‘Saudis couldn’t allow Houthis to take control of Yemen’
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A Saudi-led coalition launched military operations on Thursday to combat Houthi rebels advancing on the Yemeni city of Aden. FRANCE 24 spoke with Algerian author and terrorism expert Atmane Tazaghart about the intervention.
FRANCE 24: A large coalition was organised in a very short amount of time. What do we know about the operation so far?
Atmane Tazaghart: It’s a Saudi-led offensive involving a dozen countries, including all of the Gulf countries except Oman, major Arab powers like Egypt and Sudan, as well as countries such as Morocco and Jordan. There is also a crucial regional force in the Middle East and Pakistan. It’s also clear that the United States has approved the operation, given that it was announced by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, DC. The White House has since said that it will provide logistical support to the operation, even though it is not directly involved.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, which has said that its goal is to prevent the Houthi rebels from seizing power, the US has left things open, saying that its main objective is to bring the Houthis back to the negotiating table. There is still a small discrepancy.
FRANCE 24: Why is Saudi Arabia leading the operation? What is its interest in Yemen?
Atmane Tazaghart: The catalyst is undoubtedly the Houthi rebel advance on the city of Aden. When they seized the capital Sanaa, they dissolved parliament and imprisoned some ministers, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the government from power. At the time, the position of neighbouring Gulf countries was to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. The UN’s special envoy made countless trips between the Saudi capital Riyadh and Sanaa in an effort to convince the rebels to take part in a sort of national congress.
But then the Houthis wanted to force Hadi out of Aden, where he had sought refuge, and Saudi Arabia began amassing its forces on the border. Saudi Arabia [which is predominantly Sunni] couldn’t allow the Houthis, a pro-Iran Shiite militia, to take control of a country right on its border. It’s part of a larger game that goes beyond Yemen.
FRANCE 24: The Houthis are backed by Iran. What is Tehran’s interest in this crisis?
Atmane Tazaghart: Iran supports the Houthi rebels in the same way it supports all things Shiite in the region. But we can’t forget that up until last December, Saudi Arabia secretly backed the Houthis, because they were the ones taking on al Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Yemen. It’s a complex game that’s under way, even more so because Iran is engaged in nuclear talks with the United States. Iran doesn’t want a conflict, and is going to try instead to play the role of mediator by presenting itself as a regional power that can bring everyone back to reason, in what is an already very tense region.