Confronting Goliath, a Yemeni David

Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in Yemen has not merely bogged down, writes Yahya al-Shami, Al Akhbar’s correspondent in northern Yemen: it has induced the ruling princes to pursue such questionable strategies as recruiting vast numbers of religious extremists into the armed forces. For decades, Saudi Arabia has supported armed religious extremists abroad while suppressing them at home; the long-term consequences of the Yemeni war may well shake the Kingdom.

For two years, Saudi Arabia has been trying with little success to take back a vast strip of its own territory, comprising dozens of military outposts and Saudi towns, lost to forces from Yemen after the Saudis intervened [in Yemen’s civil war in 2015]. But the various Saudi military strategies deployed against the Yemeni army and the ‘popular committees’ [‘Houthis’] have achieved little, while the Yemenis have stood their ground and indeed strengthened their presence in the southern mountains of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi sites under Yemeni control are of varying strategic importance, but they are widely used as launching pads for attacks on Saudi forces, and if the Yemenis make the political decision to advance deeper into the Kingdom, they would be important staging points.

In the province of Najran for example, Yemeni forces took complete control of the chain of mountains that ring the southern border with Yemen. The Saudi military presence at the time was small, while the Yemeni presence grew, even transforming captured military outposts and barracks into anti-aircraft positions to counteract the Saudis’ only true military advantage, its air power.

In the months that followed the Yemeni seizure of the Najran mountains, the Saudis launched numerous air attacks and sought to cut the Yemeni fighters inside the Kingdom off from their comrades in Yemeni territory. But all such attempts have so far failed, and Riyadh has never announced any serious military victories there, in a context where any successes would obviously be widely announced for political reasons.

With the collapse of the Saudi army’s first line of defense and the failure of its frontier guards, the Kingdom’s forces have been forced into fallback lines of defense, reinforcing its border control with a massive military apparatus, doubling the number of troops, calling up national guardsmen, and importing foreign fighters from other Gulf countries.

But the Saudis have also launched what they called the ‘Mujahidin Brigades.’ With the cooperation and support of religious figures, they opened recruitment centers for religiously-motivated Saudi civilians, calling on them to join the defense of the kingdom against the ‘peril of the Houthi apostates.’ Video recordings and documentation by the Houthis of captured prisoners of war show that increasingly their Saudi opponents belong to radical ‘takfiri’ trends, or are members of extremist groups that had been banned from the ranks of the Saudi Army.

Their repeated failures also drove Saudi leaders to turn for manpower to the southern provinces of Yemen itself, where they recruited thousands of men, whom they brought north to wage their battles in place of their own army and border guards. Jihadi enlistment centers were opened in the Saudi province of Sharurah to enroll thousands of young Yemeni men who traveled from Aden, Abyan, Dhalea and Lahj to fight under the banner of the ‘Saudi National Army,’ and for a monthly paycheck from the bulging treasury of the Saudi princes.

After pursuing these massive recruitment drives, the Saudis’ military hopes rose, restoring their ambition to push Yemeni fighters out of the Kingdom’s southern regions, and put the war firmly back onto exclusively Yemeni territory—bringing the fight to the border provinces of Yemn, Saada and Hajja. In what became known as the ‘War of the Crossings,’ they launched numerous military operations mainly targeting the official border crossing points.

Columns of troops backed by thousands of airstrikes were deployed to the crossing points at Haradh, at al-Tuwal near the Saudi city of Jizan, the al-Buqa and al-Khadra crossings near the city fo Najran, and in Aseer province to the ‘Ulab crossing near Dhahran.

Surprisingly, the Yemeni soldiers and the Houthi fighters were able to stand their ground, destroying hundreds of Saudi military vehicles and killing and wounding large numbers of the Saudi forces.

The most prominent battlefront has probably been the coastal area in North Yemen extending from the town of Midi to the town of Harad; here the Saudis were even able to deploy naval forces, in the form of barges and frigates, as well as heavily equipped Yemeni military brigades loyal to [pro-Saudi client] Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah party.

For naught. The Yemenis remain in control of numerous mountain tops overlooking Saudi towns and continue to hold wide swathes of Saudi territory, most importantly around Jabal Al-Dud in Jizan, but also the two Mountains of Shurfa and Al Makhruq in Najran plus a chain of heights overlooking the towns and villages of Dhahran Aseer area. Yemeni fighters’ control of these strategic heights has not however tempted them to fire on the civilians of the Saudi cities; they have so far reserved their bullets for the Saudi military.

To keep up the pressure in the face of the military successes of the Yemeni army and the Houthis, the Saudis have launched dozens of new combat operations on new fronts, most recently a coastal front on the southwest coast of Yemen. So far, however, the Yemenis have held their own, counterattacking against the Saudis in their new military bases, and inflicting mounting losses.

Yahya Al-Shami