Saudi: White House confirms support for military effort, claiming international mandate to end ‘widespread instability and chaos’ that drove Yemeni president into exile
The US has confirmed its support for an extraordinary international military alliance that is emerging to counter Houthi rebel advances in Yemen.
As Saudi Arabia began pounding the rebels with airstrikes, countries from the Middle East to Pakistan were said to be prepared to commit troops for a ground assault.
The US was providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led forces attacking the rebels, the White House announced. Meanwhile the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel said the kingdom had lined up 150,000 soldiers in preparation for a ground offensive, with Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Sudan also ready to commit troops.
In a sign of the broadening scope of Barack Obama’s intervention across the region, officials in Washington said the US was establishing a “joint planning cell” with Saudi Arabia to co-ordinate the air strikes on the Houthi forces seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.
Al Arabiya also said planes from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain were taking part in the operation.
Unidentified warplanes had earlier launched air strikes on the main airport in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and its al-Dulaimi military airbase, residents said.
Saudi Arabia said Houthi-controlled air defences and four warplanes were destroyed. A Houthi-backed TV station said 17 civilians were killed.
Yemen shut its major seaports on Thursday in response to the operation, industry and local sources said.
Iran, which is widely believed to be backing the Houthis, demanded an immediate halt to the operation.
“The Saudi-led airstrikes should stop immediately and it is against Yemen’s sovereignty,” said Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, according to the Students News Agency. Earlier, Iran’s foreign ministry said the airstrikes were a “dangerous step” that would worsen the crisis in Yemen.
A widening Yemen conflict could pose risks for global oil supplies, and Brent crude oil prices shot up nearly 6% soon after the operation began.
Unlike recent attacks in Iraq and Syria, the US said none of its planes or troops were currently engaged in Yemen but insists the action is a legitimate response to the advances made by Houthi rebels.
The US also claims a degree of international backing for the strikes although no formal United Nations mandate has been sought.
Meehan continued: “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.”
Earlier, Washington sources said Saudi forces had acted in consultation with the White House in launching air strikes against Houthi rebels to try to dislodge their grip on the port city of Aden.
In a rare press conference, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters that a 10-country coalition had joined the military campaign in a bid “to protect and defend the legitimate government” of Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. He declined to give any information on Hadi’s whereabouts.
The Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen has been called “Decisive Storm”.
Officials also said the operation is intended to deter the strategic threat against the Gulf states posed by the Houthi advance and Iran’s growing strategic power, with Gulf cities coming in range of rebel missiles.
The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter that the “difficult decision” to join the operation was necessary in light of a strategic threat to the Gulf states posed by a growing missile threat as a result of the Houthi advance.
“The strategic change in the region to Iran’s benefit, whose banner was carried by the Houthis, cannot be ignored,” he said. “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.”
Jubeir said the Houthis “have always chosen the path of violence”. He declined to say whether the Saudi campaign involved assistance from US intelligence.
He said the Saudis “will do anything necessary” to protect the people of Yemen and “the legitimate government of Yemen.”
Jubeir said Saudi Arabia launched the attack “in response to [a] request from the legitimate Yemen government” and insisted it would be a limited operation “designed to protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis”.
“The [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries tried to facilitate a peaceful transition of government in Yemen but the Houthis have continuously undercut the process,” he said. “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,” he added.
In a statement published by the Saudi press agency, the countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain said they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen”. Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, was not a signatory to the statement.
Egypt also said it was providing political and military support for the anti-Houthi operation.
An unnamed Houthi leader told al-Jazeera that military operations would drag the region into a wider war.
Earlier, Houthi rebels seized al-Anad airbase, which lies between Taiz – Yemen’s third largest city, which fell under rebel control last week – and Hadi’s stronghold of Aden, in a renewed push for control of the country’s south. The advance set the stage for a confrontation between Iran, which backs the rebels also known as Ansar Allah, and regional powers eager to halt the broadening of the Islamic Republic’s regional influence.
Yemen’s descent into chaos also complicates American efforts to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadi group that has been repeatedly targeted by US drone strikes and is also seen as an enemy by the Houthis.
The rebels, members of the Zaydi offshoot of Shia Islam, seized control of the capital, Sana’a, last year and placed Hadi under house arrest. He fled to Aden this month.
Hadi’s whereabouts were the subject of conflicting reports on Wednesday. Yemeni security and port officials told Associated Press that he had left the country with his aides on a boat from the port of Aden. They would not disclose Hadi’s destination; he is scheduled to attend an Arab summit in Egypt at the weekend.
However, Yemen’s foreign minister and presidential sources told Reuters that the president remained in Aden. Another presidential aide told AFP that he had been rushed to a “secure location”.
The US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing: “We were in touch with him earlier today. He is no longer at his residence. I’m not in position to confirm any additional details from here about his location.”
Michael Lewis, professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law and a former navy fighter pilot who watches Yemen closely, said before the White House confirmed its involvement: “This is all about Sunni v Shia, Saudi v Iran. [The US] can’t be a disinterested observer. Nobody’s going to buy that. What we needed to do was pick a side.”