Riyadh ups the ante by joining Yemen war

SANAA, Yemen, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia's entry into Yemen's war against northern Shiite rebels has dramatically increased the stakes in a smoldering powder keg of conflicts in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa region, a key oil artery.

Riyadh's Nov. 4 commitment of ground and air forces along the border with Yemen's Saada province, the storm center in the five-year-old conflict between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi tribesmen, opened another front in the ever-widening proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran.


According to Western security sources, Saudis intelligence is already involved in clandestine operations against the Tehran regime and its surrogates in Iraq, Lebanon and the unruly border regions of Iran itself in a bid to counter the Islamic republic's expansionist ambitions.

Riyadh's decision to launch military operations to support Saleh's poorly equipped and poorly led armed forces underlined how shaky Saleh's position has become as he grapples with an unprecedented array of threats.


The former general, who has been in power since 1978, is not only having to fight the dogged Zaidi tribesmen in the north, but faces an increasingly menacing secessionist movement in the largely socialist south and a resurgent al-Qaida in the north and east.

At the same time, Yemen's economy is steadily eroding as its modest oil reserves run out. Water shortages are sparking violence in rural areas, fueling unrest that is exploited by al-Qaida.

Yemen asserts that Iran is aiding the Houthi rebels. Sanaa claims it has seized caches of Iranian arms and arrested several Iranians aboard a boat carrying arms for the tribesmen.

Tehran denies any involvement. But the Saudi entry into the northern war may well provoke Tehran into coming to the aid of its co-religionists in Yemen in a more overt manner, or retaliating against the Saudis elsewhere, possibly in Lebanon.

That would likely ignite wider trouble in the region, including Somalia, across the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden from Yemen, where the Americans say al-Qaida is increasingly involved in fighting the Western-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

The region has also been the scene of reported clashes between Israel and covert operations by Iranian Revolutionary Guards shipping weapons to the Palestinian fundamentalists of Hamas in the Gaza Strip via Sudan and Egypt.


Saleh launched what he billed as his final offensive against the Houthis Aug. 11. He dubbed it Operation Scorched Earth, and so far it has failed to crush the tribesmen.

But it has created a growing humanitarian problem, with at least 250,000 people displaced by the military operations.

The Saudis say they launched their operations after Houthi rebels crossed the porous mountain border into the kingdom and killed a Saudi officer in a firefight in the Jebel al-Dukhan region.

Whether that was the case remains open to question. But as Saleh's forces proved incapable of overwhelming the tribesmen -- and indeed driving other tribes into the rebels' arms with brutal counterinsurgency tactics -- it was only a matter of time before the Saudis got involved militarily or see Saleh's regime collapse.

Riyadh apparently decided that it could no longer risk the Yemeni insurrection spilling over among the Saudi Shiite tribes, which have an affinity with the rebellious Zaidis, who ruled Yemen for 1,000 years through an imamate the was toppled in 1962.

The rebels claim that the Saudis are mounting airstrikes against their villages as well as their strongholds, and using phosphorous bombs against them.

According to some reports, the Saudis sent a mechanized infantry force with tanks into Yemen on Nov. 5 while Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s and British-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers bombed rebel positions near the border with the kingdom's Jizan province.


Saudi ground forces were reported to have thrust up to 8 miles inside Yemen by the weekend.

The Saudi deputy defense minister, Khaled bin Sultan, claimed Sunday that Saudi forces had taken the strategic Jebel al-Dukhan mountain where rebels had overrun a Yemeni army base in October.

Much now depends on how far the Saudis are prepared to go to prop up Saleh's shaky regime.

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