US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman shake hands in the State Dining Room before lunch at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017. Trump welcomed the prince to the Oval Office, as both countries expect to improve ties that were frequently strained under Barack Obama's administration. Saudi Arabia is likely to welcome Trump's harder line on its arch-rival Iran and there is likely to be less friction over Riyadh's war against Iranian-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM Image Credit: AFP

Riyadh: Two years since a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in Yemen, observers believe the decision to enter the war was prompted by an existential threat.

With Iranian influence extending to Saudi Arabia’s north in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Gulf states are acting in self-defence against “strategic Iranian planning to surround the Arabian Peninsula”, said Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser to the Gulf Research Centre.

“It’s a war of necessity,” he said.

Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels continue to launch missiles into Saudi Arabia, and short-range rockets are killing people on the kingdom’s southern border despite two years of air strikes.

But Gulf states believe the new US adminstration led by President Donald Trump, will be less accepting of Iranian expansionist goals in the region.

Under the presidency of Barack Obama, Iran was able to fill in the power vacuum in Iraq, after US troops pulled out. Trump has criticised the move alleging it allowed terrorist groups like Daesh to emerge.

Trump’s administration has accused Shiite-dominated Iran of being the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, a view shared by several Arab states.

Since Trump has come to power, the US has significantly stepped up its drone attacks against Al Qaida in Yemen.

It has also approved the resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a potential sign of reinvigorated US support for Riyadh’s involvement in the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Yemen.

The proposal from the State Department reverses a decision made late in the Obama administration’s term to suspend the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure — which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect — provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen, and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.

Both Washington and Riyadh accuse Tehran of stoking regional unrest, including by arming Al Houthi militants.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Iran has boosted its arming of the rebel group in order to pre-empt a stricter US policy towards Iran.

The US military in October voiced suspicion that Iran played a role in firing missiles towards its warships in the Red Sea, forcing the US Navy to strike back against rebel radar sites.

But Yemenis, with support from Emirati soldiers, have made progress along the Red Sea coast with the aim of seizing the main rebel-controlled port of Hodeida.

This would in turn threaten the rebel hold on Taiz city and the capital Sana’a.

“We’re expecting a domino effect,” with Sana’a under pressure in about six months if progress continues, Alani told AFP.

The aim is to make the rebels realise they might lose, forcing them back to negotiations where they will make concessions.

The anniversary comes as Yemeni government forces are leading several offensives across the country — in areas surrounding the capital, in the Al Houthi heartland of Saada, and along the Red Sea coast.

They have been making steady gains in the past few months with the support of the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

The advance around Sana’a comes amid a major offensive by Yemen army troops launched in early January dubbed Operation Golden Arrow, which aims to liberate the entire western coast of the country from Al Houthi fighters, including the port city of Hodeida, in order to protect the vital Bab Al Mandab Strait from Al Houthi missiles and to cut off Al Houthi weapons supplies coming into sea ports from Iran.

Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi came to power in early 2012 after massive Arab Spring protests ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hadi was forced to shift his base to the city of Aden after escaping Al Houthi-imposed house arrest after the rebels took over the government in a coup in 2014.

Since then, Hadi has shifted his government headquarters to Aden from where he has led an offensive to liberate Al Houthi-occupied territories.

With help from the Saudi-led Arab coalition which entered the war on March 26, 2015, Yemeni forces have achieved widespread gains in many provinces, but Al Houthis still control the capital Sana’a and most northern provinces including Hodeida, Ibb, Mahweet, Yareem, Amran, Baydha and Hajja.

The UN and US organised three rounds of fruitless peace talks, in June and December 2015 in Switzerland, and in April 2016 in Kuwait.

The severing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in January 2016 complicated the task for diplomats.

The internationally-recognised government, led by Hadi, established a “provisional” base in the port city of Aden in late September 2016.

Two months later, the rebels and allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced the formation of a government of their own in Sana’a, dousing hopes of a UN-brokered national unity government.

Seven ceasefires announced alongside peace efforts by the UN and former US secretary of state John Kerry failed to stop the fighting.

The conflict has killed nearly 7,700 people, more than half of them civilians, and wounded more 42,500 others, while it has displaced three million people.

— With inputs from AFP