The new major front on the war against radical Islam is on fire. While one would think of Afghanistan or Iraq, it would be very damageable not to study what is currently going on in Yemen. Indeed Yemen has become the new haven for Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq and has also been under the attack of Iran-backed Huthi rebels. The new element of this equation is the forced entry of Saudi Arabia in the conflict at hand. This means the beginning of the war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The conflict between the central government of Yemen and the zaidites ?a sect of Shiism- Huthi rebels has been going on and off since 2004. But since August the intensity of the fighting has decupled. The implication of foreign nations behind the scenes has made this new stage of the conflict even bloodier. While Yemen is supported by Saudi Arabia, the Huthis are backed by Iran. And Iran has been more aggressive in the past few months supporting and financing their allies, mounting also a campaign of conversion to Shiism targeting several tribes especially in the Hadramuth region. Further proof of Iran?s hands-on approach can be seen through the fact that Yemeni forces seized an Iranian ship transporting weapons to Huthi rebels. Also as reported by Al Watan, Iranian Revolutionary Guards are training Huthi elements and also as Al Arabiya reported a dozen of Hezbollah fighters were killed during battles in October. On Oct. 16 the Kuwaiti Al Seyassah added that three Hezbollah experts in explosives had also been killed and 19 more were made prisoners by the Yemeni Army.
The Huthi rebels recently accused Saudi Arabia of intercepting ships full of weapons destined to the rebellion and also of hosting the Yemeni Army in a Saudi base in the Jebel Dukhan area. Riyadh estimates between 4,000 and 5,000 the number of Huthi forces, including Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah elements, located at the border.
So on November 3, things escalated violently and Saudi Arabia was left no choice but to enter the conflict. Indeed on that day, Huthi rebels entered Saudi territory, killed one border guard, injured 11 and took control of some Saudi territory. That was the red line that pushed the Saudi army to respond heavily. Indeed Saudi F15s and Tornados fighter jets sprung into action and bombarded for a few days Huthi positions at the Saudi-Yemeni border. Saudi Arabia has massed units to its border with Yemen and dozens of border Saudi villages have been evacuated and declared military zone.
While some Saudi officials are saying that they do not intend to enter Yemeni territory, an adviser to the Saudi government told El Watan that this latest operation was not just a one-time shot but that it will be much longer and may include a ground incursion in order to clean up the rebels? camps?. And according to the French Libération, a column of tanks and motored infantry did enter Yemeni territory to target rebel positions. But even after this heavy fighting Huthi rebels have succeeded in killing at least 5 Saudi soldiers and allegedly taking four more prisoners.
Saudi Arabia is very much upset at Iran over Tehran?s proxy war and a Saudi official accused the insurgents to be working for Iran and to want to take the front to the Saudi border.
At the same time Yemen is also fighting Al Qaeda in the east in the province of Hadramuth. Al Qaeda has succeeded in mounting very 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 Nov. 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 for its future. But even more importantly it is the first front of a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Also, the recent inflammatory declarations of Iranian leaders regarding the upcoming Hajj in Mecca are not boding well for a possible thaw between the two regional powers.
Olivier Guitta is an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant based in Europe. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html