It is a conflict that has been going on for several years but one that receives little attention in our Western media: the war in Yemen. Since 2004 the Shiite Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shī‘ah Islam, are one of the most impoverished groups in Yemen and feel discriminated against by the government. Thousands of people have already been killed in the onslaught with tens of thousands more fleeing the conflict zone.
The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once described their uprising as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although it is especially the former that worries about the violence on its southern borders.
Out of precaution, Saudi Arabia built a wall along parts of the border but increasingly it has had to resort to military force to stop Zaidi fighters from entering the kingdom.
The conflict flared up again last July when in the Sa’dah province, nine foreigners were abducted by Zaidi rebels of which six are still missing. During the weeks thereafter, the Zaidis managed to gain ground until the government launched a major offensive on August 11 with air- and missile strikes against known Zaidi bases in the border area with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi kingdom got involved early November when a sentry was shot by rebels and border patrols were fired upon. On November 5, Saudi Arabia also launched airstrikes against Zaidi bases, claiming to target only rebels within its borders but actually involving itself in the Yemeni war.
Yemen can use the Saudi help. The government lacks both the funds and the public support to wage a violent campaign in the north and so far, it has been unable to break the deadlock.
It remains to be seen to what extent foreign countries, Saudi Arabia foremost among them but possibly the United States also, are willing to emerge themselves in the trenches to win this battle for Yemen. With the support of American intelligence and special forces, the war could easily be decided in Yemen’s favor but Washington risks upsetting Iran and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide which, considering the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not a welcome prospect right now.