Yemen’s Houthi rebels are taking the war to Saudi Arabia, with the number of casualties from cross-border rocket attacks dramatically increasing this week. Houthi sources say this renewed assault on Saudi Arabia is, perforce, in retaliation for relentless Saudi air strikes on Yemen inflicting a huge toll on its civilians.
As the war escalates between the two Arabian Peninsula states, the signs are that the United States, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ally, is getting dragged deeper into a quagmire conflict. While that inimical direction is degrading Washington’s international standing and in particular its already battered reputation across the Middle East region, it is at the same time hugely rewarding for US weapons manufacturers.
This comes at a time when Russia’s standing and influence in the geopolitically vital region is growing apace, mainly from its successful military intervention to defeat terrorism and foreign-backed subversion in Syria.
Earlier this month, Washington signed off another $1.15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that includes Abrams tanks to replace fighting vehicles that have been destroyed over the past year during Yemen’s conflict. As the Washington Post noted, the deal is an indicator of the severe losses that Saudi Arabia is incurring in its war with Yemen.
Meanwhile, US Patriot defense interceptors deployed in Saudi Arabia are being challenged by what appears to be an uptick in ballistic missiles launched from Yemeni territory. Last week, the Patriot system reportedly intercepted two ballistic missiles fired at the city of Abha located some 200 kilometers deep inside Saudi territory. Only last year, the Pentagon released $5 billion worth of Patriots to the Saudis. It is reasonable to assume that it was American personnel who manned the interceptors to thwart the rocket attack on Abha last week.
A further indicator of deepening American military involvement in the conflict is a report that US air force refueling activity for Saudi warplanes flying sorties into Yemen has increased by over 60 per cent between February and August this year. The mid-air refueling is carried out with the giant KC-135 and KC-10 tanker planes.
As Saudi Arabia comes under harsh international criticism for its indiscriminate bombing of Yemen’s civilian centers, it is not lost on observers that it is the United States which is literally fueling this bombing campaign.
After UN-sponsored peace talks broke down this month in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia quickly stepped up its bombing raids across Yemen, resulting in dozens of deaths. Likewise, the Houthi rebels have launched cross-border artillery fire and ballistic missiles deep into Saudi territory in retaliation.
In the latest Houthi attack, seven civilians were reportedly killed when the Saudi border city of Najran was hit by artillery fire earlier this week. The US news outlet Voice of America reported that Houthi-inflicted Saudi casualties in the space of a few days had risen to 50. It was not clear how many of those casualties were Saudi military personnel.
On the Yemeni side, the death toll from Saudi air strikes has been much greater. Since the weekend, up to 20 people were killed after a Doctors Without Borders hospital was blasted in Hajjah. In neighboring Saada province, 10 children were reportedly killed when their school was destroyed by an air raid. Elsewhere, in the capital Sanaa, nine civilians, including women and children, were among the dead when a residential area was bombed from the air.
This is against a background of nearly 18 months of non-stop air strikes by the Saudi-led military coalition. Some 10,000 Yemenis have died since the Saudis began bombing its southern neighbor in March 2015 – which even before the conflict started was designated the poorest country in the Arab region.
It is unclear how many victims have died from air strikes, as there has been intense ground fighting between Houthi rebels, supported by army remnants of the old regime, against Saudi-backed mercenaries. But a fair estimate would be that half of the total death toll has resulted from US-fueled Saudi air strikes, and many of them civilians.
The Saudi coalition includes other Persian Gulf Arab states, as well as logistical and material support from the United States, Britain and France. When the Saudi coalition began bombing Yemen on March 25, 2015, it was claimed to be in support of the ousted government of President Mansour Hadi who was deposed by a Houthi-led uprising. Hadi remains in exile in Saudi Arabia despite more than a year of Saudi-led bombing on Yemen to restore him to power.
