“We are upset and saddened by the recent bombings by the Saudi army to harm the much loved Yemeni people. Saudi Arabia’s intervention does nothing but feed the useless bloodshed on its border with Yemen.”
– Mahdi Akef, Chairman of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, 9 November 2009.
“How can the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Islam [King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia] bring himself to permit the killing of innocent Muslims in the forbidden months?”
– Ali Larijani, Speaker of Iran’s Parliament, 15 November 2009 (Islam forbids waging war during four months in the lunar calendar, one of which is Dhu al-Qidah, coinciding with November of this year).
If there was any question about which country was interfering in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia provided the answer when its F-15 and Tornado fighter jets struck Zaidi rebel positions two weeks ago in the mountainous border region between the two countries, and beyond.
The Zaidi fighters, known as Houthis, have been engaged in an on-and-off struggle with Yemen’s government since 2004; a conflict which most recently flared again this August (for additional background, see “Saada Under Siege”).
The Saudi assault was allegedly in retaliation for the killing of a border guard by the rebels in early November. The Houthis however, charge Saudi Arabia with allowing Yemen’s army to launch attacks from Saudi territory and participating in cross-border raids themselves.
Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Indeed, the most traded accusation between the Houthis and the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been which third-party country is providing material support to the other. A longstanding – and as yet unsubstantiated – allegation made by both Yemen and Saudi Arabia is that Iran is bankrolling the Houthi insurgency, providing money, arms and training.
In reality, most of the weapons that have found their way into the northern governorate of Saada and into rebel hands have likely come from disaffected Yemeni soldiers (many of whom are Zaidi) ambivalent about fighting their countrymen, or from those who have simply abandoned their positions and fled.
In late October, Yemen purportedly seized an Iranian ship carrying arms to the Houthis and arrested five of its crewmen. Although vowing to make details of the subsequent investigation public, little has been heard of it since. The Iranian government denied any of its vessels were captured off Yemen’s waters, describing the entire incident as a “media fabrication.”
In a Nov. 11 Christian Science Monitor article entitled “Does Iran play role in Yemen conflict?” Joost Hilterman, deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group in Washington D.C., said, “There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it [and] it’s really a bit too far afield.” He went on to say, “The Iranians are just brilliant. [They play] no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit … ”
But who most assuredly does get credit for their meddling is Saudi Arabia.
Worried that the Houthis – in their quest to end political and socioeconomic discrimination of the Zaidi community as a result of an encroaching Wahabi and Al-Qaeda presence – may transform themselves into a Hezbollah-like group, the Saudis have resorted to using sophisticated weaponry against them and the impoverished people of north Yemen. These include jets, attack helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, and possibly ones more sinister.
There are now claims by the Houthis that the Saudi military has been firing white phosphorus shells into civilian areas. As reported by the AFP, an unnamed Saudi government advisor said they were merely flares (much like the Israelis said in the Gaza war).
In response, Amnesty International issued the following statement:
“Allegations that the Saudi Arabian air force dropped phosphorus bombs have been carried by news reports. It is unclear whether anyone was killed in the bombing and, if so, whether they included civilians, but some 300 families are reported to have fled the area afterwards.
“Phosphorus bombs are highly incendiary weapons and pose grave risks to civilians. They should never be used in the vicinity of civilians.
“The day after the bombing raid, Amnesty International wrote to Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Crown Prince Sultan bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Al-Saud, asking whether phosphorus bombs were used and, if so, in what manner and what precautions were taken to ensure that civilians were not put at risk. As yet, the organization has received no response.”
The human toll
The Saudi attack on northern Yemen is the epitome of military adventurism and opportunism. It allows them to use – for the first time – advanced weapons purchased from the United States against an ill-equipped band of rebels in the midst of a destitute, malnourished, and displaced population. The humanitarian consequences of this reckless offensive are already evident.
UNICEF indicates that 240 villages on the Saudi Arabian side of the border have been evacuated and the civilian residents forced to settle in refugee camps. On the Yemeni side, the number of internally displaced persons has increased in a matter of weeks by 25,000, and now totals 175,000 since the conflict began. It is impossible to know the number of people killed due to a government-enforced media blackout.
Despite this, there are all the hallmarks of an impending disaster. Signad Kaag, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “During the past three months, children affected by the conflict in the north have seen all their basic rights violated. Lack of safe water, nutrition and hygiene is exerting a heavy toll on their health and well-being and threatening their very survival – a situation that will only get worse with the coming of winter.”
Saudi Arabia shows no sign of letting up. They have voiced their intent to create a “buffer zone” 10 km deep into Yemeni territory and have imposed a naval blockade on its north coast.
Shortly after the Saudi airstrikes, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly stated:
“It’s our view that there can be no long-term military solution to the conflict between the Yemeni government and the rebels.”
Yet, the U.S. signed a cooperation agreement on military intelligence and training with Saleh’s government last week, thus making them party to the conflict. This ironically puts them on the same side as elements of Al-Qaeda, employed by Saleh to fight the Houthis.
Although the Gulf monarchies and other Arab dictatorships have voiced support for Yemen and the “territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia,” the tone adopted by both Shia and Sunni Muslim groups in the Middle East, such as Iran’s Society of the Seminary Teachers of Qum and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has been one lamenting the hostilities and stressing the need for reconciliation (this is in stark contrast to the overtly hostile, anti-Iranian, anti-Shia vitriol of the Saudi religious establishment, which called on their government to strike the “deviant” Houthis “with an iron fist”).
Saudi Arabia’s irresponsible muscle-flexing only exacerbates regional and sectarian tensions, and puts a solution to the conflict further out of reach. It is clear the only solution to be had is a diplomatic one. The time for the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the U.N. Security Council to intercede before the conflict and its attendant humanitarian costs spiral out of hand is long overdue.
And if the Saudis are worried the Houthis have, or will, become another Hezbollah, they would be wise to remember what Hezbollah did to the Israeli army when they foolishly decided to attack, and leave Yemen alone.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.