Creating new perspectives since 2009

Saudi airstrikes on Yemen: a strategy set for failure?

March 30, 2015 at 9:44 am

On Monday, the Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir told reporters that a 10-country coalition had joined a military campaign launching airstrikes over Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels. Saudi and allied warplanes struck rebels in Yemen on Thursday; a death toll of 39 was reported. This abrupt decision has many strategic flaws and poses a long term risk to the national security of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. The past two decades have proven that the tactic of striking another country to get rid of one terrorist group is an unsuccessful tactic that only invites more political instabilities.

This attack is intended to target Houthi bases inside of Yemen in-order to prevent them from advancing. In this context, this tactic is futile as the concept of a base becomes more abstract when fighting terrorist groups. The indiscriminate nature of missiles will only cause more civilian casualties and damage the Yemeni infrastructure, which in turn could radicalise civilians. In addition, it has been proven from the mistakes of the British and Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan that missile attacks do not dismantle terrorist organisations internally the way intelligence and targeted killings do.

An important factor that needs to be remembered is that the Houthis are not the only threat coming from Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Just months before the Houthis gained enough power to be a cause for concern within the Gulf region, the biggest perceived threat within Yemen for the Gulf were the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring them a terrorist group earlier last year, along with al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Saudi, UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha in condemnation of Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reason behind this is Saudi’s fear of a change in the Sunni political power structure, in which the Muslim Brotherhood could potentially become the new Sunni hegemony. As previously seen in Iraq, using traditional warfare as a counter-terrorist measure will only create a power vacuum and enhance political instabilities. This is especially dangerous in Saudi’s case as there will always be the existential threat of the Muslim Brotherhood taking advantage of such a power vacuum. However, this is not to disregard the fact that Saudi Arabia’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood has not always been competitive, thus in this current political climate their relations are likely to become less predictable and more turbulent.

By looking at America’s recent history with drone strikes on Yemen, it is clear that the more hostile Yemen gets, the less secure it becomes for its civilians. As a result, they are more likely to seek to militarise themselves, believing it will protect them and their families. The same way anti-Americanism in Yemen increased due to the drone strikes, it is extremely likely that the airstrikes would create anti-Saudi sentiments, thus further expanding the security threat; especially since Saudi directly borders Yemen. Rather than successfully countering terrorism through air strikes, when Yemenis see their country’s infrastructure deteriorate as a result of Saudi’s actions, Saudi will become more prone to terrorist attacks from Yemen. The fact that Yemen lacks a concrete action plan to deal with the psychosocial issues of Yemenis which are a result of poverty, political instability and foreign military operations only heightens security threats faced by the GCC.

From the perspective of political and ideological rival Iran, they see this attack as an attack on their influence in the MENA region; the Houthis are known to be backed by Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the attacks stating that it will only create more deaths in Yemen and increase the political instability. Iran striking Yemen at this stage is unlikely, but when analysing the way Iran has gained influence in other Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain through the funding of Shia military groups, it is very likely that Iran will continue to back the Houthis until they regain strength.

Therefore, rather than launching air strikes which are both futile and counterproductive, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC should instead work on safeguarding all their borders and increase their intelligence capabilities in-order to contain existing threats and prevent them from escalating. Any form of military intervention in a country as geopolitically sensitive as Yemen will only expand the conflict. Saudi Arabia must recognise that without taking advantage of intelligence technology and using less indiscriminate counterterrorist tactics, they risk only heightening the threats they face.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.