On the ground the conflict is complicated. The Houthis (also known as Ansarullah) are allied with remnants of the Yemeni armed forces, as well as other tribes who make up the self-declared Popular Committees. Opposed to this front are loyalist forces belonging to the deposed Hadi regime, supported by armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In addition, the Saudi-led coalition includes mercenaries from South America and jihadist brigades, which are believed to have been redeployed from Syria and Iraq. The latter include brigades from the proscribed terror groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, according to Yemeni military sources. American and British special forces are also reportedly on the ground, but their exact role is not clear.
As in Syria and Iraq, Washington claims to be fighting Islamic terror groups in Yemen. It is true that US drone strikes have killed several Islamist terror figures in Yemen over the past few years. Nevertheless, as in Syria and Iraq, the relationship remains murky and fraught with contradictions. Saudi-sponsored Islamist mercenaries are part of the war effort in Yemen to reinstall the Washington-backed Hadi regime.
The Saudi rulers claim that Yemen is being destabilized by Iran through its alleged support of the Houthi rebels. The rebels share a Shia Muslim affiliation with Iran, but there is no evidence that Tehran has surreptitiously stoked the conflict. Tehran denies any such involvement. The Saudi naval and air blockade on Yemen would make any outside support for the Houthis difficult anyway.
The Western media routinely describe the Houthis as «Iranian-backed». But again that designation seems more assertion than actual fact.
Although Washington and other Western governments gave the Saudis diplomatic support to launch the offensive on Yemen, nevertheless the Western states maintain a low-key position on Saudi claims about alleged Iranian interference in Yemen. So low-key in fact that it betrays a lack of credence in the allegations.
Occasionally, American media outlets have quietly questioned the Saudi claims about Iran in Yemen, implying that the US involvement in this war is imprudent. Other US media voices have also questioned the damage to American reputation from being associated with appalling Saudi violations, such as repeated air strikes on hospitals.
A more plausible reason why the Saudis embarked on their Yemen campaign was to try to derail the P5+1 international nuclear deal with Iran which was culminating around the time that Riyadh launched its offensive. Perhaps the Saudis were trying to spoil relations between Washington and Tehran. If so, they failed to scupper the P5+1 accord which was concluded in July 2015.
Nonetheless, since launching the war the Saudis appear now to have lost their way by wading further into a quagmire of its own making. A quagmire that is sapping the Saudi economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, and dragging the oil kingdom into international debt for the first time in decades.
Washington seems to be caught in an ineluctable contradiction too. It doesn’t seem to believe in the mantra about Iranian malfeasance in the Arabian Peninsula, nor does its erstwhile stooge in Yemen, Mansour Hadi, seem to be worth the trouble. He was a corrupt, divisive figure, whose restoration to power is a losing bet.
However, Washington is making billions of dollars from its Saudi client, by selling warplanes, warships, helicopter gunships, missiles, cluster bombs and Patriot missiles. Last year, the US sold $20 billions worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, according to the Washington Post. The more of this military capital that the Saudis use up in Yemen, the better for American military corporations.
The trouble is that the Yemenis are hitting back ever harder and taking the war into Saudi Arabia.
Najran city where Houthi artillery fire hit this week is already a hotbed of tribal discontent between a dominant Ismaili Shia population and the Saudi Wahhabi regime in Riyadh. As Saudi Arabia incurs more blowback from its Yemeni killing fields so too its own internal population will be provoked into anger at their rulers’ murderous misadventures south of the border.
The United States, so far at least, may be making a heap of money off the Saudi war on Yemen, but in doing so it is being dragged further into that war. If that self-reinforcing dynamic prevails, then the war could threaten the entire stability of Saudi Arabia’s monarchial regime.
The House of Saud regime has for more than 70 years served as a pillar in Washington’s Middle Eastern hegemony, along with the other petrodollar oil kingdoms and Israel. The Saudi pillar is in real danger of crumbling as it pursues paranoid fantasies – fueled by Washington’s blind, insatiable greed for corporate profits.