On Wednesday Nov. 11, Saudi Arabia imposed a naval blockade on northern Yemen's Red Sea coast to keep Iranian ships from unloading arms for the Shiite Houthi rebels challenging Abdullah Salah's government in Sanaa. This step was the first in the transition of Yemen's civil war into a regional conflict pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran.
Riyadh is not working alone in this venture. DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources report exclusively, that last week, a flotilla of a dozen warships, missile ships and naval commando units of the GCC (The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) entered the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden.
The Kuwaiti Navy deployed:
2 MK V interceptor craft
3 FPB 57 fast attack craft
1 support ship
The United Arab Emirates sent:
2 missile boats
The Omani Navy sent:
The Qahir Al Amwaj , an Oman Qahir-class corvette
These craft have set up an outer defense ring for the Saudi naval ships tightening the naval blockade and securing the shores of Yemen against foreign infiltration and arms deliveries.
The Saudi naval forces are composed of all the warships available to the Saudi Western Fleet based at the Red Sea port of Jeddah. The fleet throwing the blockade around Yemen has been fortified by an Al Riyadh-class frigate armed with four Harpoon sea-to-sea missile launchers. Around 1,000 Saudi marines of the 3,000-strong force deployed in this region have been detached for this new mission.
Cutting off Iran's alliances?
Our military and Gulf sources report that the Saudi royal house and the White House are running this venture in close conjunction at the highest level. Military liaison is conducted between Prince Khaled bin Sultan, deputy defense minister managing the Saudi campaign in Yemen, the Saudi Navy commander, Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud, and US Adm. Scott Sanders, head of USS Task Force 151, which patrols the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea on anti-piracy and Iranian gunrunning duties.
Washington and Riyadh agreed on the need to dispatch naval strength to the Red Sea opposite Yemen last weekend upon receipt of intelligence that Iran does not mean to halt its arms shipments to the Yemeni rebels but to increase them.
(More about battlefield movements appear in HOT POINTS of Nov. 8)
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, Iran is running arms to Yemen by three routes: Sudan, Eritrea and direct consignments from Iran.
Tehran is using this heavy maritime traffic as the thin end of a wedge to open up the Red Sea to an expanded Iranian naval presence, which the Saudis are determined to thwart. They see Iranian vessels offloading arms on the west coast of Arabia – not just in Yemen but to the north too up along the Saudi coast as well.
Isaias Afewerki, ruler of Eritrea on the opposite Red Sea shore, is now the object of an intense bid to side with Washington and Riyadh in their effort to keep Iran out of this strategic water. Our Washington sources report they are offering him military aid in the region of hundreds of millions of dollars to close Eritrea's ports to Iranian patrol and arms ships and withdraw his support from the al-Shaban militia fighting next door to topple the government in Mogadishu.