Friday, March 12, 2010

Lessons from a Proxy War

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Last month's cease-fire between the Yemeni government and Shi'ite rebels hopefully spells an end to the largest military mobilization in the Arabian Peninsula since the 1991 Gulf War. To many observers, the fighting constituted no less than a regional front line between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The end, or at least the partial containment of the conflict, might spell some relief for the Yemeni government, which is concurrently battling Al-Qaida and an active secessionist movement. Although Sana'a has fought the rebels intermittently since 2004, the latest round was the bloodiest to date. The conflict intensified last summer when the Yemenis launched Operation Scorched Earth. Saudi Arabia actively entered the fray in early November after rebels seized a strategic mountaintop inside the kingdom, occupying a few villages and killing two Saudi soldiers. Working in coordination, the Yemeni army attacked the rebels from the south and the Saudis attacked from the north, in a classic pincer movement. The well-equipped Saudis used infantry and artillery as well as European-made Tornado and U.S.-made F-15 fighters, in their attempt to crush the rebellion deep inside Yemeni territory. They also enforced a partial naval blockade in Yemen's northwest corner to cut off any lines of future arms supplies to the Shi'ite rebels from Iran - the same route Yemeni smugglers use to transfer arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza.

Although Riyadh and Sana'a both barred journalists from the war zone, numerous reports indicated that the population suffered tremendously and that atrocities were committed by all sides. According to some reports, the death toll of Yemeni rebels and non-combatants was in the thousands; aid agencies claim that up to a quarter of a million people have fled their homes in North Yemen since the conflict started. The Saudis didn't hesitate to use overwhelming force. In one case, it was reported that Saudi jets attacked a few hundred rebels who refused to evacuate a border area: "They didn't respond, so we killed them all," said an assistant to the Saudi defense minister. The rebels, numbering around 7,000 fighters, have evolved from an ideological revivalist movement into more of an insurgency that employed guerrilla warfare in the region's mountainous areas. While the rebellion is focused on the government in Sana'a, the November incursion into Saudi Arabia was reportedly in response to the kingdom's alleged support for Yemeni forces. Indeed, it is not clear if the Saudis were able to attain their goal of a rebel-free zone extending 10 kilometers inside Yemeni territory. Despite their advantage in firepower, the Saudis lost more soldiers and military equipment than they anticipated (at least 133 dead at last count), and some 240 villages near the Yemeni border were evacuated. The rebels also claimed they shot down a few Yemeni MiG fighter aircraft and a Saudi Apache attack helicopter. (Read more...)