Nov 13, 2009 | 19:42 GMT

5 mins read

Saudi Arabia, Yemen: Battling an Iranian Proxy

AFP/Getty Images
Clashes between the Saudi military and Yemeni al-Houthi rebels in the Saudi-Yemeni border region has forced the Saudi government to evacuate almost 250 villages and over 175,000 people. This is a proxy battle that shows signs of escalating in the days and weeks ahead, and Saudi Arabia has been increasing its use of military force in an effort to show Iran that it will not be able to use its Yemen-based rebel proxy without consequence.
Nearly 250 villages in Saudi Arabia have reportedly been evacuated and over 175,000 people displaced as a conflict between the Saudi military and Yemen's al-Houthi rebels has been raging in the border zone between the countries. The clashes have intensified over the past week, as Saudi Arabia has been conducting airstrikes and imposing a naval blockade off the Red Sea coast of northwestern Yemen, the stronghold of the Iranian-backed al-Houthi rebels. The conflict has spilled over from the northern Yemeni province of Saada into the southwestern Saudi province of Najran, home of the minority Shiite Ismaili sect, with which the al-Houthis likely have been collaborating as an Iranian proxy in their battle against the Yemeni government. The proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia has grown out of a long-standing internal conflict in Yemen between the al-Houthis (who belong to the minority Shiite Zaidi sect) and the Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia's evacuation of its southern border region, in the midst of an effort to battle militants operating on Saudi territory, indicates the severity of the conflict between Riyadh and the Iranian-backed al-Houthi rebels. While the battleground is far away from the Saudi Arabia's oil-producing regions and poses no immediate threat to its energy assets, it involves a regional foe and is occurring in the underbelly of the Saudi kingdom. (click image to enlarge) Saudi Arabia has been increasing its use of military force in an effort to show the Iranians that they will not be able to use their Yemen-based rebel proxy without consequence. But Saudi Arabia has severely limited experience in projecting military abroad, and therefore still faces a number of tactical challenges ahead in repelling the rebels, who have reportedly been seen taking up positions within Saudi territory such as the Mount Dukhan region in Jizan province. The Yemeni military is ill-equipped to deal with the rebellion on its own and has limited experience in combat, much less in pursuing insurgents in the country's mountainous terrain. Thus far, Saudi Arabia has limited its operations primarily to aerial bombardments and artillery fire against rebel positions, attempting to resist direct confrontation with the al-Houthis, though some sporadic firefights have occurred. A heavy reliance on air power against irregular forces in mountainous terrain will have extremely low chances of success. Unless a significant number of regular forces are deployed to confront the al-Houthis (a messy situation into which Iran is attempting to lure the Saudis), both Saudi Arabia and Yemen will have a difficult time trying to eradicate al-Houthi rebels from the border areas. Saudi Arabia also is very concerned about casualties, with one STRATFOR source claiming some 200 Saudi soldiers have been wounded. Thus far, Saudi Arabia has refrained from sending its more elite units of the Saudi National Guard to confront the rebels, not wanting to escalate the conflict to a national crisis. Saudi Arabia's current strategy is to attempt to create a seven-mile buffer zone on the Yemeni side of the border as it prepares to escalate aerial bombardments in the region. Allegedly, the United States is providing substantial intelligence assistance to the Yemeni and Saudi militaries in this proxy battle against Iran, but has not been directly involved in the bombing raids. The United States likely wishes to remain out of the spotlight in dealing with this conflict as it continues to struggle with ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Instead, the Americans have been playing an advisory role to Saudi and Yemeni forces and have provided satellite imagery of al-Houthi positions for targeting in the airstrikes. Iran is intending to use the al-Houthi rebellion to expand its sphere of influence on the Arabian Peninsula and give Saudi Arabia, its Arab neighbors and the United States a glimpse of Iran's retaliatory options should it be provoked by a potential military conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians have thus far supplied a large amount of munitions to the al-Houthis via Somalia and Eritrea, and are rumored to have helped send a number of Hezbollah fighters to raise the stakes in this conflict. However, Iran expected Riyadh to cave earlier under pressure and appeal to the Iranians to halt their support for the al-Houthis in the Saada Mountains. Iran hinted earlier in the week that it was open to a deal when it offered to improve the security situation in Yemen, but the Yemeni government quickly rebuffed the offer with Saudi Arabia's backing. Now that the Saudis have made clear that they are not backing down from this battle, Iran can be expected to respond in kind. STRATFOR sources report that Iran has instructed the al-Houthi rebels to regroup and prepare to escalate guerrilla attacks on the Saudi side of the border. It remains to be seen how effective Saudi Arabia's patrolling of the northern Yemeni coast and its buffer zone on the border will be in complicating Iran's attempts to replenish the al-Houthi arsenals, but this is a proxy battle that shows signs of escalating in the days and weeks ahead.

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