Saudi Arabia Bombs Yemen With U.S. Support, As An International Coalition Forms Against Yemen's Houthi Rebels

In a move heralding the rapid escalation of long-simmering regional tensions, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against Yemen Thursday, in a bid to halt Houthi rebel aggressions against President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi’s stronghold in the south of the country. The attack, carried out with the “logistical and intelligence support” of the United States, comes as the Houthis advanced towards Hadi’s provisional seat of government in Aden. Other countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Sudan, are ready to commit troops to the fight against the Shiite rebels, the Guardian reports. The Houthis and their reported backer Iran have responded threateningly to the international intervention.

Saudi-based Al Arabiya reports that the “Operation: Decisive Storm” air campaign has so far entailed the deployment of 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers, and sundry navy units. The strikes, according to Washington Post, have so far targeted strategic areas of the Yemeni capital Sana’a — such as the airport, Dulaimi military airbase, rebel strongholds, and the presidential palace — as well as Houthi hotspots across the unstable country. “You can almost hear the ground underneath your feet shake,” a Sana’a resident, who had taken shelter in his basement, told the BBC. At least 13 civilians were killed by the strikes in Sana’a, the Lebanese Daily Star reports, although other sources have put the total at 17. Saudi Arabia said four warplanes had been destroyed.

A coalition of states, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Qatar and Bahrain are involved in the campaign, according to Al Arabiya. The White House announced that they had established a “joint planning cell” with the Saudi government to co-ordinate the airstrikes. Although the U.S. has confirmed that it will not take direct military action, the White House emphasizes that the strikes are a legitimate response to Houthi aggression and have siginificant international backing. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said:

The United States strongly condemns ongoing military actions taken by the Houthis against the elected government of Yemen…The international community has spoken clearly through the UN security council and in other fora that the violent takeover of Yemen by an armed faction is unacceptable and that a legitimate political transition — long sought by the Yemeni people — can be accomplished only through political negotiations and a consensus agreement among all of the parties. We strongly urge the Houthis to halt immediately their destabilizing military actions and return to negotiations as part of the political dialogue.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Hadi, who was forced to relocate his seat of government from Sana’a to Aden last September, recently asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention in aid of his government. A formal mandate has not yet been endorsed, but Meehan’s comments make clear that the U.S. at least believes the strikes are a justifiable course of action. Saudi’s U.S. Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said the ten country-strong coalition had formed “to protect and defend the legitimate government” of Hadi.

Regional Shia power Iran, whose government has reportedly been supporting the Shiite rebels, responded quickly to Saudi’s internationally condoned aggression. The Islamic Republic termed the move an “invasion” that represented a “dangerous step” destined to exacerbate the conflict, according to the Houston Chronicle. The country’s foreign minister Javad Zarif called for an immediate halt to the aggression. Syria has added its cry to the dissenting voices, with the state news agency calling the operation “blatant aggression,” Haaretz reports. The Israeli paper adds that Iran has given military and financial support to Syria’s embattled government led by President Bashar Al-Assad.

The Chronicle suggests that Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, had become a proxy battleground for sectarian tensions between the Gulf Sunni powers and Shiite-majority Iran. Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirate’s minister of state for foreign affairs, confirmed on Twitter that his country’s decision to join the coalition had been based on fears of Iranian dominance represented by the Houthi advance. He wrote:

The strategic change in the region to Iran’s benefit, whose banner was carried by the Houthis, cannot be ignored…The crisis in Yemen and the Houthi coup is another sign of the weakness of the Arab regional regime, and Decisive Storm is a new page of Arab cooperation to keep the region secure.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Houthis announced that they had responded to Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes by launching rockets across the northern border into the Arab kingdom, Financial Times reports. According to the Guardian, an anonymous Houthi leader told Al Jazeera that military offensives would force the region into a “wider war.” Saudi Arabia has not yet confirmed any damage from the Houthi rocket attacks. The Houthis previously said that Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula has joined the Sunni-led campaign against the rebels — an allegiance that complicates the picture.

The heightened conflict in the region made oil prices spike, as observers speculated that key oil routes might be compromised. Brent crude oil prices rose nearly six percent shortly after the Decisive Storm operation began. Reuters reports that the waters between Yemen and Djibouti are a “chokepoint” to global oil supplies, but that importers saw little immediate threat to shipments. Al Arabiya reports that Yemen has closed down its major seaports in response to the conflict.

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The exact whereabouts of President Hadi, who was rumoured to have fled Aden Wednesday and is due to attend an Arab summit in Egypt this weekend, remain unknown. U.S. state department spokesperson Jen Psika told reporters that “he is no longer at his residence,” but that she was unable to give further information. Yemeni security officials told the Associated Press that Hadi had left the country by sea Wednesday afternoon, on a boat from the port of Aden.

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Saudi representative Jubeir said his country’s actions were in response to calls for help from Hadi, and were the start of a "limited" operation intended to protect Yemen's people and government from a Houthi takeover. He said:

The [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries tried to facilitate a peaceful transition of government in Yemen but the Houthis have continuously undercut the process…Based on the appeal from President Hadi, and based on the kingdom’s responsibility to Yemen and its people, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with its allies within the GCC and outside the GCC, launched military operations in support of the people of Yemen and their legitimate government.

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