RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military offensive against rebels in neighboring Yemen — the first time its armed forces have gone into combat in almost 20 years — underscores Riyadh’s deep concern about Yemen’s crumbling internal stability, and the possibility that Iran will exploit the turmoil to spread its influence.
The Saudis’ sustained air-and-ground offensive against the rebels, known as Houthis, is also raising questions about Saudi objectives and how they will extricate their forces from what is a messy and volatile internal struggle in an increasingly dysfunctional state.
“It is hard to know what the Saudis intend to achieve in terms of specific military objectives,” Kristian Ulrichsen, Kuwait Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, wrote in an e-mail. They “would be well-advised” not to get involved in what “is rapidly becoming a failed state” in Yemen.
Yemen’s slide into ungovernability has raised alarms among counterterrorism officials everywhere because of the presence there of a potent Al Qaeda franchise. The fears are particularly acute in Saudi Arabia because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the group calls itself, is infiltrating operatives into the kingdom from Yemen.
In August, it came close to successfully assassinating deputy interior minister, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, when an AQAP member blew himself up next to the minister. Last month, two AQAP members shot and killed at a Saudi police checkpoint were later discovered to be wearing explosive belts. And last week, AQAP claimed responsibility for an ambush that left five Yemeni security officers dead.
The Saudis began their campaign Nov. 4 after Houthi fighters entered Saudi border villages and attacked a border patrol, killing one guard and wounding 11 others, according to the official Saudi account.
The Saudis, who last put their military into play during the 1990-91 U.S.-led effort to eject Iraq from Kuwait, said they acted to dislodge “infiltrators” from their sovereign territory.
Their quick and forceful response was a clear indication that they had lost patience with the Yemeni government’s inability to quell the Houthis’ five-year-old uprising, which was beginning to spill over the rugged, largely unmarked Yemen-Saudi border.
The Saudis officially contend that they have confined their offensive to Saudi territory. But an unidentified Saudi government advisor told news agencies that the Saudi air force was bombing Houthi rebel camps inside Yemen. The rebels, and diplomatic sources in Yemen, also said the camps had been hit from the air.
Also, last week, the Saudis let it be known that they have mounted a naval interdiction operation along the Yemeni coast to stop and search “suspicious” ships for arms intended for the rebels. No details about the extent of the naval effort were given.
It is not clear how intense the ground fighting still is, but Saudi assistant defense minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan, who denounced the Houthis for giving allegiance to “other countries,” told his troops Nov. 10 that the offensive would continue “until the Houthis retreat tens of kilometres [miles] inside their border," Agence France Presse reported.
Analysts say that Saudi Arabia also wants to signal Tehran that it will not tolerate Iranian interference in Yemen, which would open up a new front in the sectarian and regional rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia. Already, the two are competing for influence through local allies in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.
Iran’s support for the Houthis so far appears to be mainly financial and nongovernmental, coming from Shiite religious groups in Iran but also in Arab Gulf states, according to the Gulf States Newsletter. The Yemeni government said it recently seized an Iranian trawler allegedly transporting arms for the rebels, but it has not displayed the ship, its freight or crew to the press.
“The Iranian card is still murky because we have no real, independent, confirmed evidence” of Iranian government aid to the Houthi rebels, said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
Still, he added, “Iran is on the prowl, or being very aggressive, about areas where they compete with the Saudis” and “more and more there is a test of wills” between the two rivals.
Last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki denied that Iran is supporting the Houthis and, without naming it, warned Saudi Arabia to stay out of Yemen.
"The regional countries and especially the neighboring countries, we recommend seriously they not interfere in the internal issues of Yemen," Mottaki told a press conference. “Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows."
Saudi officials did not publicly respond. But Saudi newspaper columnists took up the cudgel.
“The Houthists have [been] transformed into a lowly puppet in the hands of the Iranian intelligence service,” Hussein Shobokshi wrote in the Saudi-owned daily Alsharq al Awsat. “Iran is extremely determined to give Saudi Arabia some headache and ‘preoccupy’ it with the small conflict that is growing on its southern border.”
The Houthis are not orthodox Shiites, but belong to the Zaidi sect, which is Shiite-influenced but also has similarities to Sunni Islam.
Rebel leaders deny their fight with the Yemeni government is sectarian — indeed President Ali Abdullah Saleh is also Zaidi. Rather, they say, they are protesting underdevelopment and government neglect in their area of northern Yemen, as well as cultural and religious discrimination from the state.
They dispute the Saudi version of how the current conflict began, claiming that they came under fire from the Saudis who were helping Yemeni government troops against the rebels.
According to the Gulf States Newsletter, the Saudi government has been supporting the
Yemen’s most recent push against the rebels, which started in August, with intelligence and about $1.2 million a month.