For the past month the Air Force of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies have been conducting a bombing campaign against Yemeni Houthi Shiite militia. The Houthis over the past half a year or so have taken control of Yemeni capital and if the news outlets are correct then, in some way they control at least a third of the county. The direct result of their takeover, with the help of military units loyal to the ousted president Saleh, has been the collapse of Saudi Arabia supported Sunni government led by president Hadi. Who at this time is hiding out in Saudi Arabia. For Saudi Arabia whose king no doubt sees the Sunnis losing the current Islamic Civil war, the specter of another Shiite victory, this time by Houthis was just too much. And so the bombing begins.
While by itself Yemen does not represent a core interest to the United States, the Saudi involvement is interesting with regards to their strategic goals. Specifically, trying to figure out what they are trying to accomplish with their bombing campaign. Given their stated goal of restoration of the Hadi government, it is impossible to see how the bombing campaign will accomplish that. The Houthis are clearly in charge despite continuous combat against Sunni opposition. The bombing is unlikely to change that, and will only solidify their supporters will to fight. An external aggressor such as Saudis tends to do just that. The Hadi government collapsed not because they did not have an Air Force, but rather because he lost the support of the elites and the people who were not willing to fight and die for him.
The Saudi intervention is also interesting because of the possible blow back it could initiate against the Kingdom. Lest we forget Houthis have successfully attacked the Saudis before. As history teaches, think of Vietnam War, a motivated and combat hardened militia can defeat a technologically superior force that is plagued by incompetence and low morale. While the internal Saudi politics are hard to discern, I would be very surprised to find true support for the unelected house of Saud among the Saudi armed forces. The exception being the National Guard. Saudi Arabia better hope that the bombing campaign does not lead to a ground incursion from the Houthi side, which at its worst could lead to the fall of the House of Saud.
Strategically the air campaign is a failure. By itself it will not accomplish much given that Air Power is typically only decisive when used in conjunction with other forces or is applied against leaders who influenced by the damage caused by such strikes. It is hard to see how a guerrilla force from the Northern Mountains of Yemen will be reduced by such means. As US and USSR before them discovered in Afghanistan, Air Power in counter-insurgency campaign does not equal success. Air Power can for a time in such situations limit the insurgent success, but without local forces and governing structures that have people’s trust, it will not by itself lead to victory. What former president Hadi and Saudis lack is a local force that is willing to fight for them in Yemen. Without that force the bombing campaign for Saudi Arabia is a waste of time and could actually lead to unintended consequences which will be tough to control.
Instead of stopping Shiite progress, the air campaign could instead lead to complication for the House of Saud. If the Saudi leaders had any strategic thought, they would instead let the Yemeni crisis be resolved on its own. As Shiites in Iraq and Syria discovered, their influence stops where the Sunni population areas begin. Houthis as an insurgent force are only effective in areas of Shiite population. Outside of that area they will become an occupier, faced with their own Sunni insurgency, until such time as both sides achieve equilibrium.
For the US the conflict in Yemen is an interesting side note. The Houthi success and Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) hatred of them could prove interesting international relations case. The only thing AQAP hates more than the US is Shiites and their mutual hostility could serve as a useful containment of both sides for the US. Neither Houthis nor AQAP are strong enough to control the whole country and mutual standoff could benefit US interests if the AQAP is firmly focused on Houthi militia. As such it would actually be more beneficial to the US interests if the Houthis were strong enough to confront the AQAP directly, unintentionally serving US interests. However, currently we are providing support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign, which strategically is actually weakening the force which could be the counterbalance to the AQAP, our enemy. Either way the bombing campaign is another example of poor strategic thought. It will be interesting to see what unintended consequences it will lead to in the future…