(CNSNews.com) – Saudi Arabia led airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces in Yemen early Thursday, a day after embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to flee the advancing militia for a second time in five weeks, this time from a stronghold in the southern city of Aden.
The announcement of “Operation Resolute Storm” came from the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC, which said the military action was taken as part of a coalition of “over 10 countries.”
The Saudi Defense Ministry reported that airstrikes had destroyed the Houthi militia's air defenses, the Al-Daylami airbase near Sana'a, SAM missile batteries and four Yemeni warplanes.
The state news agency SPA named 10 countries involved in the coalition – Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain; fellow Arab states Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan; and Pakistan. One GCC state, Oman, was not listed.
While most of the named coalition members have good relations with the U.S. – Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Pakistan have all been designated by the U.S. as “major non-NATO allies” – Sudan's inclusion raised eyebrows. Sudan is a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism whose president is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide charges.
In a joint statement the coalition’s five GCC governments said they were responding to a “major threat” to regional stability,” and were acting to repel the Shi’ite Houthi militia, as well as al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) elements.
The United States is providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the operation, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
“While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”
Meehan said the U.S. was continuing to closely monitor threats posed by al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), “and will continue to take action as necessary to disrupt continuing, imminent threats to the United States and our citizens.”
“We strongly urge the Houthis to halt immediately their destabilizing military actions and return to negotiations as part of the political dialogue.”
Saudi Ambassador Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir said the action was a direct response to a request by Hadi.
“Based on the appeal from President Hadi, and based on the kingdom’s responsibility to Yemen and its people, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with its allies within the GCC and outside the GCC, launched military operations in support of the people of Yemen and their legitimate government,” he said.
(The Houthis insist that Hadi is no longer president. He resigned in January after militia forces seized the presidential palace in Sana’a, but after fleeing to Aden weeks later he retracted the resignation.)
“The GCC countries tried to facilitate a peaceful transition of government in Yemen, but the Houthis have continuously undercut the process by occupying territory and seizing weapons belonging to the government,” al-Jubeir said.
The ambassador said Hadi had asked Saudi King Salman in a March 7 letter to convene a GCC conference “to which all Yemeni political factions seeking to preserve security and stability in Yemen would be invited.”
“The Houthis rejected this invitation and continued their violent onslaught in Yemen to the point where they were threatening to occupy the city of Aden, which had become the temporary capital for the legitimate government of President Hadi after he was able to escape from Sana’a,” he said.
In a second letter this week, al-Jubeir continued, Hadi had asked “for immediate support – by all means necessary – including military intervention to protect Yemen and its people from the continued Houthi aggression and to support it in fighting al Qaeda and ISIL.”
Saudi Arabia, which shares a 1,100-mile border with Yemen, is concerned about a spillover. A restive Shi’ite minority lives in the oil-rich east of the kingdom.
The airstrikes come two days before Arab League leaders are due to meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for a summit expected to be dominated by the crises in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
On the agenda: A push by some member-states to establish a joint anti-terror force, to counter threats like that posed by the Houthis, as well as al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists in Yemen, Libya, the Sinai peninsula and elsewhere.
Citing the threats in Libya and Sinai, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been pushing the initiative, which he discussed early this month with Salman during a visit to Saudi Arabia. At the time Sisi said Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan could be participants.
Last month Egypt launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya, after terrorists from the group beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in the neighboring country.