Deep in Yemen war, Saudi fight against Iran falters

MARIB, Yemen (Reuters) - At a hospital in the Yemeni city of Marib, demand for artificial limbs from victims of the country’s war is so high that prosthetics are made on site in a special workshop.

Pro-government soldiers stand at their position overlooking the Marib Dam near the the northern city of Marib, Yemen November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Owidha

A soldier with an artificial arm hitches up his robe to reveal a stump where his leg once was. He is angry that authorities have done little to help him since he was wounded.

“I was at the front and a mortar exploded near me. We fought well, but now I get no salary, no support from the government or anyone. They just left us,” said Hassan Meigan.

More than two years into a war that has already left 10,000 dead, regional power Saudi Arabia is struggling to pull together an effective local military force to defeat the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that has seized large parts of Yemen.

The dysfunction is a reminder to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that his campaign to counter arch-enemy Iran in the Middle East, including threats against Tehran’s ally Hezbollah, may be hard to implement.

During a rare visit to a large area of Yemeni territory controlled by the pro-Saudi government, journalists saw a patchwork of mutually suspicious army units, whose loyalty to disparate regions and commanders has hindered their war against Houthi fighters.

Some soldiers appeared to be hunkering down in their bases rather than joining the fight. Those who do fight say salaries go unpaid for months. The front lines have barely moved for months.

Saudi Arabia has sought to create a unified military force based in Marib, but these troops have failed to eject the Houthis from the nearby capital Sanaa, where the Saudis see the rebels as a threat to their national security.

With Saudi politics in turmoil after a wave of high-profile arrests and Iranian influence growing, Yemeni officers recognize the importance of an effective army but acknowledge that success still eludes them.

“Empowering the National Army and unifying all weapons and authority under it is our goal. This is what we’re trying to accomplish so we can end the war with a military victory,” Brigadier General Marzooq al-Seyadi, a top Yemeni commander, told Reuters.

“The difficulties until now in achieving this in the face of local and ideological factors have posed problems ... but with the aid of the Arab Coalition and the United States, which provides daily advice and support to our side, we will succeed.”

A coalition spokesman, Colonel Turki al-Malki, said in September that the mission was to back Yemen “whether it’s inside the country by supporting the Yemeni National Army or defending the borders and territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Sunni Saudi Arabia has led the mostly Gulf Arab coalition against the Shi’ite Houthis, since they seized the Yemeni capital and fanned out across the country.

But the Houthis’ rump state in Yemen’s Western highlands has weathered thousands of Saudi-led air strikes that have been aided by refueling and intelligence from the United States.

Denying they are a pawn of Iran, the Houthis say they are fighting to fend off a mercenary army in the thrall of the Gulf and the West.

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The group launched a missile toward Riyadh’s main airport on Saturday, which Saudi Arabia said was a declaration of war by Tehran.

But after years of fighting that have ravaged the deeply poor country with hunger and disease, even some of Saudi Arabia’s staunchest allies in Yemen say they are angry at being manipulated from abroad.

“We’re fighting as proxies ... (Western powers) can end the war in Yemen. They can pressure Iran and Saudi Arabia, solve their issues and their differences,” said Ali Abd-Rabbu al-Qadhi, a lawmaker and tribal leader from Marib.

“It’s Yemeni blood that’s being shed ... We’re one society with common roots and one religion, but the international conflict has brought us to where we are,” said al-Qadhi, who wore a holstered pistol over his traditional Yemeni sarong.


Despite the lack of progress on the battlefield, some soldiers on the dusty streets of Marib appeared eager to fight.

“Onward to Sanaa, God willing!” smiled Abdullah al-Sufi, 20, whose khaki fatigues hung loose on his gangly frame.

“We know there are foreign conspiracies on Yemeni soil, there are problems, there are setbacks. But we are fighting for our country and for our homes, that’s the important thing.”

As war started in March 2015, after Saudi Prince Mohammed sent in troops, Yemen’s most powerful units had already sided with Houthi militiamen to rain rockets and tank fire on Marib, which the fledgling new army and allied tribes repelled.

In the most ambitious military adventure in their history, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took part in that fight, but were stung by scores of combat deaths.

The Arab forces have largely pulled back to a support role in bases far from the front line.

Now units trained by Saudi Arabia fight in scattered theaters with little obvious coordination, loyal to different parties and local leaders in a society awash with guns and notorious for its fickle politics.

The kingdom supports brigades adhering to Sunni Islam’s puritanical Salafi school in Western Yemen, while also backing the Muslim Brotherhood around Marib and loyalists of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the south.

Additionally, the United Arab Emirates, - the other key Gulf power in the anti-Iran war effort in Yemen - has armed and trained formidable units across southern and eastern Yemen.

To add to the confusion, these fighters despise the Houthis as well as pro-Saudi units in northern Yemen.


Displayed on walls all over Marib, portraits of slain soldiers are captioned with poems praising them as “martyrs” and “lions.”

“My son is sixteen. He said ‘dad, give me a gun, I want to fight.’ He goes to the front now. No father is happy with this, but what can we do? This is a war, this is the situation we’re in,” said one Marib veteran.

Yemen’s government also appears to be living through difficult times.

President Hadi has been in Riyadh since being ejected from his country by the Houthis, and sources said his hosts have banned him from traveling for over a month, citing poor security in Yemen. Officials in his office denied the reports.

But the Saudi response this week to the Houthi ballistic missile - to close all ports, borders and airspace, the majority of which are nominally under Hadi’s control - appeared to deal an unprecedented rebuke to their ally.

Activist Khalid Baqlan expressed the fear of many young people and professionals that the errors of a weak government and foreign powers were hollowing out Yemeni society.

“What we’re seeing is not the building of real state institutions but the empowerment of groups with competing agendas who could fight in the future, benefiting no one,” said Baqlan, from the Saba Youth Council, a civil society group.

“There has to be a political solution, it’s the only way to save the country.”

Yemen's stalemated war:

Editing by Giles Elgood