Much of the problem for Yemen, apart from the ongoing anti-government insurgency by radical Islamist groups, centers around the open warfare now being undertaken against the Yemen and Saudi governments by Houthi militia, which had been fighting the Government since 2004.
President Saleh said on Nov. 7, that the escalating war with the Houthi had, in fact, “only just begun” in the previous few days, because at that time the Saudi Armed Forces became actively engaged. Meanwhile, Yemen has been working hard in recent weeks and months to acquire as much new military equipment as possible and had, as had the Saudi Government, struck large defense deals with the Government of Ukraine, particularly to provide armor and ordnance.
Fighting continued to escalate through mid-November, with Yemeni troops fighting Houthi militia in the Malahidh area near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi troops were reportedly using armor and artillery — including rocket artillery — against Houthi positions inside the Kingdom’s borders, as well as across the border.
By September 2009, at least 100,000 villagers were reported to have been forced to flee their homes because of fighting, and many were trapped in Sa’ada province, the main base of the Houthi Shabab al-Mu’mineen fighters. Yemen Government sources even at the end of August 2009 indicated that more than 5,000 people had already died in the ongoing war in Sa’ada Province, that 45,000 had been injured and more than 200,000 displaced and living in tents, eating charity food. That was before the major upsurge in the fighting in early November 2009.
This is the first major, independent war which Saudi forces have undertaken, essentially, since the fighting against South Yemeni forces in the mid-1960s, and even then the Saudi forces had strong British participation. That does not deny that Saudi forces have been entirely without operational experience in the subsequent four decades, and early Yemeni predictions that the August-November 2009 fighting would result in substantial Saudi losses to the Houthi have not been borne out.
Indeed, this is a war which Saudi Arabia cannot ignore, and is even more important than its campaign in recent decades against Iranian-backed Hizbullah forces in the Levant. Iran has made it clear that it is moving to support Shi’a groups on the Arabian Peninsula, and it was clear, too, that Tehran was instrumental in the declaration of the “Islamic Republic of Eastern Arabia” by Shi’a imams on May 15. That Shi’a belt inside Saudi Arabia runs along the Omani and Yemeni borders.
The war with the Houthi is part of the indirect war for survival which Saudi Arabia is playing with the Iranian leadership. Within this framework, although Russia has no wish to alienate the Saudi or Yemeni leaderships, Moscow cannot ignore its vital links with Iran, which has become a core component of its domination of both the Caucasus and the southward reach of Russian strategy. In many respects, Iran’s longstanding actions to dominate the Red Sea and Horn of Africa provide a “carrier wave” for Russian revival in the region and in the Indian Ocean.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen, too, have understood the significance of dominance of the vital Red Sea/Suez sea lane and its littorals. As a result, President Saleh has attempted to shape outcomes in Somalia, even to the point where, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they have attempted to reverse the independence of Somaliland, and force it back into its hapless 30 year union with Italian Somaliland.
The clarity of the geopolitical linkages from the Caucasus, through Iran, to “Eastern Arabia”, and across the narrow waters to the Horn of Africa mark this conflict as global in scope. It is not just about the dominance of oil and gas fields, but global sea lanes.