Can the Saudi Coalition Win in Yemen?

The lack of troops on the ground, a clear war aim and an exit strategy suggest not. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Citing a request for outside intervention by Yemen's deposed President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan have launched an aerial intervention against the so-called Houthi movement in Yemen.

Egypt has four warships en route to Aden in southern Yemen and has expressed willingness to "send ground troops if necessary," while Turkey is considering providing logistical support. Sudan and Pakistan are also reportedly joining the operation.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah in Arabic, or God's Partisans, are a Zaidi Shia movement that began a rebellion in northern Yemen in 2003 and 2004. In the chaos following the Arab Spring revolutions and the internationally overseen removal of Yemen's long-serving authoritarian ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the Houthis expanded their power base—apparently with Iranian support—to undermine the Saudi-backed Hadi government.

In 2014, the Houthis linked up with allies of the Saleh family, which is still angling for a way to recapture power, and rapidly pushed south, capturing the capital, Sanaa. They then moved on to Aden, where Hadi had fled before leaving the country by sea on March 25 (it was announced that he arrived in Riyadh on March 26).

Meanwhile, a separate Salafi-Sunni insurgency led by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to rage in the south and east of the country, with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) having recently raised its own profile in Yemen by publicizing a string of gruesome massacres.

The intervention, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, includes all member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) except Oman, but Saudi Arabia—long an influential actor in Yemeni politics—is clearly the driving force behind it.

The operation comes at a critical juncture not only for Yemen but also for Saudi Arabia and the region. In January 2015 former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz passed away and was succeeded by his half-brother King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Yemen has been King Salman's most immediate foreign policy challenge since he ascended the throne.

At the diplomatic level, Operation Decisive Storm is a notable success for the monarch. It is the first deployment of the joint GCC military command set up in November 2014, and it is a product of his careful rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar. The fact that the United States has backed the operation is also significant and serves as further confirmation that the mutual estrangement in the last years of King Abdullah's rule is fading away.

A Houthi fighter stands guard as he secures the site of a demonstration by fellow Houthis against the Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in Sanaa April 1, 2015. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

The operation is also a boost domestically for Salman's line, particularly his son Mohammed bin Salman, whose appointment as minister of defense was initially met with skepticism due to his youthful age and lack of experience. Saudi media is now portraying Mohammed as personally spearheading the anti-Houthi operation, with one article exclaiming that "the sons of King Salman are at the forefront of Decisive Storm both on land and in the air." Mohammed's brother Khaled bin Salman is an air force pilot.

On one level, what is now playing out in Yemen is a religiously inflected proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but that is not a sufficient explanation. In all probability, the Saudis have largely overstated Iranian influence over the Houthis. The portrayal of what is happening in Yemen as an Iranian takeover is meant to rally U.S. and Gulf-Arab support for the Saudi position in what is essentially a localized power struggle between the center and the periphery in Yemen in which the Saudis had placed their bet with the center.

That said, it remains unclear what political end state is envisaged for this operation, which comes months too late to preserve the power of Saudi Arabia's traditional allies on the ground in Yemen.

Pro-Saudi factions, such as the tribal militias of the powerful al-Ahmar family, various Salafi groups and the government of ousted president Hadi, have all been decisively beaten by the Houthis since their southward advance began in earnest in mid-2014. While there is no shortage of anti-Houthi groups and powerful remnants of these forces, and though such units may still coalesce into a viable fighting force, they have not done so yet and the obstacles are many.

For the moment, and perhaps the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia lacks a strong ally on the ground to exploit the aerial attacks, and such attacks may not be enough. History shows that airstrikes without corresponding ground forces do not produce decisive victories.

The capacity of Gulf airstrikes should also not be overstated. At the moment, the intervention forces appear to be going after fixed targets that were identified in advance, like air bases and command centers rather than mobile Houthi units, fighters in urban areas, or supply lines. To engage targets of the more mobile type—which would be far more useful in a battle of the kind now raging in Yemen—would require coordination with local allies on the ground and the use of spotters to guide airstrikes.

It is hard to see the Saudis deploying ground forces to eject the Houthis, given the likelihood of a quagmire without a clear exit. An exception may be a buffer zone on the Saudi Arabia–Yemen border, similar to Saudi Arabia's inconclusive 2008–2009 intervention.

While an intervention of this type could in fact apply significant pressure on the Houthis—given that their leadership and much of the core armed cadre hails from the Saada region on the Saudi border—it would require significant effort, and it would not in itself sort out the situation further south in Sanaa and Aden.

Military victory may not be the goal, however. The Saudis can aim to use the air operation to gain greater leverage in negotiations for some sort of power-sharing agreement. To this end, they are also rekindling their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated faction of the Islah Party in order to buy influence on the ground and reassemble anti-Houthi forces. This also fits with the recent, more temperate Saudi approach to the Brotherhood regionally.

The net effect of this operation is ultimately dangerous for Yemen's future path. It will open up more fissures on the ground, perhaps bolster the Houthis' popular support as defenders of Yemeni sovereignty and create more opportunities for AQAP and ISIS to flourish.

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article first appeared on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website.