Saudi National Guard deploys attack helicopters as border situation deteriorates
The National Guard is a distinct unit aside from the regular Saudi Arabian military, notable for operating outside of the usual military chain of command and instead answering to the King directly. A successor to the Ikhwan, the military force that helped Ibn Saud found modern Saudi Arabia, the National Guard is still a largely tribal force with allegiance to the House of Saud, and as such intended as an internal security force as much as a military wing, being widely considered to be better equipped and trained than the regular Saudi Army.
Yemen has been in a state of civil war since 2015, and has been the target of a Saudi-led intervention to support the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi since the same year. While technically a multi-sided civil war, with the presence of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region, the main belligerents are the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels.
The Houthis are a primarily Shi’a political movement, with a level of support – though the exact extent is disputed – coming from Iran. Thus for Saudi Arabia, the Houthi threat is not only that of destabilisation and an unfriendly government on their southern border (Saudi security forces clashed with Houthi militants previously, in 2009), but also part of the broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is taking part throughout the region and wider Muslim world.
The international focus on the conflict has been primarily on the air campaign carried out by Saudi Arabia, in particular the indiscriminate air strikes and the humanitarian disaster they have helped precipitate. However understandable, this focus has obscured the ongoing border raids, attacks and incursions that have taken place on Saudi border by the Houthi militants – a neglect that has been cultivated by a Saudi Arabian regime that does not wish to appear to have lost control.
The Houthi rebels have concentrated their attacks in the form of cross border shellings, surface-to-surface missile strikes and border raids into Saudi Arabian territory. In particular, the city of Najran, with a population of over 250,000, has proven to be a regular target for short-range Houthi artillery, being situated as it is only 20km from the border. The area has seen widespread evacuation of Saudi civilians, especially in the more remote settlements.
Escalation, with risks
The deployment of a National Guard aviation wing suggests a significant escalation of Saudi Arabia’s forces in the south-west border area. Part of the problem in preventing Houthi attacks is the Saudi Army’s reliance on poorly trained and equipped Yemeni mercenaries to guard the border passes and preferring to fight incursions at range with air strikes. Deploying attack helicopters suggests a change in approach that may bear more success than the current strategy.
However, it also risks an escalation of the conflict in the region. Evacuation is unpopular with local tribes, and there are accusations that there have not been compensation payments for those moved. The reaction by Saudi security forces in Awamiyah to the low-level insurgency in Qatif show how heavy-handed the state can be with its reactions, and if the fighting were to spread, the natural inclination to heavily suppress it with the available military forces in the area could precipitate a wider crisis and further loss of control over the region.
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