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Fighting In Yemen Escalates As Saudis Enter Fray

Saudi soldiers deploy in the southern Saudi province of Jizan on the border with Yemen on Nov. 8.
AFP/Getty Images
Saudi soldiers deploy in the southern Saudi province of Jizan on the border with Yemen on Nov. 8.

It seems the only time the rest of the world hears about Yemen is when a crisis spreads beyond the borders of this ancient land tucked into the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula.

These days, it is the Yemeni government's battle against Shiite rebels in the north, which has drawn in the Saudi military, in a rare use of its armed forces. The conflict escalated in part because of divisions within the Yemeni army.

Reporters are barred from the conflict zone in the northern Saada governorate, and the often-contradictory claims of success by the Yemeni government and the rebels have been impossible to verify.


The rebels, known as al-Houthis after their leader, say they have shot down three Yemeni fighter jets since October. Yemeni authorities say the planes suffered technical malfunctions and crashed.

Yemeni officials have claimed the battle was nearly won, only to be followed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh saying that the war "has just begun."

One thing is clear: The conflict has left tens of thousands newly homeless, on top of the estimated 150,000 displaced by the fighting since 2004.

Houthi Firepower

In the overcrowded Mazrak camp in northwest Yemen, displaced farmers and shepherds swap stories of the fighting that mix straightforward observation with superstition and Houthi mythology.


Abu Tareq, who fled his home near the Saudi border, says even the Saudi army, fighting to reclaim territory seized by the rebels on Mount Dokhan this month, was surprised by the Houthis' firepower.

"They have secret power, some kind of magic," he says. "I mean, those guys are very strong. God knows what they have. They scared even the Saudi soldiers."

The Saudis soon regrouped. They say they are now clearing a six-mile "buffer zone" inside Yemen — an unusual overt military operation by a foreign power that so far has aroused no official complaint from San'a, Yemen's capital.

Ahmed al-Kibsi, a political scientist at San'a University and a member of Yemen's ruling party, says the rebels are mainly a criminal gang. But some of them — members of the Zaydi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam — want to bring back the Zaydi Islamic government that ruled northern Yemen for nearly a millennium until it was overthrown in 1962.

Most troubling are suggestions that Shiite-led Iran is supporting the rebellion, Kibsi says, and there is only one reason Tehran would do that: "They'd like to upset Saudi Arabia. It is a Saudi-Iranian conflict in Yemen."

A Proxy War?

The theme of a proxy war has been taken up by international analysts and officials. In his column at, analyst Robert Haddick wrote that Saudi leaders "might fear the creation of a pro-Iranian Shiite enclave adjacent to the Red Sea shipping lane, similar to what Iran has achieved with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon."

Other commentators warn that Yemen has been so weakened by its various crises that it is becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida terrorists.

Ahmed Saif, director of the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in San'a, says periodic alarms about Iranian weapons reaching the rebels have so far not been backed up by evidence. He does believe financial aid, either from Iran or sympathetic Shiite groups, is getting through.

But to answer the question of where the Houthis are getting their arms, Saif says look no further than the divided and dispirited Yemeni army.

"They are buying the arms from the Yemeni army, from the local market. Because [of] the catastrophic situation of the traditional army here, and the lack of loyalty to the state, they don't have the momentum to fight," Saif says. "So, they simply just sell the ammunition and the arms."

A Yemeni official confirmed this account, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals against his family or career.

Finding A Solution

Echoing the U.S. State Department and others, Saif says there is no military solution to Yemen's northern conflict. But he adds that it will likely take Saudi pressure to bring the two sides back to the table.

"Actually, the one who has the final say is Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen," he says. "The war is not the answer. The war has further weakened the regime, has further disintegrated the state and made it [an] optimal situation for al-Qaida."

And it is not Yemen's only crisis. There is a struggle against separatists in the south, a potentially crippling water shortage, and a rising tide of refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia. Yemenis say they need help, not fear and condemnation, from the international community.

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