Saudi Arabia’s Border War with the Houthis: An Interim Review

Saudi soldiers on watch at the border with Yemen in Jazan, Saudi Arabia (Archive photo: AP)

Saudi Arabia led a 2015 intervention in Yemen to prop up the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi after Houthi rebels forced him into exile. The Houthis responded by launching a war of attrition along the border. The 1,700-km long mountainous border makes it vulnerable to Houthi infiltrations and attacks on the Saudi provinces of Jizan, Asir, and Najran.

The Houthis are using three main tactics. The first is missiles and artillery attacks against military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of thousands of mortar shells and rockets have slammed into Saudi towns and villages along the front lines. According to Saudi officials, Najran city alone has been hit by over ten thousand rockets and artillery rounds since the war began.

The Houthi rebels use medium-range missiles to strike targets deep in Saudi territory, like Jizan city and port, Saudi airbases and civilian airports in Jizan, Asir, and Najran. Since 2017, the Houthis have extended the missile attacks to Taif, Jeddah, Mecca, and Riyadh.

Another tactic employed by the Houthis is drones attacks. Iran has transferred surveillance and suicide drones to its Yemeni proxies, who have been using them to conduct cross-border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia.

On May 23, 2019, the Arab Coalition’s spokesperson said that the Saudi Air Defense intercepted a drone carrying explosives that was launched by Houthis in an attempt to target Najran airport. The Houthi-run Al Masirah TV reported the group targeted a Patriot air defense system near the airport in the Saudi Arabian city of Najran.

On May 21, 2019, Masirah TV said that the Houthis launched a bomb-laden drone to hit what it described as an “arms depot” at the Najran airport.

On May 13, 2019, two oil-pumping stations for the East-West pipeline had been hit by explosive-laden drones. Masirah TV had cited a military official saying seven drones staged attacks on vital Saudi installations.

On May 1, 2019, the Arab Coalition confirmed it had launched airstrikes targeting the al-Dulaimi air base near Sanaa’s airport. The airstrikes targeted a drone maintenance site and another location in which Houthi experts and operators were located.

On April 3, 2019, the Arab Coalition intercepted two drones launched by the Houthi militias toward the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait. Five people were injured by debris and some houses were damaged as well, along with four vehicles.

On March 9, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Royal Air Defense Force shot down a Houthi drone that was targeting civilians in a residential area in the city of Abha, about 230 kilometers north of the border with Yemen. The fall of the fragments of the drone injured four Saudi nationals, including a woman, and a resident of Indian nationality. Six vehicles and a number of houses were damaged. After examining the debris of the destroyed drone, the coalition said that it showed characteristics and specifications of Iranian manufacturing.

The third tactic involves Infiltrations and cross-border “hit and run” raids. A part of this method of operation, Houthi militias have ambushed military convoys and overrun small border forts and have seized and demolished facilities belonging to the Saudi Border Guards. The group has posted numerous propaganda videos purporting to show their incursions into Saudi territory.

Border Reinforcement

The main challenge for Saudi Arabia is to secure the basic territorial integrity of the Kingdom. For this purpose, the country has reinforced its military presence along the border and uses its superior air power to collect intelligence and conduct airstrikes against Houthi forces.

In this regards, Saudi Arabia has deployed a newly created force to combat weapons and drug smuggling by infiltrators across the Kingdom’s mountainous southern border.

Al-Afwaj Regiment, which operates under the Ministry of Interior, acts as the primary support force for the Saudi Border Patrol in the regions of Najran, Jazan, and Asir, across the border with Yemen. The regiment is specifically trained in carrying out security missions in mountainous areas that include deep valleys and extremely rough terrain.

Gen. Fahad Saeed Al-Qahtani, Under Minister in charge of Al-Afwaj Force, said that the regiment is ready and capable of handling any situation they encounter. “We did not begin (our patrols) until all security personnel and officers were trained and fully qualified in patrolling the mountain areas with difficult terrain, which requires that they be skilled in the use of nature and the landscape and also be skilled in the process of surveying and monitoring and tracking violators in order that mountain gaps, valleys, the brush and grasslands not be utilized by them,” he said.

Since October 2010, Saudi Arabia is sealing the 1,700-km Yemeni border with a fence to prevent smuggling and infiltration. Initially, the Saudi-Yemen border barrier was focused on stopping vehicles, but later the focus shifted to fences to stop infiltrators coming across on foot. Saudi Arabia is also building a new road, parallel to the new fence, for frontier guards to help keep out militants. Deputy Commander of the Saudi border guards on the Saudi-Yemeni border Abdul-Aziz al-Sabhi said the security barrier was erected in stages, with early results revealing that the rates of smuggling and infiltration have been significantly reduced.

Meanwhile, thousands of residents have been evacuated from border towns across the southwest to create a buffer zone. This represents a continuation of tactics employed during the 2009-2010 border conflict when several hundred villages were evacuated and many demolished to prevent empty houses from becoming safe havens for infiltrators. In April 2015, the Saudi Border Guards reported that 96 additional villages were being assessed for demolition.

Training by US Special Forces

For years, the American military has sought to distance itself from the civil war in Yemen and the Pentagon claimed that American military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics, and general intelligence sharing.

In December 2017, a team of about a dozen Green Berets, the US Army’s Special Forces, arrived on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen. The team is training Saudi ground troops to secure their border.

The Saudis are also working closely with American intelligence analysts in Najran, a city in southern Saudi Arabia that has been repeatedly attacked with rockets, to help locate Houthi missile sites within Yemen. The Americans are working with surveillance planes that can gather electronic signals to track the Houthi weapons and their launch sites.

There is no indication that the American commandos have crossed into Yemen.

Summary

The cross-border attacks have significantly altered life in local Saudi cities and villages. According to Saudi authorities, more than five hundred civilians have been killed in the southwestern border areas since March 2015.

Saudi Arabia does not officially disclose military fatalities, but unofficial figures show that cross-border attacks by rebels have killed at least several hundred soldiers in Saudi Arabia since March 2015.

 

[Sources: Al Arabiya, Arab News, Reuters, The Washington Institute, The New York Times]