Saudi Warplanes Hammer Yemen as Rebels Near Complete Takeover
Riyadh is mounting a high-risk military operation against the Iranian-backed rebels who have seized much of Yemen -- and could one day threaten the security of the kingdom itself.
Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes into neighboring Yemen to try to blunt the advances of the Iranian-backed militia that holds sway over the country’s capital and is closing in on one of the last government-held cities. The questions Riyadh will have to answer in the days ahead are how far to push the fight — and how much risk it will be willing to accept as it fights a well-armed and well-trained enemy.
Saudi Arabia has been watching Yemen’s steady disintegration with mounting alarm for weeks, but a stunning sequence of events Wednesday finally spurred the kingdom to mount a high-stakes military push into its impoverished neighbor. Over the course of a tense 24 hours, Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, fled the country by boat as Houthi forces bombed targets near his hideout in Aden, the southern port city where he had taken refuge after fleeing the capital of Sanaa. Yemen’s foreign minister — a senior representative of a government that now exists in name alone — begged Arab nations to attack his own country. Late Wednesday night, Saudi Arabia heeded the call.
Speaking to reporters in Washington Wednesday night, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said the strikes were carried out with the support of other Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to protect the legitimate government of Yemen and “prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country.”
He said Riyadh is “extremely pleased and extremely appreciative” of the support received from the United States, but noted that Washington is not participating in military operations against the Houthis.
The ambassador defended Saudi Arabia’s actions against the Houthi rebels, saying that the “use of force is always the last resort.” He noted that the Iran-aligned group had seized some of Yemen’s military bases and weapons, including ballistic missiles. “This is a very dangerous situation,” he said.
He declined to name the Arab countries participating in the air campaign and would not provide operational details of the strikes.
Riyadh now has to decide whether the strikes should be designed to prevent the Houthi forces that have conquered most of Yemen from attempting to mount attacks inside the kingdom or to be part of a more expansive military campaign designed to dislodge or significantly degrade the Houthis in the hopes that Yemen’s battered central government can gradually reclaim control of the country. It is the first major challenge for Saudi Arabia’s new king, who sees enemies all around and no easy ways of defeating any of them.
“If I were in Saudi Arabia, I would be extremely concerned: They are seeing the Iran nuclear talks likely to conclude a deal that will contain a significant amount of enrichment, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the rise of [Shiite] militias in Iraq with an overt Iranian presence, and now the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have marched through Yemen and put the legitimate president on the run right on their doorstep,” said a senior Persian Gulf diplomat. “If you’re Saudi Arabia, you’re being surrounded.”
Speaking before the airstrikes started, a second diplomat from the region predicted that Saudi Arabia would mount at least a limited military intervention into Yemen to protect what is left of the shattered Western-backed government that has taken refuge in Aden, the scene of fierce fighting between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the government of President Hadi. By nightfall on March 25, reports from Aden said that Yemeni Air Force planes piloted by Houthi supporters had hit targets near Hadi’s compound. Houthi troops are also now massed near the city’s airport.
The second diplomat said Saudi Arabia would likely rely on airstrikes against Houthi ground units and command-and-control centers, which would be easy to find: Many are housed in military facilities that had previously belonged to the armed forces of the Hadi government. Yemen’s military has basically disintegrated, with large numbers of troops either abandoning their posts or joining forces with the Houthi rebels, so Saudi Arabia is likely to be effectively attacking bases and equipment that until recently were under the control of a close ally. Saudi ground operations, the diplomat said, would be unlikely to begin until Saudi airstrikes had weakened Houthi positions enough to allow a measure of safety for an invasion force.
Both trying to contain Yemen’s violence and intervening militarily to try to restore order carry clear risks for Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration, which has long cited Yemen as a counterterrorism success story. If Riyadh opts for a containment strategy, Yemen could fall even more deeply into a bloody civil war that would allow an Iranian-backed militia to take power while potentially giving al Qaeda’s affiliate there — already widely seen as the most dangerous terror group in the world — vast ungoverned spaces it could use to plan attacks against targets outside of the country. The Houthis have promised to combat the Sunni fighters of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but it’s not clear how seriously they would pursue that goal while they focus on firming up control over much of the country and forming a new government.
A military intervention carries other risks. Saudi Arabia has a sizeable military equipped with large quantities of advanced U.S.-made fighter jets and other armaments, but airstrikes against Houthi targets are unlikely to fully dislodge the group or even do much to degrade its military capabilities. Sending in Saudi ground forces would involve bloody ground combat that could effectively end in a stalemate, as was the case when Riyadh launched an anti-Houthi offensive in northern Yemen in 2009.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who now works at the Brookings Institution, noted that ground operations inside Yemen would be highly risky for the Saudi military, which could suffer significant military casualties.
“The Houthis bested the Saudis in several skirmishes a few years ago,” he said in an interview before the strikes began, referring to Riyadh’s 2009 offensive into Yemen. “The Saudi army could get bogged down in the mountains in the north…. The Saudi Air Force is a better alternative but that leaves Riyadh with no boots on the ground.”
Washington is facing a similar challenge. The United States has had Special Operations forces in Yemen since 2002 to train government forces and target AQAP, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris earlier this year and was behind at least three earlier and unsuccessful attempts to bring down U.S. civilian and cargo aircraft. But the withdrawal of the elite American forces last weekend, due to security concerns, threatens to significantly slow the fight against AQAP and leave the United States potentially more vulnerable to a strike. Washington has used drones to kill individual militants on the ground in Yemen, but Special Operations personnel concede that it will be extremely difficult to get accurate targeting information without any U.S. forces, or trusted Yemeni ones, on the ground to help. That means American drone operations in Yemen could become far less effective in the months ahead.
The battle inside Yemen is taking place against the backdrop of a long-running shadow war between Riyadh and Tehran for primacy in the region. Iran maintains close ties to the Houthis and is believed to be supplying them with weaponry and training — something Tehran steadfastly denies — while Saudi Arabia has long tried to prop up the Hadi government to prevent Tehran from further expanding its sphere of influence.
With U.S. and Iranian negotiators potentially just days away from what would be a landmark nuclear deal, many in both Saudi Arabia and its neighbors worry that the White House will tacitly accept Iran expanding its already significant political power in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment to Foreign Policy about Saudi Arabia’s strategic choice in Yemen, but the violence there sparked an unusually heated exchange between White House spokesman Josh Earnest and ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, who asked if the administration still considered Yemen to be a “model for counterterrorism strategy.”
Earnest said that the White House still felt that way, arguing that the administration’s view of a “successful counterterrorism strategy” was one that involved having a foreign country’s own military take on the militants within their borders while Washington provided training, equipment, surveillance, or airstrikes.
Earnest’s comments prompted this response from the ABC reporter: “You know, that’s astounding. You’re saying that you still see Yemen as the model? I mean, the central — building up the central government, a central government which is now collapsed; a president who has apparently fled the country. You know, Saudi troops massing on one border; the Iranians, you know, supporting the rebels. You consider this — this as a model for counterterrorism?”
On Tuesday, Hadi, the Yemeni leader whom the United States saw as a valuable partner, sent a long note to the U.N. Security Council pleading for it to help “safeguard Yemen from sliding into more chaos and destruction” and noting that he had asked the GCC and the Arab League to immediately provide “all means necessary, including military intervention to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing Houthi aggression.”
The GCC will be holding an emergency session Thursday to discuss the new strikes in Yemen.
Hadi, meanwhile, appears to have given up, at least for the short term. After his reported fleeing of Aden by boat, the White House said it had no word on his current whereabouts.