Airstrikes Deepen Iranian-Saudi Proxy War in Yemen

Saudi Arabia launches airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen to restore its recognized president.

 A Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado fighter jet takes off, May 13, 1992
A Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado fighter jet takes off, May 13, 1992 (DoD/H.H. Deffner)

Saudi Arabia escalated its proxy war with rival Iran in Yemen on Wednesday when it launched airstrikes against Shia rebels who have driven the country’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, into hiding.

Al Jazeera reported that the strikes targeted the presidential palace as well as police and military headquarters in Sana’a where loud, house-shaking explosions resonated in the night.

The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, confirmed at a news conference in Washington that it had started a joint military campaign with Arab Gulf allies in a bid to “protect and defend the legitimate government.”

We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.

Hadi’s foreign minister had urged nearby Arab Gulf states to intervene in the conflict on Monday.

Later in the day, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, warned that “necessary measures” could be taken against Iranian “aggression” in the impoverished Arab country.

After the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and dissolved parliament last month, Iran helped the Shia rebels consolidate their position there. A delegation of Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran for talks earlier this month. Iranian medical supplies arrived in Yemen a day after the two regimes signed an aviation agreement.

On Tuesday, American officials told the Reuters news agency that Saudi Arabia was moving armor and artillery to its border with Yemen. The Saudis said the military movements were defensive.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East and also back opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War. Iran supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has armed and financed the largely Sunni uprising against him.

The possibility that its ally, America, will do a nuclear deal with Iran has heightened Saudi Arabia’s security concerns. The desert kingdom fears that the United States will acquiesce in recent Iranian strategic gains in Iraq — where Tehran supports the Baghdad government’s fight against Islamic State militants — under an agreement that should stop Iran from making atomic weapons.

Yemen’s slide into civil war had made the country a critical battlefield in the Iranian-Saudi standoff.

In recent days, unidentified warplanes have attacked Hadi’s residence in Aden, the port city where he established a remnant government after the Houthis drove him out of Sana’a.

A third faction in Yemen is formed by supporters of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The former strongman, who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990 and a civil war that started in 1994 when the south tried to secede, was forced out of office by his Arab Gulf neighbors in 2012 amid fears of an “Arab Spring”-style uprising in the country. His faction has tacitly supported the Houthis by refusing to take sides in their disputes with Hadi while Saleh himself has called on Hadi to step down.

The Houthis rejected constitutional reforms proposed by Hadi under which the former North Yemen would have been split up into four autonomous regions. Leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said Hadi’s plan would have strengthened Sunni and pro-Saudi fiefdoms at the expense of Yemen’s unity.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United States had allied with Hadi against the Al Qaeda terrorist group in Yemen which is considered by experts to be its most dangerous.

Hadi’s whereabouts on Wednesday were unknown.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates previously deployed troops to Bahrain in 2011 to put down protests led by the island’s majority Shia community. Warplanes from Gulf states have also participated in American-led strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while Emirate jets carried out attacks in Libya against the positions of a rival Islamist government in Tripoli earlier this year.