Saudi Arabia will have U.S. help planning air strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, in addition to logistical and intelligence support, the White House said, as the kingdom tries to prevent the overthrow of its southern neighbor’s elected government.
U.S. forces aren’t yet directly involved in the Yemen military intervention that a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began late Wednesday. The Obama administration has made clear, though, that its support for attacks on the Houthis is substantial, and has not ruled out more active participation.
“I don’t have any future actions to rule in or to rule out,” Eric Schultz, deputy White House press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of 10 Sunni-ruled nations that seek to stabilize Yemen. Houthi forces, backed by Shiite-ruled Iran, have advanced nearly to the southern port of Aden, the stronghold of forces loyal to President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. Some of the Saudi coalition members say they may send ground troops into the country.
Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally that Obama visited twice in the past year, shares a 1,000-mile (1,800-kilometer) border with Yemen. A group of fewer than a dozen U.S. personnel are in Saudi Arabia to coordinate intelligence and logistics with the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council involved in the Yemen operation, Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. has been in close contact with Hadi, according to a White House statement on Wednesday night outlining American cooperation with Saudi Arabia. His whereabouts have not been publicly disclosed.
“The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on MSNBC Thursday. “That involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said the Saudi attacks may have come too late to prevent Yemen’s disintegration.
Danger in Region
“Clearly, the Saudis and their gulf partners have determined the situation in Yemen presents further danger to regional stability and their own territorial integrity,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “I hope their intervention helps to restore some sense of security, but I fear Yemen may be too far gone to prevent an all-out civil war.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Lausanne, Switzerland, for nuclear talks with Iran, spoke by phone Thursday with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers about their involvement in Yemen. Kerry pledged U.S. support on intelligence sharing, targeting assistance and advisory and logistical support for striking the Houthis, the State Department said in a statement about the call.
Officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman also were on the call, according to the State Department.
The U.S. may be drawn further into the conflict, according to Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies Arleigh A. Burke chairman in strategy.
“The United States has already said it would give logistical and intelligence support, but the situation in Yemen may well come to require more than that, and some kind of U.S. combat support as well as U.S. diplomatic pressure on Iran,” Cordesman said in the report issued Wednesday. “One cannot establish partnerships without being a partner.”
White House officials say the collapse of the Yemeni government shouldn’t be taken as a sign that U.S. counter-terrorism efforts are failing. As recently as Wednesday, Earnest defended the administration’s fight against terrorism in Yemen as a model of success.
“The measure of the U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government,” he said Thursday on MSNBC, saying the U.S. still supports building up governments as a means to keep countries like Yemen from becoming terrorist safe havens. “The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there.”