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Analysis: What is behind Saudi offensive in Yemen

Fear of Iran is a key factor in Riyadh stepping up its military campaign against the Houthi rebels.

Saudi Prince Khaled Al Faisal (3rd R) visits the southern province of Jizan, near the border with Yemen Nov. 7, 2009. Riyadh reportedly launched air strikes on rebels in northern Yemen after the Shiite insurgents made a cross-border raid earlier in the week. But the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said Friday the strikes were "focused on infiltrators in Jabal Dukhan and other targets within the range of operations within Saudi territory." (Saudi Press Agency, via Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military offensive against rebels in neighboring Yemen — the first time its armed forces have gone into combat in almost 20 years — underscores Riyadh’s deep concern about Yemen’s crumbling internal stability, and the possibility that Iran will exploit the turmoil to spread its influence.

The Saudis’ sustained air-and-ground offensive against the rebels, known as Houthis, is also raising questions about Saudi objectives and how they will extricate their forces from what is a messy and volatile internal struggle in an increasingly dysfunctional state.

“It is hard to know what the Saudis intend to achieve in terms of specific military objectives,” Kristian Ulrichsen, Kuwait Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, wrote in an e-mail. They “would be well-advised” not to get involved in what “is rapidly becoming a failed state” in Yemen.

Yemen’s slide into ungovernability has raised alarms among counterterrorism officials everywhere because of the presence there of a potent Al Qaeda franchise. The fears are particularly acute in Saudi Arabia because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the group calls itself, is infiltrating operatives into the kingdom from Yemen.

In August, it came close to successfully assassinating deputy interior minister, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, when an AQAP member blew himself up next to the minister. Last month, two AQAP members shot and killed at a Saudi police checkpoint were later discovered to be wearing explosive belts. And last week, AQAP claimed responsibility for an ambush that left five Yemeni security officers dead.

The Saudis began their campaign Nov. 4 after Houthi fighters entered Saudi border villages and attacked a border patrol, killing one guard and wounding 11 others, according to the official Saudi account.

The Saudis, who last put their military into play during the 1990-91 U.S.-led effort to eject Iraq from Kuwait, said they acted to dislodge “infiltrators” from their sovereign territory.

Their quick and forceful response was a clear indication that they had lost patience with the Yemeni government’s inability to quell the Houthis’ five-year-old uprising, which was beginning to spill over the rugged, largely unmarked Yemen-Saudi border.

The Saudis officially contend that they have confined their offensive to Saudi territory. But an unidentified Saudi government advisor told news agencies that the Saudi air force was bombing Houthi rebel camps inside Yemen. The rebels, and diplomatic sources in Yemen, also said the camps had been hit from the air.

Also, last week, the Saudis let it be known that they have mounted a naval interdiction operation along the Yemeni coast to stop and search “suspicious” ships for arms intended for the rebels. No details about the extent of the naval effort were given.