The international alliance conducting airstrikes in Yemen included as many as 10 countries Friday, amid continued bombings on targets throughout the country and the amassing of warships nearby.
Saudi Arabia, the leader of the coalition, is threatened by the rise of the Houthis on its southern border , a tribal rebel group that controls the capital city of Sanaa and has forced former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country. To this end, Saudi Arabia has reportedly pledged up to 100 fighter jets and 150,000 troops: an astonishingly large proportion of its total active military personnel.
Besides their enmity with Hadi’s government, the Houthis are also fighting a large al-Qaida presence elsewhere in Yemen. Before his ouster, Hadi was considered a major partner in the United States’ targeted killing program against the jihadi network.
Additionally, in recent weeks, groups claiming allegiance to the Islamic State terror group have arisen in the country. In an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation, Alexis Knutsen, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that “ISIS supporters … have published over the past few days grisly photos of executions of al Houthi militants.”
While the Houthis are suspected to have ties to Iran, the extent of those ties is unknown. Unconfirmed rumors circulated on Friday that Iranian covert operations chief Qasem Soleimani was in the country, though the BBC, which originally made the claim, has since retracted the story.
Nevertheless, Iran has condemned the Arab-led coalition attacks in the country, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has joined in calling for an immediate cease-fire. (RELATED: US Tries To Be Iran’s Ally, Enemy and Negotiating Partner)
The Saudi coalition includes nearby Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan, all Sunni Arab powers. Egypt has ventured into the country before, in a multi-year effort in the 1960s to support a Sunni coup against a government (backed then by Saudi Arabia) that espoused the same Zaydi Shiite Islam as today’s Houthis. That conflict’s unexpected duration and cost to Egypt have led historians to call it “Egypt’s Vietnam.”
Modern Egypt has somewhat different motives in Yemen. Now as then, it fears that a hostile Yemen will block its vital shipping routes from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, which go through the narrow Yemeni-controlled Gulf of Aden. But it also owes a debt to the wealthy Arab monarchies in the Gulf, including the UAE, which have given it significant financial backing since the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi.
Other, less well-known actors, such as Sudan and faraway Pakistan, have also pledged support for the operation known as “Resolute Storm.” Pakistan, located hundreds of miles from the nearest Arab country, has been a Saudi ally for decades, and in recent years its leaders have especially strengthened military ties.
The United States, meanwhile, has confirmed sharing intelligence resources with Saudi Arabia in preparation for the attack.
Saudi Arabia, where Yemen’s deposed president Hadi appeared on Thursday, has stated its intention to restore Hadi to power. But as Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen has written, “[h]ow exactly Saudi Arabia planned on restoring Hadi to power was not immediately clear.” Likewise, Simon Henderson, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls Saudi Arabia’s goal “little more than an aspiration,” noting that despite their serious military commitments, “none of these states appear to have a ‘Plan B.’”
Henderson also points out that each coalition member’s pledge is far greater than any efforts they have taken to combat the Islamic State terror group since it came to prominence nearly a year ago. While they may be pursuing an uncertain endgame in the country, Saudi Arabia’s allies seem to have found a rare cause for common action amid the region’s hectic political landscape.
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