A vicious little war has broken out in the Middle East, along Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen. It is rooted in a struggle for control over the strategically vital Arab country.
In the latest incident, Saudi warplanes are accused of killing at least 70 people in a mass bombing raid on villages said to be under the control of Shia Muslim rebels, known as Huthis.
The Huthi rebels claim that there have been 50 such raids since November.
In August, the Yemeni government launched a mass offensive against a five-year Shia rebellion. The Shia tribesmen retreated to the mountainous region along the border with Saudi Arabia – and in November Saudi troops were drawn into the fighting.
The first Saudi offensive in November ended in humiliation. Huthi rebels routed Saudi troops and captured large amounts of equipment and ammunition.
There have been several further attempts by Saudi forces to dislodge the rebels and the latest raids are part of this ongoing campaign.
This conflict is being framed as one between the Western-backed Yemeni government and its Saudi allies on one side and Shia rebels supported by Iran and trained by Hizbollah on the other.
This fits with a rhetoric that paints the region as being in the grip of wider sectarian conflict pitting Shia Muslims against Sunni Muslims.
But the rebellion is far more complicated. It marks an ironic turn in the fortunes of the Huthis and the shifting sands of Middle East alliances.
Yemen is made up of two major regions with different histories. What is now northern Yemen was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Following the collapse of the empire in 1918, the Shia royal family ruled northern Yemen from its capital in Sanaa.
The south, with its key port of Aden, had been ruled by the British Empire since 1839. This region is mainly Sunni Muslim.
In the 1950s and 1960s a popular rebellion inspired by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s revolution in Egypt swept both countries.
Rebels in Aden launched a war of liberation against the British, while an alliance of disaffected tribes and army officers plotted to depose the king in the north.
In 1962, a coup inspired by pro-Nasser officers overthrew the king. He found refuge in Saudi Arabia. Feted as a hero in the struggle against “communism”, the king launched an insurgency that was supported by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Shah’s Iran and the West.
The Israelis ran regular supply drops to the royalist forces and even offered to bomb the Arab nationalist forces under siege in Sanaa.
In response Nasser dispatched some 70,000 troops to help crush the royalist insurgency.
The plan ended in disaster. Nasser’s troops found the royalists’ mountain strongholds impossible to conquer and, following Egypt’s crushing defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, they eventually withdrew.
Western-backed forces now surrounded Sanaa. Although the fighting reached a stalemate, they forced the nationalist officers to flee.
But while the royalists were cementing their victory, nationalist rebels in the south finally drove out the British, declaring independence in 1967.
In 1969 south Yemen was declared a socialist republic. The two Yemens came to represent the intractable conflict between the West and the Arab revolutions.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the two countries united.
The new Yemen was hailed as a triumph for the West. The new government became a firm ally of the West and the port of Aden was transformed into a key US naval base.
The Shia tribes found themselves abandoned by their former allies. Isolated and out of favour, they began to demand more autonomy. Five years ago they erupted into rebellion.
Meanwhile the Yemeni authorities found themselves facing a second enemy. Popular discontent, fuelled by Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians and a failing economy, spilled out into the streets.
The discontent created fertile terrain for radical Sunni Muslim groups, said to be inspired by Al Qaida, to launch a series of well planned attacks on US forces, including the spectacular October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at anchor in the port of Aden.
The US began to fear that Yemen would be torn apart by both Shia and Sunni rebels. The country was declared as an “Al Qaida rear base” and the new battleground between the West and Iran. The West and its Arab allies poured in money and arms to shore up Yemen’s unpopular government.
There is another bitter twist to the conflict. Many Yemenis despise the Shia tribes for their role in destroying the Arab nationalist republic. Meanwhile many of the radical Sunni groups are deeply hostile to the Shias who they consider to be heretical.
The West is now fearful that the country is being pulled apart in a three-way conflict.
The US announced this month that it will be sending special forces to help the regime fight the Sunni rebels, while Saudi Arabia is stepping in to “deal” with the Shia rebels.
The recent aerial bombardment by Saudi warplanes is reminiscent of the raids by Egyptian forces in the 1960s.
Those raids proved ineffective in driving the rebels out of their mountain strongholds.
The Saudis could find themselves dragged into a similar conflict – this time with an enemy smarting at being betrayed, and well-honed in the art of guerrilla warfare.