Yemeni Rebels Lash Out at Saudis on Border
Yemen’s Houthi militias have no ability to confront the Saudi jets that pound them with deadly airstrikes. But on the ground, they are a much more formidable foe, exacting revenge in Saudi casualties with a string of border attacks.
The 870-mile-long frontier stretches from the craggy mountains in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea province of Jizan, where deadly fighting with the Houthis tested the mettle of Saudi troops in 2009, and through the sandy deserts and basalt hills in the province of Najran, farther inland, where most of the recent Houthi attacks concentrate.
These parts of Saudi Arabia were incorporated into the kingdom only after a war with Yemen in 1934, and, like many Yemenis, the Houthis—whose stronghold of Saada lies just an hour’s drive from the border—consider this territory an unjustly occupied part of their country.
At least eight Saudi troops were killed in several such incidents here since the U.S.-backed airstrikes began nearly a month ago, according to the kingdom’s government. The Saudis, by contrast, didn’t lose any pilots over Yemen after flying more than 2,500 air sorties with their Arab coalition partners.
The Houthis on Friday threatened to launch new attacks on Saudi Arabia if the bombing campaign, which Riyadh said destroyed much of Houthi weaponry, isn’t stopped immediately, reported Iran’s Fars news agency.
The border violence shows the risks that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies would have to face, should they decide to move beyond the air campaign and launch a ground incursion against the Houthis, who are allied with Iran and control much of Yemen.
The Houthis overthrew and briefly imprisoned Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in January. The next month, a Houthi revolutionary council declared itself Yemen’s new government, a move not recognized by the international community or by Saudi Arabia, which launched the airstrikes on Mr. Hadi’s request to restore him to power. In recent days, Houthi militant leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has accused the U.S. and Saudi Arabia of perpetuating a humanitarian disaster by interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs.
On a recent day, a Saudi mortar battery deployed near the border east of Najran fired volleys of 120mm shells into suspected Houthi positions across the sandy expanse.
“There is a guerrilla war. They are under pressure in Yemen and they try to relieve it by attacking the border,” said the colonel in charge of the unit. “These are high mountainous areas and the Houthis are able to hide in them.”
Saudi Arabia allowed a group of reporters into the border area only on a carefully scripted visit, and tightly limits the information on the conflict here. But a video allegedly recorded by a Saudi soldier on April 19—and posted online—showed intense close-quarters exchanges of automatic fire during a nighttime Houthi assault on a Saudi border post in Najran.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Aseeri, the spokesman for Riyadh’s coalition, described Houthi fighters as “suicidal” for attempting that attack. “They believe that their death on Saudi borders is a martyrdom that will send them to heaven,” he said. One Saudi soldier died and two were injured in that incident, the kingdom said.
The commander of Saudi land forces in Najran, Maj. Gen. Abdullah al-Shehri, dismissed the threat posed by the Houthis, saying that the Saudi borders haven’t been breached during the conflict. “The aggressors didn’t achieve anything of what they wanted, thanks be to God, due to the determination of our brothers in the armed forces.”
Still, the Saudis are massing forces along the frontier. At a staging area that serves as the Saudi military’s forward headquarters in Najran, dozens of battle tanks, and several dozen infantry fighting vehicles, artillery pieces and trucks were parked amid tents housing troops this past week.
King Salman also ordered the National Guard to join the campaign. Saudi commanders say they are deployed in a defensive posture, but are ready to move into Yemen upon the king’s orders.
“Reinforcements have arrived over the past few days. We are fully ready to deal with any situation,” Gen. Shehri said.
Closer to the border, his men, equipped with binoculars and infrared cameras, watched for Houthi movements from observation points atop Saudi mountaintops named Thabha and Thar—Arabic for “massacre” and “revenge.” Below, a stretch of rusty red pipes demarcated the contested frontier. The nearest inhabited Yemeni village was across the next mountain range, the soldiers said.
The Houthis follow the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam, and draw on the legacy of the Zaidi imams who ruled Yemen and parts of southern Saudi Arabia for more than 1,000 years, until the establishment of a Yemeni republic in 1962. In recent years, the Houthis forged increasingly close links with Saudi Arabia’s Shiite nemesis Iran, and with the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia launched last month’s air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen in part because of fears that the militia could replicate Hezbollah’s model there. Hezbollah wields extensive control over the Lebanese state while at the same time maintaining an independent military capability it can use for cross-border attacks against Israel.
Before the current conflict, the Houthis—at the time under attack by Yemeni government forces of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh,their current ally—already launched such a cross-border war on the Saudis.
In late 2009-early 2010, more than 130 Saudi troops were killed in these clashes, mostly in Jizan province. The kingdom later evacuated villages near the border to create a buffer zone, moving residents to government-built housing further inside the Saudi territory. The uninhabited, bombed-out remains of houses in that buffer zone still stand as a reminder of that conflict.
This time around, Saudi commanders say they are not letting the Houthis anywhere near the border in Jizan.
Speaking from a fortified outpost on a mountain peak right on the frontier, Maj. Gen. Marei al-Shahrani, the Saudi forces commander for Jizan, said that the Yemeni civilians have largely fled the villages in the valley below. As for the Houthis, he said he had an array of tools—from snipers positioned at the outpost to long-range howitzers further in the rear—to keep the militia at bay.
“When we discover any groups of Houthi and confirm that they are armed, we deal with them using fire according to range,” Gen. Shahrani said. “We don’t allow them to get close.”