The bad news for the Republic of Yemen was eclipsed by the drama of the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who studied at the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language, to blow up a flight coming in to land at Detroit on Christmas Day.
Away from the limelight, Saudi Arabia pulled its troops out of Yemen and withdrew its support from the Sanaa government's war against the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency and al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources disclose that Riyadh pulled the rug from under the beleaguered Yemeni president Abdullah Salah by signing a secret deal with rebel leader Abdul Malik al Houthi. It contains a guarantee that insurgents will no longer cross the Yemeni border into southern Saudi Arabia, strike at Saudi targets from Yemen, or stir up the Shiite, mostly Ismaili, populations of the Asir, Najran and Jizan provinces against the Saudi throne.
In return, the Saudis undertook to halt air strikes against Houthi forces and bases and pull their troops out of Yemen – along with the special units of Arab allies, mainly Morocco – lift the naval blockade on Yemeni shores against Iranian weapons shipments, and surrender Houthi prisoners, well and injured alike.
The Saudi-Houthi accord sheds unmerciful light on Riyadh's military venture:
1. The Saudi army was beaten and humiliated by a rebel force lacking either an air force or effective anti-aircraft weapons. The proud royal house in Riyadh was forced into flight by unsustainable losses that continued to rise. The official Saudi death toll was 73; the real figure, according to our sources, was 272.
To keep the general public ignorant of this inglorious defeat, King Abdullah announced triumphantly Saturday, Dec. 26, that Saudi armed forces had driven the last Yemeni infiltrators out of the kingdom.
He told Kuwait's Al-Seyassah Arabic daily that his instructions to Saudi forces were "clear:" Military operations would henceforth be confined to Saudi soil, driving infiltrators out and "preserving the kingdom's security and borders."
The monarch added with a straight face: "We are not a nation that interferes in other countries' affairs and do not accept other countries interfering in ours."
The public reads a different message: Iranian proxies are invincible
The announcement, say our intelligence sources, was dictated by the Saudi-Houthi accord. The Al-Seyassah interview was the agreed signal confirming that it had been finalized and implementation ordered forthwith.
And indeed, at the time of writing this (Thursday, December 31), the Saudi troop withdrawal from Yemen is winding down, air bombardments have been discontinued and the naval blockade lifted.
2. However, Saudi and other peoples of the region have drawn their own conclusion, that Iran and its proxies are invincible. After all, the impressive Saudi army, trained by elite Western military instructors and armed with the most advanced weapons systems in the world, was routed by a ragtag force of 15,000 poorly equipped guerrillas fighters, whose only edge came from resolve and Iranian sponsorship.
The Yemeni insurgents have become the third Iran-backed force in three years to go to war against a mightier Middle East army and cheat it of victory.
In 2006, Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, escaped destruction at the hands of the superior Israeli armed forces and their fine Western arsenal, although it must be said the Shiites' weapons were in a different class from the primitive arms wielded by the Yemeni insurgents.
A year ago, the Israeli army Operation Cast Lead stopped short of wiping out the Palestinian extremist Hamas in Gaza, which like the Hizballah fought with arms supplied by Syria and Iran.
Riyadh will suffer backlash
These episodes, taken in conjunction with the Yemeni insurgents' success against the Saudi military, cement the public view in the Middle East that irregular, paramilitary and terrorist militias, acting as Iranian surrogates, can best pro-Western regular armies in the region. Put another way, no pro-Western Middle East force is capable of prevailing over Iran's proxies.
3. The repercussions are still to come, but they may far-reaching for the stability of the region's regimes. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria all have large Shiite populations. The Saudi fiasco sent swift, strong vibes through their bazaars, which do not wait for government -suppressed television, press and Internet to tell them what's going on. While Riyadh sat hard on the media, inflated rumors of the Houthi victory spread like wildfire. This year, for the first time in years, the Saudi authorities issued a strict ban on Ashura processions in the Shiite towns of the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Provinces.
4. Riyadh's failed Yemen venture may touch off serious power shifts in the royal house – and eventually color the order of succession. No one is saying this out loud, but the unfortunate outcome was down to King Abdullah, who held the reins of his first military campaign, assigning the roles of general to Princes Khaled Bin Sultan, son of the crown prince Sultan, the defense minister, and Muhammad bin Nayef, deputy interior minister and son of Prince Nayef who is in line to succeed the ailing Sultan as crown prince.
Therefore, the octogenarian king's failure also casts a blight on the capabilities of the next generation of princes directly in line to succeed him. Both belong to the dominant Sudairi branch of the royal house.
Three wars in Yemen and one nightmare scenario
5. The implications of Riyadh's abrupt desertion of Yemen are also pretty dire for the United States with regard to its covert operations in that country, position in the southern Arabian Peninsula and the future of the Salah government.
Until now, the US trusted Saudi forces to pin the Houthi rebels down in northern Yemen and keep them away from the capital. Now, the Obama administration, blind-sided by this sudden Saudi move, must rethink its options in Yemen and decide whether to open a third front against al-Qaeda, in addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan. By taking itself out of the action in Yemen, Riyadh has dashed Washington's plans for the Saudi military to be part of the expanding US military and intelligence drive against al Qaeda in Yemen.
Left to its own devices, the US will need to earmark far more troops and cash than it originally projected for a Yemen campaign to be effective.
6. President Salah has learned from four months of intense combat that his army is not up to overcoming the Houthi insurgency, which has turned the tables and is annihilating units in its drive up to the outskirts of the capital, Sanaa. With his back to the wall, he must hold off two insurgencies – the Houthis in the north and the "Southern Engine" separatists around the port of Aden in the south – as well as al Qaeda.
Some observers believe that of the three, the southern rebellion poses the greatest threat to the regime.
As soon as the Yemeni army splits off to grapple with the northern Houthis, the southern separatists and al Qaeda will have a field day.
The worst-case scenario for the US is a pact between the Houthis, the Southern Engine and al Qaeda for a combined bid to topple the Salah regime. President Barack Obama would then face a quandary between dispatching tens of thousands of US troops to rescue the Sanaa government, or letting Salah sink and open the way for an independent al Qaeda-ruled state to rise in southern Yemen and Hadhramaut.