The launch of military operations by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies against the Houthi rebels in Yemen wasn’t inevitable a few days ago. But after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s flight from his residence in the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday and his plea for help, Riyadh’s intervention didn’t come as a surprise. Moreover, US President Barack Obama authorised “logistical and intelligence support” for the operation. Saudi Arabia has deployed 1,50,000 troops and 100 warplanes — apart from contributions from the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and others — and launched airstrikes that have caused civilian casualties as well. The Saudi-led operation is expansive, with Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Sudan reportedly ready to join a ground offensive.
After the rebels seized the capital Sana’a last year, Yemen had steadily taken centrestage in a widening Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict. The dangers of a military intervention are obvious — Yemen’s civil war could spiral into a wider proxy war between the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran, which backs Hadi’s elected government, with its supporting Sunni tribes, and the Shiite Houthis, respectively. The overtly Sunni line-up of states against the Houthis is, therefore, a further cause for concern. The conflict is also complicated by the nuclear talks with Iran, which America’s Gulf allies are not happy with. A larger conflict could also threaten oil supplies, given that the Bab al-Mandab strait between Yemen and Djibouti and the Strait of Hormuz separating Iran from the Arabian peninsula are two choke points for global oil supplies.
The White House has hailed Yemen as a model for successful counter-terror operations, even in the midst of its descent into chaos. But what underlies that assertion is the long presence of al-Qaeda, recently overshadowed by the Islamic State’s suicide attacks against Houthi mosques. Earlier, al-Qaeda, which is opposed to both Hadi and the Houthis, had forced the withdrawal of the covert US military presence in Yemen. Yemen is a difficult country to fight in, especially with no exit strategy on either side.
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