Two top lawmakers from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said Sunday that Yemen could be on the verge of a civil war as the conflict there draws in other countries in the region.
Saudi Arabia led a group of Arab nations last week in launching airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The rebels helped drive out Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country by boat last Wednesday.
"The objective is to protect the people of Yemen from a radical organization that has allied with Iran and Hezbollah that has virtually taken over the country. It's to defend the legitimate government of Yemen. And it's to open up the way for political talks, so that Yemen can complete its transition period and move towards a better place," Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday.
In a separate interview, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said that the 10 Arab countries have vowed to intervene because they "can't allow Iran to take a foothold in Yemen."
"Clearly, we're on the verge of a civil war," he said.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, came to the same conclusion.
"We're in a very dangerous place certainly in Yemen and I think there is a real prospect of civil war here," he said in a separate interview on "Face the Nation." "It is probably unlikely that these airstrikes alone are going to be sufficient to repel the Houthis. The best hope is that it prompts them to the negotiating table, but if the Houthis start launching Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia or incur across the border, then I think you're going to start seeing a ground war and there's no telling where that ends up."
Al-Jubeir said the Arab League has agreed to create a rapid deployment-type force that could go after extremists in Yemen, though it's still uncertain whether they will be sent into the country.
"I don't know that anyone wants to go into Yemen in terms of land forces. But we don't rule anything out. We have sufficient forces in the current coalition, if need be, to go into Yemen. But right now, the objective is being achieved through an air campaign," he said.
He described the ongoing conflict as a "war of necessity" and said that the Gulf countries had "no choice" but to get involved after the Houthis violated every agreement they made with Hadi's government. He said unequivocally that Iran was backing the Houthis with money, weapons and advisers because they are ideologically affiliated with one another.
Schiff said that Americans ought to be very concerned about the instability in Yemen, because that could allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - "probably the most lethal franchise of al Qaeda," as he described it - to grow and flourish. That branch is especially known for their efforts to build bombs that can get past metal detectors and blow up American flights.
At the same time, however, he said that the U.S. has "competing objectives" in the region. While the U.S. has backed the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, it finds itself on the same side as Iran when it comes to the conflict in nearby Iraq. Both the U.S. and Iran want to see Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defeated there.
"In Iraq, we want to make sure that we defeat ISIS because again they pose a threat to our homeland, but again, we don't want to see Iranian hegemony increased by making Iraq some kind of a vassal state of Tehran, and those goals are somewhat in conflict," he said.
Burr suggested that the current conflict could have been avoided if the U.S. hadn't entirely pulled out of Iraq years ago, creating an opening for ISIS to capture territory.
"I think the reality is that, in our absence, terrorism has flourished throughout the region between Syria and Iraq and has spread now to countries in North Africa and Central Asia," he said.