By Mohamed Tawakel
As Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies continue their air campaign against Yemen's Shiite militant Houthi group, there are indications that Eritrea may play a role within the anti-Houthi offensive in the future.
Since late March, warplanes from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been pounding Houthi positions across Yemen.
Riyadh says the offensive is in response to appeals by embattled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi for intervention against the Houthis.
But in recent days, signs began to surface that Asmara might play a role in the Saudi-led offensive, following an exchange of visits by officials from Eritrea and countries participating in the anti-Houthi campaign.
On April 28, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohamed bin Salman on the situation in Yemen and security in the Red Sea.
Two days earlier, high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – both members of the anti-Houthi coalition – visited Eritrea and toured a number of islands and ports close to Yemen, according to Eritrean sources.
Earlier this week, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry – whose country is also a member of the anti-Houthi campaign – paid a rare visit to Eritrea and held talks with Eritrean officials.
According to a statement by Egypt's Foreign Ministry, Shoukry's talks in Eritrea focused on African developments, particularly the situation in Yemen, and security in the Red Sea.
Eritrea has an extensive coastline along the Red Sea, making it a possible launching spot for any ground offensive in Yemen.
Eritrean ports are close to Yemen's coast. The port of Assab is only 60km away from the Yemeni coast, while the port of Massawa is 380km away from al-Hudayda port in western Yemen.
"Al-Hudayda port acquires a special importance and whoever controls it will be able to prevent any ground movement by the Houthis from the north as well as any Iranian naval moves," retired Yemeni general Mohsen Khasrof told Anadolu Agency.
Eritrea's terrain is quite similar to Yemen's rugged landscape. This would make the Horn of Africa country of great importance to the Saudi-led coalition in terms of training and troops' landing in Yemen.
Eritrea also has a trained army of 200,000 troops and naval forces, making it of prime importance for the Saudi-led coalition, particularly in light of Pakistan's reluctance to take part in the anti-Houthi offensive.
Eritrea fought a short war with Yemen over the disputed island of Greater Hanish in 1995.
Although Eritrean forces overran the disputed island in just three days, arbitration has given the island back to Yemen.
In 1998, Eritrea fought a three-year war with neighboring Ethiopia over a border triangle, a conflict that left thousands of people on both sides dead.
Eritrea also engaged in two border conflicts with neighboring Djibouti in recent years.
Nevertheless, Eritrea's relations with both Israel and Iran might raise Arab doubts when it comes to any possible Eritrean role in the anti-Houthi campaign.
Eritrea has diplomatic relations with Israel since 1993.
Eritrean-Israeli relations nosedived in 1998 after Asmara accused the self-proclaimed Jewish state of taking sides with Ethiopia during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war.
However, relations improved again. Israel established a military base in Eritrea and provided military and financial aid to the Horn of Africa country.
Eritrea's relations with Iran also raised concern in Saudi Arabia, with Riyadh criticizing a visit by Afewerki to Tehran in 2008.
The Yemeni government also accused Eritrea of providing military support and weapons to the Houthis.
Opponents of the Eritrean president also claim that the commander of Iran's Al-Quds Brigade Major-General Qassem Soleimani had visited Asmara more than once, claims vehemently denied by Asmara.
Analysts say that any Eritrean involvement in the anti-Houthi campaign will be of great benefit for the Afwerki regime in that it will boost his position and break his international isolation.
They say that the Eritrean move to join the Saudi-led offensive will help Asmara win support against its regional rivals Ethiopia and Djibouti, who have been quick to support the anti-Houthi onslaught.
According to analysts, joining the anti-Houthi campaign will also help Eritrea ease tension with the United States and remove sanctions imposed on the country by the UN Security Council in 2009.
Khasrof believes that if Eritrea did not join the anti-Houthi campaign, the Saudi-led coalition would at least seek to neutralize its role.
"Given the close border and short space between Eritrea and Yemen, it would be better [for the Saudi-led coalition] to at least neutralize Asmara from the conflict," he said.