj; Iran believes the event has spiritual as
well as political dimensions.
Olivier Guitta is an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies and a foreign affairs and counter-terrorism consultant based in
Europe. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html.