Houthi rebels say country will be ‘graveyard of invaders’ if ground offensive follows Saudi-led air strikes
Thursday 26 March 2015
The possibility of a ground offensive in Yemen has grown significantly as Egypt declared its readiness to send troops into the embattled country “if necessary” in the wake of air strikes launched by a Saudi-led coalition.
Arab officials still hope the air campaign – launched late on Wednesday and backed by the US, Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey – will weaken the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who are attempting to overthrow President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and make a ground offensive unnecessary.
But the rebels’ leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, declared that Yemen would be the “graveyard of invaders” if the coalition launched a ground invasion and called for an end to what he declared an illegal, unprovoked aggression.
Hadi, who fled to Aden earlier this month, arrived in Riyadh on Thursday, Saudi state television reported.
The campaign, Operation Decisive Storm, threatens to spark a regional confrontation between Iran and its Arab rivals, who are increasingly anxious at the Islamic Republic’s growing influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
“Egypt has declared its political and military support, as well as its participation with the coalition with an aerial and naval Egyptian force, as well as a ground force if necessary, in light of Egypt’s historic and unshakeable responsibility towards Arab and Gulf national security,” Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, told a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday.
Three senior Egyptian security and military officials told the Associated Press that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would lead a ground operation in Yemen after a campaign of air strikes to weaken the rebels, saying the forces would enter by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea. They said on Thursday that other nations would also be involved.
They would not specify troop numbers or say when the operation would start, only that it would be after air strikes weakened the rebels. They said the offensive aimed to push them into negotiations on power sharing.
Houthi, the rebel leader, delivered a defiant television address late on Thursday, calling on all Yemenis to mobilise in preparation for a ground invasion and decrying the “idiotic, stupid aggression.”
“Do not enter into more stupidities. Stop immediately or all options are open,” he added. “If this aggression continues, there will be no surrender.”
Kuwait’s foreign minister urged the Yemeni factions involved in the conflict to come to Saudi-hosted talks to end the crisis, to prevent the country from “sliding into more chaos and destruction.”
The Gulf states have intervened on the ground before in recent years, with Saudi troops moving in to quell the uprising in Bahrain in 2011 in support of the Sunni Khalifa monarchy, which rules over a Shia majority. But a ground intervention in Yemen would pose major challenges, pitting the coalition against an insurgent movement backed by Iran with important redoubts in the country’s north.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, called for an “immediate cessation of military activities” in Yemen in phone conversations with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, the Kremlin said on Thursday.
Iran, which has aligned itself with the Houthis, strongly objected to the Saudi air strikes, urging their immediate halt.
“We demand an immediate stop to the Saudi military operations in Yemen and we believe they are an infringement to Yemen’s sovereignty,” said Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, according to the semi-official Isna news agency. “These operations will only lead to bloodshed and we will spare no efforts to contain the crisis in Yemen.”
Ali al-Noaimi, a prominent UAE columnist for the state-run newspaper al-Ittihad, said the Gulf states were ready for a ground intervention but were hoping the air strikes would create “paralysis and shock” among the Houthis and energise the popular opposition to their rule, compelling them to retreat and avoid the need for a land offensive.
Saudi Arabia deployed 100 fighter jets and 150,000 troops for the operation, according to the Saudi-owned news channel al-Arabiya. The UAE also contributed 30 fighter jets, Kuwait and Bahrain 15 each, Qatar 10 and Jordan six.
Egypt is also providing naval support, deploying four warships to secure the Gulf of Aden, maritime sources at the Suez Canal told Reuters. The White House said it was providing “logistical and intelligence support.” The operation is led by the Saudi defence minister, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the king’s son.
“We will do all we can to protect the legitimate government in Yemen and prevent it from collapsing and facing the dangers of militias,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, told a press conference late on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia said Houthi-controlled air defences and four warplanes had been destroyed as well as al-Dulaimi airbase. A Houthi-backed TV station said 18 civilians were killed in the air strikes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had been informed of a “considerable number” of civilian deaths and injuries following the air strikes.
Cedric Schweizer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen, said it had been “a long and difficult night” for residents of Sana’a, Aden, Lahj and al-Baydha. “It is very difficult at this stage to establish the exact figures of those who lost their lives or were injured, but we have learned from our contacts with the ministry of public health and population on that there was a considerable number of civilians killed or wounded.”
The intervention came a day after Hadi’s government demanded an Arab military intervention to halt the Houthi advance, which came close to storming his southern redoubt of Aden. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, are members of the Zaydi Shia sect, and took control of the capital, Sana’a, last year before placing Hadi under house arrest.
The escalation in Yemen comes amid growing Arab anxiety over Iran’s rise, with its influence spreading in Yemen and Iraq, as well as its involvement alongside the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and its prominence in Lebanon, where it backs the powerful military and political organisation Hezbollah.
Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, Iran has boosted its relations with the rebels, establishing direct flights to the Yemeni capital and hosting a group of influential rebels in Tehran for talks.
David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the prime minister had told Rouhani in a phone call on Thursday that other countries should not be supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen – something Tehran is already doing.
“In order to restore stability what we need is a political process and … as part of that other countries should not be supporting the Houthi rebels and instead be encouraging all the different parties in Yemen with different interests to come together in a political process,” the spokeswoman said.
In an interview with France 24, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, backed the Saudi-led coalition, saying he was considering providing logistical support. “Iran and the terrorist groups must withdraw,” he said.
*Additional reporting by Sam Jones