The news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan have launched air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen should give every American pause. Yes, the Houthis are Shi’a who receive some degree of backing from Iran, but this is a very dangerous escalation that is unlikely to improve the situation in Yemen and risks the stability of Saudi Arabia over the medium to long term. Moreover, the Iranian role has been greatly exaggerated in what is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war.
Even with U.S. assistance, the GCC and its coalition partners lack the capacity to break Houthi ground operations the way that American air power has been able to smash ISIS ground operations in Iraq and Syria. With enough American help, they could certainly inflict some harm on the Houthis, but they are unlikely to be able to materially shift the balance of power. If the airstrikes fail, as seems more likely than not, there is a real danger that these same states will decide to intervene on the ground—and that intervention will be largely composed of Saudi forces.
As I warned in a previous post on Yemen co-authored with the highly-regarded scholar of civil wars, Barbara Walter, a compelling body of scholarly research on civil wars has found that interventions into civil wars on behalf of the losing side rarely produce a rapid, negotiated settlement. Instead, they typically prolong the conflict, producing more death and devastation. Of greatest importance in this case, they also have a bad habit of overstressing the intervening state—especially when that state has limited capabilities and internal problems of its own.
Saudi Arabia remains the leader of the Arab world, an important American ally, and one of the most important oil producers in the world. But it is also a country with significant internal challenges, financial problems, and now a dramatic shift in government power as a result of the death of King Abdullah and the accession of King Salman. The Kingdom lacks the military capacity to intervene decisively in Yemen, and if it tries by sending in large numbers of ground troops, the most likely outcome would be a debilitating stalemate that will drain Saudi military resources, financial reserves, and political will. It could also easily enrage key segments of the populace: some furious that after spending so much on defense the Kingdom has so little capability, others equally enraged that so much money is being wasted on a senseless quagmire in Yemen instead of being spent on critical domestic problems.
(As an aside, I would note that the Egyptians have stated that they are ready to send ground troops to Yemen if airstrikes prove inadequate. This, in and of itself, is curious given the painful history of Egypt’s failed involvement in the Yemeni civil war of 1961-1967. But it is no more comforting than if the Saudis were to go in alone. The Egyptians are not likely to improve the chances of success, and Egypt is also a fragile state struggling to deal with enormous domestic political and economic problems. It does not need a potentially debilitating and divisive foray into Yemen any more than the Saudis do.)
Which brings me to the American role in this intervention. One could posit a wide variety of American rationales for supporting this move: a desire to shore up the U.S.-Saudi alliance after the many quarrels of the past decade, a hope that American support for the GCC in Yemen will translate into greater GCC support for American efforts in Iraq and Syria, and/or the belief that this will allow the United States to direct GCC assets against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula to make up for the loss of al-Anad as an American Special Forces counterterrorism base. From my perspective, these are all mistaken rationales that place short-term needs ahead of far greater long-term interests. Such reasons suggest that the United States will encourage and even enable greater and greater Saudi/GCC/Arab involvement in Yemen—exactly the thing that the United States should be seeking to dampen.
Instead, I would argue that the only good reason for the United States to support the Saudi/GCC/Arab intervention in Yemen is to gain situational awareness into their operations and leverage to prevent them from getting more deeply involved. This is one of those situations where the United States needs to restrain its allies for their own good. The long and well-examined history of civil wars offers a clear warning that greater Saudi intervention in Yemen is unlikely to improve the situation and could easily undermine the Kingdom’s own security and stability over the medium to longer term. For Saudi Arabia’s sake and our own, the best thing that we can do is also the hardest: convince them to cash in, rather than double down and bust.