It has been exactly three months since the Saudi military directly intervened in the conflict between Zaidi rebels and the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen’s mountainous northwest governorate of Saada. After two of its border guards were killed in early November by the rebels, known as Houthis (named after their erstwhile leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi) and claims made that they had crossed into Saudi territory, a massive aerial assault was unleashed the following day.
Employing U.S.-supplied weapons, infrared detection equipment, Apache helicopters, and F-15 and Tornado jet fighters (quite possibly firing banned white phosphorus shells), Houthi positions were targeted in the rugged terrain of the border region and well into Yemen proper.
Despite their sophisticated weaponry, Saudi Arabia lost an unusually high number of soldiers; 133 at last count. Although an unknown number of Houthi fighters – and Yemeni civilians – were killed in the attacks, what is known is the great humanitarian toll the Saudi offensive exacted. Already a cauldron of human suffering, malnutrition and overflowing camps for the internally displaced as a result of five years of war, the fresh blitz only added to the misery of Saada.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has placed the number of displaced Yemenis since the conflict with the central government began in 2004 at 250,000. The Saudi government’s policy of forcibly returning those fleeing the fighting back into the war zone – a morally reprehensible practice as well as a violation of international law – was widely condemned.
Last week, the Houthis announced a unilateral ceasefire and declared their intention to voluntarily withdraw from any occupied Saudi territory. The current Houthi leader, Abdul Malek al-Houthi, stated, “If the Saudi regime maintains its aggression after this initiative, it would be showing that its intention is not to defend its territory, but to invade our borders.”
Just after the Houthi proposal was made, the Saudi government claimed it was they who had driven the rebels out from the border.
“They did not withdraw. They were forced out,” Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan hastily asserted.
In order for Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthi ceasefire, Sultan said the rebels must create a 10 km buffer zone between them and the border, agree to let Yemen’s military to take up positions along it, and return six captured Saudi soldiers. Belying the sincerity of the offer, Saudi Arabia continued aerial sorties over Saada while largely ignoring the Houthi calls for a truce.
President Saleh himself issued five conditions which he said the Houthis must accept in order for a ceasefire to be enforced. All five were accepted. He then added a sixth condition: they must agree not to attack Saudi Arabia (which was also accepted). Nevertheless, like their neighbor, Yemen has continued to attack Zaidi positions in north Yemen, killing at least two dozen several days ago.
What has been accomplished by the siege of Saada?
The more salient question is: what is the real message behind Saudi Arabia’s intervention?
Although it was purportedly to defend the “territorial integrity” of the Kingdom, even supporters of the Royal Family concede it was really to stem perceived encroaching Iranian influence at its doorstep. Yet that too is a spurious argument.
To date, there has been no convincing evidence of any significant material support provided to the Houthi rebels by the Iranian government. Claims of such have been found to be no more credible than those issued by Yemen’s government that Abdul Malek al-Houthi had been killed (he appeared on video a few days later appearing quite healthy).
To understand the true motive behind the relentless bombardment, one only need return to the primary demand of the rebels: an end to the ever-increasing socioeconomic marginalization and religious discrimination of the Zaidi community in Yemen.
This war was not just to aid the fledging Saleh regime in combating an enemy far less threatening to its existence than al-Qaeda, but to send a clear message to Saudi Arabia’s own citizens who suffer the same systemic and institutionalized discrimination as do the Zaidis. Namely, Shia Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Sufi Muslims and any who dare challenge the authority of the House of al-Saud or the doctrines of the officially-sanctioned Wahabi school of thought.
The senseless war in Saada waged by the Saudi government was thus meant to send an unmistakable warning to any in the Kingdom who might espouse similar beliefs or demands as the Houthis: do so at your own peril.
One wonders whether those on the Saudi side who advocated or supported such reckless interventionism were aware of this equally important admonition: military force never succeeds in quieting the quest of people striving to achieve their basic rights, freedoms, and dignity.
How many more lives must needlessly be lost before this is finally recognized remains unknown.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.