Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shiite rebel forces in Yemen, responding to distress calls from the U.S.-backed Yemeni president who was fleeing the country in the face of relentless advances by the rebels.
The intervention brings the risk that Yemen will become ground zero for a proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states against Iran, the region’s largest Shiite power, and signals a marked escalation of complexity in the evolving war gripping several nations across the Middle East.
Just as Saudi forces began bombing the Shiite rebels, U.S. fighter jets were providing support for Iran-backed Shiite fighters in Iraq’s war against the Sunni extremist Islamic State group.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States said his country “will do anything necessary” to protect the people of Yemen and “the legitimate government of Yemen.”
In announcing the airstrikes from Washington, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said the Houthi rebels “have always chosen the path of violence.” He said the action was taking place in coordination with 10 other nations, most of them apparently other Sunni-dominated Arab states.
In a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency, almost all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council said they would get involved on behalf of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who’d requested their help against the Shiite Houthis, whom the GCC called a foreign tool — a clear reference to the Shiite regime in Iran.
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The GCC will “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,” said the statement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain — the entire membership of the GCC except for Oman.
Egypt issued a similar statement late Wednesday and said it would provide naval and air forces, plus ground troops “if necessary.”
Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman at the National Security Council, said in a Wednesday night statement that the U.S. was involved, albeit without providing combat forces.
“President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations” in Yemen against the Houthis,” she said. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”
The U.S. military finds itself with no good options to quell the chaos in Yemen, with no American forces remaining on the ground and the departure of Mr. Hadi.
Analysts said the complete absence of a U.S. footprint in the Gulf country — the Embassy was evacuated in February and the last U.S. Special Forces were pulled out last week — suggests that the Obama administration recognizes that American military forces cannot make a difference in the swiftly evolving crisis.
The State Department confirmed Wednesday that Mr. Hadi, once hailed as a key U.S. ally in the fight against Yemen’s significant al Qaeda presence, fled the country by sea as the Houthi rebels and their allies advanced on the southern port city where he had taken refuge, captured his defense minister and seized the city’s airport.
“I don’t think the U.S. can deal with this, and I think the fact that we first pulled out the embassy then pulled out special operators and drone fliers and all those guys says we know we can’t,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University. “We assumed we were going to be able to make things different, but we clearly can’t. This is not our fight.”
Mr. Adams said the situation in Yemen is similar to the fight in Iraq, where American forces got in the middle of a civil war in an attempt to bring stability to the region.
“My view is that this is not pretty, the American options are thin,” he said.
The Obama administration, Mr. Adams said, has yet to learn that American military support, economic assistance and security aid cannot solve internal political struggles that have been ongoing for decades.
“I think it’s hubris. We haven’t learned the limits yet,” he said. “Each episode teaches us that there are limits on what we can do.”
Right now, the Houthis control much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden, The Associated Press reported.
The AP also reported Wednesday that Houthi forces in Lahj had captured Mr. Hadi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and occupied the nearby al-Annad base, which the U.S. military had left.
Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly $100,000 for Mr. Hadi’s capture.
The Houthis are allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and -trained military and security units remained loyal to Mr. Saleh, and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.
U.S. intelligence officials told The Los Angeles Times that in the rush to get out Yemeni security forces failed to properly dispose of secret intelligence files, which where looted by the rebels, exposing names of informants and plans for U.S.-backed counterterrorism operations.
The officials said they believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisers by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthis.
Despite the chaotic situation, the administration has continued to champion the strategy used in Yemen as a model for counterterrorism strategy.
“The White House does continue to believe that a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country,” White House press secretary Josh Ernest said.
The Shiite Houthis are no friends of the Sunni-based al Qaeda movement, but Mr. Adams warned that the intelligence the U.S. lost when it removed its assets and people on the ground will make it more difficult to target al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.