WASHINGTON – A Saudi-led air campaign has failed to halt the advance of Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, where growing violence is plunging the country deeper into chaos and further undermining the U.S.-backed government.
Houthi rebels continued to advance toward the port city of Aden, where forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi are attempting to make a stand. Friday, the Arab coalition dropped weapons and supplies for the first time to forces battling Houthis around Aden.
Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Saudis have hit fixed military installations and weapons caches, but they lack the sophisticated intelligence and other capabilities that would allow them to react quickly to fast-moving and widely dispersed forces.
“A lot of what they’re doing is of cosmetic effect,” Knights said. “It’s hard to imagine the coalition becoming effective enough unless the United States becomes much more involved.”
U.S. help is limited largely to surveillance and planning support. American drones provide the general location of the Houthis and other forces but not specific targeting information.
The Pentagon has offered to provide aerial refueling capabilities to the coalition, which would allow pilots to remain in the air longer to track targets. U.S. tanker aircraft would not enter Yemen airspace.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations improved pilot training over the past decade to match the billions of dollars they have spent on sophisticated American warplanes. Analysts credit the countries for being able to mobilize a complex coalition quickly and begin airstrikes.
“Arab countries are stepping up to take care of their own issues,” said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general. “This is something we ought to be applauding.”
Initially, several hundred airstrikes a day disrupted the Houthis’ advance. More recently, the rebels appear to have regrouped and continued their advances.
Knights said the air campaign is reminiscent of the 1990s-era NATO airstrikes in the Balkans. He said the Saudi coalition lacks precision strikes based on immediate intelligence.
The fighting is growing increasingly complex. The airstrikes on Houthi forces help a powerful al-Qaeda terror affiliate, a rival in Yemen. Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organization, and the Houthis are Shiites.
Thursday, al-Qaeda militants overran Mukalla, a major port city in southern Yemen, the Associated Press reported.
The Houthis are allied with military forces who remained loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president ousted from power after protests in 2011. As a result, the airstrikes have targeted military installations and army units that would be needed to help stabilize the country should fighting cease.
“At the end of the day, were going to have a force that might not be able to reunite,” said Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “Most units have been rendered combat-ineffective.”
Saudi air campaign fails to halt rebel advance in Yemen.