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Saudis suffer heavy losses in Yemen's other war

Yemeni soldiers and tribe members during clashes against Huthi Shiite rebels in Daher al-Himar in the province of Saada, north of Yemen. Al-Qaeda is coordinating with Yemen's Huthi rebels battling Yemen and Saudi government forces along the two countries' border.

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In Yemen, one war must end before another can really begin.

In order to free up forces to confront al-Qaeda operatives in the country, Yemeni troops and their Saudi allies have intensified the fight against Huthi rebels in the northern province of Saada.

The operation, dubbed "Blow to the Head," is being waged against a group that has fought Yemen's government since 2004, complaining of economic and religious marginalization. The Huthi are members of a Shia sect, known as Zaydism, and they once ruled in the north of the mostly Sunni country.

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The recent surge has not come without casualties. While Yemen remains mum about its losses, Saudi Arabia announced this weekend that 133 Saudi troops have been killed in the fighting. The figures took account of the bodies of 20 missing Saudi soldiers found late last week.

Prince Khaled bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister, also told reporters that Riyadh has "confirmed information" that al-Qaeda has been communicating and co-ordinating tactics with the Huthis. It is a charge that both Yemen and Saudi government officials have made several times in recent months, without substantiation.

The latest charge comes just days before a pivotal conference opens Wednesday in London. The two-day meeting is intended to focus world attention on what Yemen needs to effectively combat terrorist activities in its hinterland. Saudi Arabia launched its operations against the rebels in November after accusing them of killing a Saudi border guard and occupying two Saudi villages near the frontier.

It was to avoid such high losses - unheard of in Saudi Arabia where its army has seldom been tested in battle - that Riyadh sought a painless way to conduct its fighting.

The country's first action was carried out by Saudi warplanes that bombed several Huthi positions on both sides of the border. Since then, however, the Saudi infantry also has been thrust into battle, as the aerial assault proved ineffective.

"It was very embarrassing to have the Huthi occupying Saudi territory," said Abdel-Ghani Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst.

"Initially, they [the Saudis]entered the war thinking they would easily defeat the Huthi."

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Unable to win from the air, and leery about taking too many losses on the ground, the Saudi operation has increasingly relied on fighters from another Yemeni group, the Hashed tribe, to take the fight to the Huthi.

The Hashed, who hail from the north-central province of Amran, have long been rivals of the Huthi.

"The trouble is, these tribesmen have an incentive in continuing the fighting," Mr. Iryani said, noting that they make a great deal of money from fighting for the Saudis.

Sometimes, Mr. Iryani said, they come up with some ingenious schemes to prolong it.

"If they're given the mission of taking a particular mountain, for example, they'll call up the Huthi leaders and tell them: 'We're getting five million riyals to take the mountain. We'll split it with you if you withdraw tonight and let us take over.'" "After the tribesmen take charge, they hand it over to the Saudis," he said. "The next day, the Huthi return and defeat the Saudis and retake the mountain."

"It's been happening like this for weeks."

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Such tactics have brought on the increase in Saudi fatalities, it would seem.

"Saudi Arabia got sucked into the war because they wanted to take charge of the region and have more influence in Yemen as a whole," Mr. Iryani said.

Until the 1960s, Saudi Arabia dominated the region, even supporting the Zaydi imamate (leadership) of the Huthi, and supporting various other tribes as well. After the war that brought Yemeni republicans to power in the mid 1960s, however, Riyadh and Sanaa quarrelled over their mutual border, only settling their differences in 2000 with the signing of the Jeddah Treaty.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has sought to maintain its influence in the area - through financial incentives with the Yemeni leadership and through close relations with some of the tribes in the border areas, but not the Huthi.

The Huthi, whom some claim now are being supported by Iran, have distanced themselves from the once-supportive Saudi authorities, even though claims of Iranian sponsorship have never been fully substantiated.

A desire to curry favour with Islamist fringes that oppose the Shiites might also have been behind the Saudi intervention, says Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Hiltermann notes that last year's merging of the terrorist groups al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda in Yemen, as well as the group's relocation to Yemen, are worrying to Riyadh.

With good reason: In August, the group claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's top counterterrorism official.

However, says Mr. Hiltermann, "the capacity of Yemen-based al-Qaeda militants to carry out [such]attacks beyond the border … is unlikely to be reduced by Saudi Arabia's military intervention." Such an intervention will likely serve only to expand areas of instability where groups such as al-Qaeda can find safe haven, he said.

But it's hard for Riyadh to resist taking some kind of action.

"The Saudis see what's happening in Yemen [the push to end the fighting against the Huthi]and can't let the war end while Huthis are still occupying some of their territory," Mr. Iryani said.

"That's why the sense of urgency."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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