By John Beck
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US said on Wednesday that his country has started bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen, adding that it was necessary to stop the “legitimate government” of the country from falling.
On Thursday, however, Iranian state media described the airstrikes, dubbed “Storm of Resolve,” as an act of “US-backed aggression.”
The Saudi-owned TV channel al-Arabiya reported that the kingdom was providing 100 planes to the assault. Ten allied countries — including UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan — are contributing at least 85 more aircraft.A Saudi official also told Reuters that a “land offensive might be needed to restore order.” Following the strikes, close to an important Gulf shipping passage, the price of oil shot up 4 percent to nearly $59 a barrel.
The Saudi intervention in the Yemeni conflict came on the same day that the country’s beleaguered president fled the country while rebels reportedly advanced on his southern stronghold of Aden.
Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was reported to have left his presidential palace in the port city earlier today, while the Shia rebels, known as Houthis, launched airstrikes on the palace compound, placed a bounty on Hadi’s head, and arrested his defense minister.
Officials had claimed Hadi was in an operations room heading his forces’ response to the Houthi offensive, but the Associated Press reported today that he has now left the country by boat.
The Houthis have been pushing south since the beginning of the week, but the president’s dramatic flight appears to be the end of his attempt to cling to power.
Fighting had continued on at least five different fronts on Wednesday, but military officials cited by the AP said pro-Hadi troops and militia had “fragmented” in the face of the Houthi assault. The rebels also captured Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi in Lahij, around 20 miles from Aden, and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said on a television channel the group controls that they’d reach Aden in “few hours.” Another announcement on the channel that aired today offered nearly $100,000 for Hadi’s capture.
Houthi fighters said that they’d overran al-Annad airbase on Wednesday. The facility had been used by US and European troops advising Yemeni forces battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), although all foreign forces were recently evacuated. The rebels went on to launch three airstrikes on the presidential palace compound, although no casualties were reported.
Hadi’s flight increases the chances of Yemen descending into an all out armed conflict with regional repercussions. Neighboring Gulf states, including Sunni power Saudi Arabia, have been backing militias loyal to Hadi. According to the Associated Press, Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said the country’s first military operations in Yemen began at 7pm Eastern time with airstrikes against the rebels.
Al-Jubeir reportedly said the Saudis “will do anything necessary” to protect the Yemeni people and the country’s “legitimate government.”
The Houthis, meanwhile, are widely believed to be supported by Shia powerhouse Iran, although deny links with Tehran.
Hadi asked the United Nations Security Council to approve foreign military intervention in the country in a letter on Tuesday, saying he had also asked the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League for assistance. Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin also called for urgent military action on Wednesday, a request that the Arab League is set to discuss Thursday, according to a spokesman.
Related: Yemen: A Failed State. Watch the VICE News documentary.
Yemen’s political transition since autocrat President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2012 by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising had been widely seen as a rare success story. But the impoverished state has been increasingly troubled since the Houthis swept down from their northern homelands in September and overran the capital of Sanaa, virtually unopposed, before placing Hadi under house arrest in January. The president then fled to Aden, where he had been attempting to consolidate his forces and power. The avowedly anti-America and anti-Israeli Houthis are often accused of being used by Saleh to restore his power and influence in the country, and are allied with elements loyal to the onetime ruler.
Meanwhile, Houthi forces pushed south and west, clashing with Hadi-supporting tribesmen as well as AQAP forces. The rebel move south came after suicide attacks on two Houthi-affiliated mosques in Sanaa killed more than 130 people on Friday. Two days later, the Houthis took Yemen’s third city of Taez, a strategically important staging point on the route to Aden, and quickly began massing forces in there. It ramped up propaganda efforts too, and leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said on Sunday that supporters should mobilize for an assault against AQAP and Islamic State (IS) militants, who claimed responsibility for the mosque bombing. Senior Houthi figures have previously alleged that Hadi is allied with al Qaeda, although government forces have been battling the jihadists.
UN Adviser Jamal Benomar told an emergency Security Council meeting that Yemen was approaching the “edge of a civil war” and could degenerate into an “Iraq-Libya-Syria” scenario unless a diplomatic solution is found soon. The level of distrust and animosity between the two sides makes a deal seem far away, analysts say. Al-Houthi appeared to reject UN-brokered peace negotiations in a televised address on Sunday, saying that “dialogue cannot go on forever,” and dismissing it as a “charade.”
The Houthis look set to take significant territory in their move southwards. They will likely encounter major difficulties from a largely pro-Hadi population in the region, however, and are still facing opposition in areas already under their control, both in terms of protest and attacks by AQAP and other opponents. Demonstrations took place on Monday and Tuesday in Taez demanding the Houthis pull out, where the group’s fighters fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse the crowds, killing six and wounding dozens.
The Yemeni conflict is currently primarily between two political alliances, but there is danger that groups like IS and AQAP will emerge as a “third force.” AQAP briefly took control of a town in Lahj province over the weekend, but pulled out after executing around 20 government soldiers. The group also took advantage of chaos during the 2012 uprising to take control of territory in the south. AQAP is seen by the US and others as one of the most dangerous al Qaeda factions, and claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January.
The presence of IS in Yemen is still difficult to gauge. Some armed groups and clerics have declared their support for the group, but it is currently unclear what links fighters on the ground have with its leadership in Iraq and Syria.
Nevertheless, there are warning signs. The mosque attack was unprecedented in Yemen, a country where Sunni and Shia groups lived and sometimes prayed together. Targeting Shias en masse is similar to methods espoused by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the deceased leader of IS precursor organization Islamic State in Iraq — rather than al Qaeda. There are fears that this could herald an increase in sectarian dimensions to the crisis, something which could be further exacerbated by the influence of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
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By John Beck