A fight to the finish?

I haven't written about the Yemeni-Saudi-Houthi war for a while, mainly because it's so difficult to work out what is really going on. The Saudis, who became heavily involved early last month, continue to claim success after success against the rebels, though as the Washington Institute notes, "the fighting has not been going entirely well for the Saudi forces".

Saudi forces using tanks and helicopter gunships have been fighting for several days to regain the border post of al-Jabiri, which they earlier denied having lost to the rebels. 

The rebels claimed to have captured al-Jabiri on Wednesday, forcing 200 Saudi troops to flee, but a Saudi official quoted by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper at the time suggested this was impossible: "A Houthi cannot get close to the Saudi border without either being killed or surrendering," he said.

There was more confusion in Yemen yesterday over a series of air strikes on the village of Bani Maan (in the Razah district of Saada province) which according to the rebels killed at least 70 people and wounded more than 100. The rebels blamed Saudi warplanes, while Yemen's military said their own aircraft had carried out a number of raids in the area.

It is now exactly two months since President Salih announced that victory was at hand and it would all be over in a matter of days. Again, at the beginning of November, he reportedly ordered his commanders to "put an end to the battles with the Houthi insurgents within 10 days" – but they didn't.

Saudi involvement has raised the Yemeni government's hopes that victory can be achieved eventually, despite warnings from the US that the Houthi problem cannot be resolved militarily. 

At the weekend, Ali Muhammad al-Anisi, head of Yemen's national security agency said the government is determined to win the war. He also said that earlier attempts at mediation had only allowed the Houthis to build up their military strength and readiness.

Meanwhile, the US seems to be getting more involved militarily, though still at arm's length. The Saudi news channel, al-Arabiya, is due to broadcast a pre-recorded interview with General David Petraeus this evening and, according to the channel's website, he says that "US ships found in Yemeni waters are not only there for monitoring but for also for hindering the flow of arms to Houthi rebels".

The Saudi navy is already patrolling the Red Sea coast in an attempt to cut off arms supplies but, as far as I am aware, this is the first mention of the US Navy joining in. 

The Daily Telegraph reports that Oman – Yemen's eastern neighbour – is also stepping up its naval patrols "around the Arabian peninsula". The paper says the aim of the Omani operations is to prevent movement by al-Qaeda elements between Yemen and South Asia. Yemen's own naval capacity is minimal, so it appears that the Saudis, Americans and Omanis have got together to guard its coastline.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 December 2009.