Yemen president Abdallah Salah has carried out a sweeping purge of his army following its greatest defeat ever against the Iran-armed Houthi rebels in the northern Saada governate. Salah brought all military operations to a standstill to deal with the disastrous shambles in his army which led to its defeat.
He decided that hundreds of his top officers must go after the Yemeni air force mistakenly bombed government troops, killing and wounding large numbers. Many more fell victim to a mix-up among Yemeni units, who fought each other believing they were engaging the enemy.
The casualties were so heavy that Salah appealed to neighboring Saudi Arabia to send Medical Corps emergency teams across the border into North Yemen with field hospitals for treating the hundreds of injured.
This did not prevent Saudi King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and the director of the royal general intelligence Prince Muqrin Abdulaziz from reprimanding President Salah for halting the conflict.
The on-again, off-again war in mountainous northern Yemen, where five million Zaydi tribesmen, a quarter of Yemen’s population, led by Hussein al-Houthi, are concentrated, has evolved into the biggest Iranian-Saudi military struggle ever for control of the Gulf and Arabian regions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that Saudi rulers fear that the Houthi rebels will use the pause in fighting to recuperate and regroup with the help of reinforcements and fresh weapons from Iran, dropped on the Yemen coast by smugglers’ vessels.
The disastrous military setback suffered by its southern neighbor has grave repercussions for Saudi security. (See also DEBKA-Net-Weekly 355 of July 4: Iran within a Hand’s-Breadth of its First Base on Saudi Border).
Yemen’s inability to quell its insurgency has given an Iran-sponsored Shiite militia free rein to operate at will on the kingdom’s southern border.
The president faces real threat of a military coup
That is not all the Saudis have to worry about in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
Salah’s purge of the Yemeni army seriously exposed his presidency to domestic upheaval.
The first military officer he sacked was the commander of the Republican Guard, Gen. Ali Salah al Ahmar. This was supposedly the prelude to firing his cousin, the Yemeni army strongman, Gen. Ali Mohsein al Ahmar, who commands the 1st Mechanized Division which fought the Houthis in Saada,
But it did not work out. Neither was he able to oust the army’s powerful chief of staff.
Monday, Aug. 18, President Saleh led a meeting of his military and security chiefs, members of the National Defense Council, to pacify the troubled Saada region on the strength of the truce he ordered.
Calling on the Houthi rebels to stop carrying arms and abide by the constitution, the council reviewed plans for reconstruction in the region and promised to resume the development projects stalled by the violence.
On the quiet, however, Salah sent secret messengers to the Houthi leaders with an offer of common cause to oust the chief of staff and his faction in the armed forces.
Given Yemen’s situation athwart a major geo-strategic junction, this appeal is a gamble which might save Salah’s regime but could have unfortunate consequences for the United States, Saudi Arabia, the southern extremity of the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Up until now, the Yemen rebels were hand in glove with Tehran.
By throwing in his lot with them to ward of the threat of a military coup against his regime, the Yemeni president is practically inviting pro-Iranian elements to join his government and army.
It is not surprising that both the Americans and the Saudis both came down hard on Salah to make him pull back from this step.
To show he was on the level, he stepped up his campaign against al Qaeda elements in the country.
Friday, Aug. 16, the authorities in Sanaa said they had uncovered a new terrorist cell near the port city of Al-Mukallah in the Hadhramauth Province.
Monday, Aug. 19, they announced five terrorists had died in a shootout when police stormed a house in the town of Tarim in same province.
Later they reported that a prominent al Qaeda fugitive was among them.