President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi (pictured) fled Yemen by sea Wednesday as Shiite rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on his head, officials said. Hours later, Saudi Arabia announced it had begun airstrikes against the Houthi rebels.
The departure of the close U.S. ally and the imminent fall of the southern port of Aden pushed Yemen further toward a violent collapse. It also threatened to turn the impoverished but strategic country into another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.
Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir said his country had begun airstrikes against the rebels. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.
The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes.
There were indications that others in the region would follow suit: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to 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.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign on to the statement.
In a statement from the state news agency Egypt, too, announced political and military support. “There is coordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary,” the statement said.
Arab leaders are expected to meet in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik this weekend for a pre-planned summit, which is now expected to be dominated by the developments in Yemen. It is not clear if Hadi will be able to attend the summit.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.
The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling 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.
In fighting in Lahj, they captured Hadi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into the nearby al-Annad base, which the U.S. military had left.
The Houthis are backed by 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 Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.