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Steering the Battle Towards Saada | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A rally of armed Houthi followers in Yemen. (Reuters)

Saada is the Yemeni governorate south of Saudi Arabia and home to the Iran-affiliated Houthi and Ansar Allah’s militias.

It is not an exaggeration to assume that through those militias, Iran wants to establish a presence on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders which poses a serious threat not only to the kingdom, but also to any authority that rules Sana’a.

Iran’s allies, the Houthis, fought five wars against the government forces during the presidential term of Ali Abdullah Saleh and they attacked Saudi Arabia in 2009. They undermined the UN-sponsored Yemeni agreement when their militias entered Sana’a and seized power in September 2014.

Saudi Arabia has two goals to achieve in Yemen: solidify legitimacy of its neighboring country given that stability and security in Yemen are vital, and protect its borders and territories from chaos, terrorism and smuggling.

The kingdom fears that Houthis are the Trojan Horse where Iranians hide to besiege Saudi Arabia.

Currently, they continue to attack the border and cities of Saudi Arabia. Had it not been for the kingdom’s advanced defense capabilities, missiles would have caused severe damage and panic in the southern cities and major ones like Jeddah, Mecca and Taif.

Now that over one third of Yemen’s territories have been liberated and are governed by legitimate forces under the Saudi-led coalition, Riyadh has good options. The first option is to continue with the war and fight hostile forces, as well as Saleh’s troops, Houthi militias and al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The second option is to settle with what has been achieved and resume military support of the legitimate government to strengthen its influence in areas under its control. The third option is to protect its territories and create a buffer zone, south of its borders, including Saada.

I believe that a full-scaled war may take a long time and is not necessary now that the legitimate government is in Aden, and especially since Sana’a no longer has any influence on the rest of the state.

The second option, completely giving up on the war, is not practical because parties like Iran and al-Qaeda will be empowered and legitimacy will weaken.

The third option of creating a buffer zone will unify all capabilities to attack the Houthis in their home.

If the campaign is a success, its results will serve Saudi Arabia and the rest of Yemen, because the Houthis are responsible for most of the crisis. By eliminating this rotten element from Yemen, stability will be achieved in the north and Saudi Arabia will be protected. After that, we can focus on Sana’a.

Houthis are a relatively small Yemeni component that does not exceed 3 percent of the country’s population and perhaps their supporters are double that due to their ideological, political and military activity.

We do not have reliable information about the number of their forces and deployment, but we know that they are a small armed and religiously extremist group that ideologically and politically follows Iran.

The Houthi threat can be better understood when compared to al-Qaeda, which it resembles a lot. The small number of Houthi followers does not make them any less dangerous In fact, they are committed ideologically and they glorify waging religious “jihad” according to their religious interpretations.

Therefore, without any siege imposed on Houthis, they will continue to pose a chronic and dangerous threat to everyone. It is possible to cooperate with Yemeni tribes in the north as they have always been Saudi Arabia’s allies and a source of stability there.

Houthis can be deterred in Saada, the headquarters of their tribal and military leadership, and then its militias in other conflict zones will be abolished.

When they retreat from Sana’a 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 situation as it is today suggests that Houthis and Saleh have failed miserably. Since the war began they failed to establish their own state and failed to prevent exiled legitimacy from returning to Yemen.

However, one cannot deny that even though they are militias, not armies, they are capable of engaging in further clashes. If Houthi power is crushed in their governorate, the rebellion might be completely extinguished.