Saudi Arabia ready to send ground forces into Yemen ‘if necessary’
ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia is ready to send ground forces into Yemen in a bid to counter Iranian-backed Houthi rebels if necessary, Riyadh’s military spokesman said on Thursday.
A Saudi-led coalition launched dozens of air strikes on Houthi positions around Sanaa early on Thursday and another on positions in the south-west city of Taez later in the day.
Houthi aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons were destroyed during the attacks in Sanaa. There were no coalition causalities reported despite the Houthis responding with anti-aircraft weapons. The strikes in Taez hit the rebel-held Al Tariq airbase.
The coalition of 10 countries consists of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco and Pakistan.
The military force is being used to force the Houthis into talks on power sharing, and is also a sign that Gulf Arab countries will no longer tolerate the spread of Tehran’s influence throughout the region, according to officials and analysts.
However, Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman said on Thursday that it had no immediate plans to launch ground operations in the country, despite Cairo officials saying Egyptian and Saudi Arabian troops would lead an offensive.
“The Houthis were clearly not interested in genuinely being engaged in a constructive dialogue”, said Nadwa Al Dawsari, a Yemen specialist at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “They continued to push across the country [and] think they were forcing the world to accept them as the de facto power in the country. I don’t think a political solution would have come without the air strikes.”
The intervention was likely intended in large part to push the Houthis back to the negotiating table in good faith, though observers doubt it will have this effect in the short term.
As well as having control over large swathes of Yemen and an alliance with sections of the military and security services, “[the Houthis] are very resilient, they fought 10 wars against the government [and] they believe in what they are doing,” said Ms Al Dawsari. “They are driven by the history of antagonism [with the Saudis] and also by ideology.”
Four Egyptian warships were en route to the Gulf of Aden on Thursday night.
The coalition also imposed a no-fly zone over Yemen and seaports were closed following a warning that ships should steer clear of the country.
At least 18 civilians were killed in the bombings in Sanaa and other sites around the capital. There were reports of chaos and fear as residents fled to safety.
“I’m leaving with my family – Sanaa is no longer safe,” said Mohammed, a Sanna resident. “My children were terrorised,” he said.
Schools were closed in Sanaa on Thursday and long lines formed at petrol stations. Thousands of Houthi supporters demonstrated in Sanaa and called on the group’s leaders to attack Saudi Arabia.
The Arab League, United States, United Kingdom, and Turkey voiced support for the Saudi-led military action.
Washington is also providing logistical and intelligence assistance to the coalition.
“Our nations have decided to respond to the request of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi of the Republic of Yemen to protect Yemen and its dear people from Houthi militias’ aggression, which was and is still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that did not stop tampering with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen,” said a GCC statement.
Meeting with other foreign ministers of the Arab League states in Sharm El Sheikh on Thursday, Egypt and Kuwait’s top diplomats said the strikes had been triggered by the Houthis preparing to attack Aden, where the internationally recognised president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi was based.
The Houthi offensive “obliged all of us to quickly respond and take the required measures to restore peace and security,” said Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khaled Al Sabah.
HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign Minister, led the UAE delegation that was participating in Thursday’s meeting.
A two-day Arab League summit starts in Sharm El Sheikh on Saturday where the bloc will discuss the creation of a joint military force. On Thursday, Egyptian state TV reported that Arab foreign ministers had agreed on a draft resolution to form the group.
Saudi state TV said Mr Hadi arrived in Riyadh on Thursday. He will be attending the Arab League summit on Saturday, according to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.
The Houthis took over Sanaa in January, placing the internationally recognised Mr Hadi under house arrest. He escaped in February, fleeing to the southern port city of Aden where he found support from local groups and called on regional allies to intervene against the Houthis.
Following Thursday’s air strikes, forces loyal to Mr Hadi regained control of Aden’s airport, which was taken over by Houthi fighters the day before.
Aden resident Abu Nasser Al Adari expressed his relief at the military intervention: “We express our thanks and appreciation for the support of our brothers ... even if has come a bit late,” he said.
Iran has described the intervention as “a dangerous step” that violated “international responsibilities and national sovereignty”. Syria called it “blatant aggression” in Yemen, while Iraq rejected the use of force in Yemen saying military intervention by Saudi Arabia and Arab allies would further complicate the situation in the region. Hizbollah also spoke out against the bombing.
Tehran is believed to have provided the Houthis with limited support and training.
Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said that the coalition’s actions were a clear message to Iran that it must end its strategy of expanding its regional influence through Shiite proxy groups. The Houthis are Zaidi Shiites.
“This move sends a strong message this has come to an end and from now on it will be challenged,” said Mr Kahwaji.
Musatafa Alani, a senior adviser at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre, said that the Houthis’ approach on Mr Hadi’s base in Aden was a key trigger for the campaign.
“We are not saying Mr Hadi is an ideal person, we are saying Mr Hadi is the only person that enjoys legitimacy,” he said.
From the south, the embattled president is one of the few leaders in Yemen with enough ties to different groups to be a participant in peace talks with the Houthis and their ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president who still wields considerable influence throughout the country.
Ousted during Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Mr Saleh is thought to be helping instigate the unrest as revenge for his removal.
Fahad Nazer, an analyst at Virginia-based consultancy JTG Inc and a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington, said that the Saudi-led actions in Yemen was likely a watershed moment for the Middle East.
“The Saudis have long preferred quiet, behind the scenes diplomacy, but it’s clear that Yemen and Iran’s support of the Houthis has become a defining moment for them.”
* with reporting from Hakim Almasmari, Taimur Khan, Agence France-Presse, WAM, Associated Press, Reuters