SANA'A // Saudi Arabia is toning down its assault on al Houthi rebels along its ill-defined mountainous border with Yemen, a government adviser said yesterday. The military involvement of Saudi Arabia against the rebels is seen by analysts as a warning to Iran to quit interfering in the region and to the Yemeni president to restore order in his country, which is troubled on many fronts.
The Saudi assault on the rebels could, however, prompt a regional sectarian conflict, analysts said. "The embroiling of the Saudis into this conflict is of grave consequence for it turns the fight from an insurgency or a civil war inside Yemen into a regional conflict that might involve Iran under the pretext it is a sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shias," said Abdulbari Taher, an independent political analyst.
The conflict, which has flared up sporadically since 2004, saw a significant escalation last week, when al Houthi fighters killed a Saudi border guard and wounded 11 others in a cross-border operation on Tuesday. The attack spurred the Saudis, having watched the Yemeni government's failure to quash the rebellion, into action. The Saudi government said its operation is purely defensive and meant to repel the infiltrators from the Saudi villages they had captured.
The rebels, however, have accused the Saudis of taking their fight into Yemen and they have repeatedly accused the Saudi army of backing Yemeni troops. They warned this month that they would hit back against Saudi Arabia after accusing it of allowing Yemeni forces to launch an attack on them from inside Saudi territory. "It might be in the interest of al Houthis to trap the Saudis into this conflict, turning it into a national war between Yemenis and Saudis," Mr Taher said.
"If the Saudi army enters Yemeni territories, then hell will break loose; no army regardless of its power would be able to quash the insurgents militarily. This might flare up other wars here and there across the region. "The Saudis are smart, but I do not know how they have been enticed into this swamp. It is in their interest to finish off their operations as soon as possible, taking into account that the south part of the kingdom is populated by majority Shia Muslims."
Mr Taher also said the Saudi offensive might revive old border hostilities. "These border areas where tribes are divided among the two sides of the borderline have been a sensitive issue of dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia for decades." The 60-year-old border dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia was supposed to have been settled by the border demarcation agreement signed in June 2000. There are concerns, according to Mr Taher, this violence across the border might revive memories of that long-aged dispute.
The Yemeni government has repeatedly accused the Houthis of being supported by parties in Shiite Iran, the main regional rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. Western diplomats say, however, that no hard evidence had been presented on Iran's involvement. Mohammed Ayesh, another independent analyst, said it would be foolish for Tehran not to exploit the rebels in its regional battles. "Despite the inability of the Yemeni government to present concrete evidence on Tehran support to the insurgents, it would be foolish for Iran not to exploit this conflict in its battles against the Arab countries allied to the US, mainly Saudi Arabia.
The presence of al Houthis in such a key position to the southern border of the Saudis makes the game interesting for Tehran," Mr Ayesh said. "This Saudi operation moves the theoretical discourse on regional meddling into practice. "It is no longer logical to argue that the conflict in Sa'ada is not a part of the regional forces rivalry which would complicate the situation further." Riyadh "has lived with instability on the border in Yemen for quite a while", said Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor and specialist in Gulf security issues. "The Saudis are sending a signal. My sense is that they have decided that this is part of the Iranian effort to increase their influence in the region."
The Saudi adviser said actual heavy shelling of the Jebel al-Dukhan area was finished. "There are now tactical units deployed there. We want to make sure they [the rebels] are neutralised." The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Saudi side has captured hundreds of rebels. "In the last 48 hours, there have been a lot of surrenders. We are counting in the hundreds the fighters who have given themselves up."
Although official statements from Riyadh insist that Saudi shelling has been strictly inside Saudi territory, rebel and other sources have said the attacks were aimed at rebel camps inside Yemen. Since the initial clashes, at least two more Saudi soldiers have been killed and four are missing, while al Houthi casualties are unknown. "They have sustained a serious amount of casualties," the government adviser said, citing Saudi military information.
Al Houthis say they have captured several Saudi soldiers, but have not provided firm evidence other than a video sent to media via e-mail yesterday, the authenticity of which is difficult to verify. The rebels also yesterday accused the Saudis of using phosphorus bombs. * With additional reporting by AFP email@example.com