Yemen crisis: For first time in decades three African countries join war outside the continent

Sudan, Egypt and Morocco in Saudi Arabia-led military campaign to beat back Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.

SUDAN, Egypt, and Morocco have joined a Saudi Arabia led coalition of 10 Sunni- ruled nations in air strikes against Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels, as it seeks to stop the spread of Iranian influence on its southern border.

Saudi Arabia may send ground troops to Yemen, Saudi state TV reported, citing a person it didn’t identify. The air strikes come after forces loyal to the rebel group marched on the southern port city of Aden, the stronghold of Yemen’s President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. Huge blasts were heard around the capital Sana’a and at the al-Dailami air base near the city.

Yemen has emerged as the latest battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran in their tussle for regional supremacy. Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has accused Shiite Iran of fomenting unrest in country. The two powers have already clashed over Syria and Bahrain, although both are fighting Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.

“The battle over Yemen is to restore legitimacy and to prevent the Iranians from having a foothold,” Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva, said in a phone interview. “It is a strategic issue here. It is far more important than the issue of Syria.”

Iranian reaction

Saudi’s military offensive will expand “terrorism and insecurity” in the region and deepen the crisis in Yemen, the state-run IRNA news agency reported, citing the country’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham. Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir said earlier Thursday that the operation seeks to protect “the legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar said they responded to a request from Hadi, according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan are also part of the operation, according to Al Arabiya TV, bringing the total number of aircraft involved to 185.

Sudan confirmed on Thursday that it had joined a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

“Sudan is taking part in the military operation in Yemen,” the Sudanese armed forces press service said in an SMS sent to journalists.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and held talks with King Salman and his defence minister, Sudan’s SUNA news agency reported.

Sudan, Egypt and Morocco’s roles makes this the first time in decades that three African countries have been involved in a major conflict outside the continent.

US action

US President Barack Obama has “authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support” for the operation, the White House said in a statement.

Escalating chaos in Yemen threatens the Obama administration’s ability to combat the al-Qaeda affiliate that’s most intent on attacking the US and its allies.

Obama singled out Yemen last June as a model for US efforts to fight terrorism by relying on training allied forces rather than risk American lives.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations say they’re taking more assertive military action to prevent the instability across the Middle East from hurting their interests in the region.

Saudi and UAE air forces are already participating in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria, while in 2011, Saudi troops entered Bahrain to crush protests by the mainly Shiite Muslim majority in the island nation.

“The swiftness of the Houthi movement south probably spurred them into action,” said James Fallon, senior Middle East analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. Saudi Arabia isn’t seeking to eliminate the Houthis as it has pushed for dialogue since the rebels seized the Yemeni capital last year, he said.

Resume talks?

The air raids destroyed weapons depots, military camps, anti-aircraft missiles and air bases in Sana’a and elsewhere in the country, according to Arabiya TV. Four aircraft were destroyed in Sana’a, Hadi’s foreign minister, Riad Yaseen, said in a televised interview.

The Houthis marched from their northern base to capture Sana’a last year. The group then moved to strengthen ties with Iran, sending a delegation this month to Tehran to discuss economic cooperation and starting direct flights with the Iranian capital.

The Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, say they operate independently of Iran and represent only their group’s interests. Zaidis make up about 40% of Yemen’s population, concentrated in the northern half of the country. They have allied themselves with the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2011.

Egypt is discussing preparations with its Gulf allies to send aircraft, naval units and “ground forces if necessary,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Middle East News Agency.

“As long as the Houthis think they can win by military means, and they impose a defacto situation, they will never come willingly and honestly to the table,” Alani said.

-Additional reporting on Sudan’s role by AFP.

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