Yemeni Houthi rebels have adopted a two-pronged approach to trying to win their war. To promote talks, on Monday they freed 290 prisoners, including survivors of a Saudi air strike on a prison last month.
On Saturday, the Houthis announced they had overwhelmed Saudi forces based near the border with the kingdom, killing or wounding 500, taking 2,000 prisoners, and capturing and destroying US-made armoured vehicles.
If confirmed by Saudi or independent sources, last week’s battle could be a turning point in the 4½-year war.
A Houthi-owned television network broadcast video of the alleged attack. Some captives were in uniform, most in traditional Yemen dress and flip-flops, revealing they were mainly Yemeni irregulars recruited by the Saudis to fight the Houthis. A dozen Saudi officers and soldiers were said to have been captured.
The operation, apparently, took place in both Yemeni territory and the Saudi Najran region, which adjoins the Houthi heartland in Yemen’s northern Saada province.
Houthi military spokesman Gen Yahya al-Sari said the battle was part of a wider campaign. “In the first stage of the operation, 350sq km of enemy territory have been liberated and three brigades destroyed.” From images broadcast of Saudi fighters, it is clear they were no match for battle-hardened units of the Houthis’ 100,000-man army.
It is significant that the general referred to enemy territory. The three border provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Najran were formally ceded by Yemen to the Saudis only in 2000 after seizure by the Saudis in 1934, creating long-term Yemeni resentment.
If confirmed, this engagement – combined with the September 14th drone and cruise missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities, claimed by the Houthis but blamed by the Saudis and their allies on Iran – maintains the Houthis' military momentum while they press for a ceasefire.
On September 20th, the Houthis announced they had halted drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and demanded an end to Saudi air strikes on Houthi-held Yemen. If the Saudis did not comply, the Houthis warned of "dangerous consequences".
The Houthi initiative was welcomed by UN envoy Martin Griffiths, who hoped it would lead to a Yemen-wide truce and negotiations.
Riyadh countered with a proposal for a ceasefire in four of Yemen's 21 provinces. When the Houthis rejected the limited truce, the Saudis bombed the four provinces chosen for the ceasefire, killing 25 civilians.
The border operation claimed by the Houthis could be their response as well as an effort to prove they are capable of carrying out major offensives on their own. The Houthis resent claims from Saudi Arabia and the West that they are Iranian proxies and can operate only with a high level of Iranian support and weaponry, similar to that provided by the US, UK and France to the Saudi-led coalition.
The Houthis may have calculated that securing a major victory on the sensitive Yemeni-Saudi border could compel the Saudis to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire. Gulf tensions would ease if the Yemen war ends as the Saudis and their partners could no longer argue they are engaged in a proxy war with Iran.