November 5, 2009 / 4:30 PM / 10 years ago

Q+A: Prospects for Saudi intervention in Yemen

(Reuters) - Saudi planes bombed Yemeni rebel targets Thursday after insurgents launched a cross-border raid that killed at least one Saudi security officer, officials said.

A Saudi government adviser said the air force had been in action since late Wednesday and had struck positions well inside Yemen. He said Saudi troops were moving toward the border.

However, a Yemeni defense official denied the Saudis had hit targets on Yemeni soil, while officials in Riyadh only confirmed air raids on a Saudi border area briefly seized by rebels.

Here are some questions and answers on how the conflict might unfold:

HOW LIKELY IS A SAUDI MILITARY INCURSION?

* Until now Saudi Arabia has denied charges by the Shi’ite rebels that its planes have bombed their positions in support of Yemeni troops. But Tuesday’s rebel raid across the border has provoked tough Saudi action to repel the intruders and could conceivably prompt Riyadh to intervene directly in the conflict.

* U.S.-equipped Saudi armed forces have far more resources than their Yemeni counterparts, but are relatively untested in guerrilla warfare. Sending troops across the border against battle-hardened mountain fighters would be fraught with risk for the world’s top oil exporter — and for the region.

HOW WOULD YEMEN REACT TO SAUDI INVOLVEMENT?

* Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s main ally, alongside the United States. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government relies heavily on Saudi financial aid. Sanaa has failed to quell the northern revolt despite launching Operation Scorched Earth in August.

* But direct Saudi military action would be unpopular with some Yemenis who resent their northern neighbor — sentiments that could be exploited by al Qaeda’s regional wing — and could inflame a conflict that has flared intermittently since 2004.

HOW WOULD THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN REACT?

* Yemen tops the worries of U.S. counter-terrorism officials who share the deep concern of Saudi Arabia about growing instability and militancy in its impoverished neighbor, and the benefits al Qaeda might reap from weakening state control.

* The United States might not endorse a Saudi incursion, but would be unlikely to object strongly if Yemen made clear that it welcomed Saudi military help against the rebels in the north. * Iran denies aiding the rebels, but sympathizes with them even though their brand of Shi’ism is different. Saudi military intervention could prompt a sharper response from Tehran.

WHY ARE SAUDIS SO HOSTILE TO THE REBELS? * Saudi Arabia is focused on securing its border against infiltration by Yemen-based al Qaeda militants, who include many Saudi members sworn to overthrow the monarchy in Riyadh. The protracted Shi’ite revolt in northern Yemen greatly complicates border security for the Saudi and Yemeni authorities.

* Saudi Arabia views the rebels as proxies for Shi’ite Iran, its chief regional rival, even though Riyadh itself has a record of backing various Zaydi tribes to gain influence in Yemen.

* The Saudis have ideological differences with the rebels, whose motives include asserting their Zaydi Shi’ite identity against what they see as the spread of Saudi-backed Salafi groups inspired by the kingdom’s Wahhabi version of Islam.

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