Saada, the Yemeni governorate that is adjacent to the south of Saudi Arabia, is home to the Houthis and Ansar Allah militias affiliated to Iran. We are not exaggerating when we say that Iran wants to be present on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders through them.
This presence poses serious threats not only to Saudi Arabia but also to any authority that rules Sanaa. The Houthis, who are Iran’s allies, fought five wars against the government forces during the presidential term of Ali Abdullah Saleh and attacked Saudi Arabia in 2009. It was them who undermined the Yemeni agreement which the UN sponsored when their militias entered Sanaa and seized power in September 2014.
Saudi Arabia has two goals to achieve in Yemen. The first one is to solidify legitimacy of its neighbor as stability and security in Yemen is vital. The second one is to protect its borders and territories from chaos, terrorism and smuggling.
Saudi Arabia fears that the Houthis resemble a Trojan Horse which the Iranians are hiding in to besiege Saudi Arabia. Their activities against the kingdom includes continuous attacks on the borders and shelling cities.
If it hadn’t been for Saudi Arabia’s advanced defense capabilities, missiles would have caused panic and serious damage in southern cities and other major cities like Jeddah, Mecca and Taif.
If it hadn’t been for Saudi Arabia’s advanced defense capabilities, missiles would have caused panic and serious damage in southern citiesAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Riyadh has several good options now that more than one third of Yemen has been liberated and is governed by legitimate forces under the Saudi-led coalition. The first option is for the war to go on, confront hostile forces in Yemen and fight Saleh’s troops, Houthi militias and al-Qaeda organization.
The second option is to settle with what has been achieved and resume its military support of the legitimate government to strengthen its influence in areas it controls. The third option is to protect its territories and create a buffer zone, south of its borders that include Saada.
I think the full-scale war may prolong. I also think it’s no longer necessary, with the presence of a legitimate government in Aden, especially that Sanaa no longer has any influence on the rest of the state. The second option of completely giving up on war is not practical because parties like Iran and al-Qaeda will be active and legitimacy will weaken.
The third option of cleansing north of Yemen and creating a buffer zone will unify all capabilities to attack the Houthis in their home. If the campaign succeeds, the results will serve Saudi Arabia and the rest of Yemen as most of the crisis is because of the Houthis. Removing this rotten tooth from Yemen will lead to stability in the north and protect Saudi Arabia. After that, we can pay attention to Sanaa.
The Houthis are a relatively small Yemeni component that does not exceed 3 percent of Yemen’s residents. Perhaps those who support them for ideological, political and military reasons is double that percentage. I do not have reliable information about their forces and extent of deployment but we know that they are a small armed and religiously extremist group that ideologically and politically follows Iran.
We can understand the Houthi threat more when we compare it to al-Qaeda, which resembles it a lot. The small number of Houthi followers does not mean they are only a little dangerous as they have ideological commitments based on glorifying the fighting ritual of “jihad” as per their interpretation of it.
Therefore, if we do not besiege them, the Houthis will continue to pose a chronic and dangerous threat to everyone. We can cooperate with Yemeni tribes in the north as they’ve always been allies of Saudi Arabia and a source of stability there.
Houthis can be deterred in Saada as it’s the headquarters of their tribal and military leadership. This will destroy Houthi militias in other conflict zones. When they withdraw from Sanaa as a result of the Saada war, it will be easier for parties to agree on a peaceful solution for whoever is left in the city.
The Houthis and Saleh have terribly failed. They have failed at establishing their own state ever since the war began and they have failed to prevent legitimacy from returning to Yemen from exile.
However, we acknowledge that even though they are militias, and not armies, they are capable of engaging in further confrontations and skirmishes. If the Houthis’ power is crushed in their governorate, the rebellion may be completely extinguished.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.