It’s premature to label, as some observers are, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen a “quagmire”, let alone that country’s “Vietnam”. But there is a danger that the Arab forces trying to restore order to Yemen could find themselves bogged down in a conflict that saps their strength without achieving their basic objectives.
The reasons for the Arab intervention are clear enough and rational. Saudi Arabia and its allies concluded that the Houthi takeover of Yemen was the last straw, both inside that country and in regional terms.
When it comes to the domestic Yemeni political scene, the Houthi advances threatened a wide range of undesirable outcomes. They spurred southern secessionist trends. They strengthened Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. They contributed to the growing humanitarian crisis, which involved economic collapse, drought, refugees and other factors of profound stress for Yemeni society. Above all, they made likely a free-for-all civil war resulting in total chaos on Saudi Arabia’s immediate borders.
Regionally, because the Houthis are seen as at least inspired and supported by Iran, if not its outright proxies, their advance in Yemen represented yet another extension of Iran’s regional sphere of influence. It’s a cliché to say that Iran added Sanaa to Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus as Arab capitals in which it holds historically unprecedented and politically unwarranted influence.
Therefore, it was easy to see why Riyadh and its allies concluded that enough was enough and that decisive intervention was essential. This sentiment was widespread enough to, in short order, create a sizeable coalition of countries actually taking part, as well as rhetorical and practical American support.
Yet, as with the unfolding campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, it’s highly questionable whether the resources currently committed to the campaign to roll back the Houthi advance in Yemen will be sufficient to achieve its declared goals. And it is from this questionable arithmetic that the prospect of a potential quagmire emerges as a danger to be carefully avoided.
In another unmistakable parallel to the conflict with ISIL, the campaign against the Houthis is largely an air campaign involving bombing and other air interventions. It is, however, an undisputed military maxim that little can be accomplished by air power alone. Territory can only be gained and held by ground forces, even though air power may be decisive in determining which forces on the ground prevail.
But in the campaigns against both ISIL and the Houthis, the principal ground force is not at all clear. Indeed, what ends up being supported is an opportunistic hodgepodge of different armed forces, militias, gangs and others who find themselves battling against ISIL and the Houthis, in various areas and for varying reasons.
The American head of the campaign against ISIL, retired Gen John Allen, never tires of pointing out that, particularly in Syria, the coalition will require a clearly defined and effective allied ground force in order to make real headway against the terrorists. The same applies to the struggle against Houthi expansion in Yemen. As long as the campaign is restricted to air power, and does not have a robust ground force dimension, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve long-lasting reversals and to restore order or stability to that country.
Therefore, as long as it’s restricted to an air war, the battle against Houthi domination in Yemen is likely to prove at least a kind of political quagmire involving considerable costs but with very limited gains that are stable and secure. Worse still, the introduction of a coherent and effective ground force, either from neighbouring states or from within Yemen, could still mean a protracted and indecisive conflict with the powerful Houthi militia that drags on interminably. After all, in a 2009 eruption of violence, Houthi forces entered parts of Saudi Arabia and killed over 100 Saudi troops.
Insofar as the intervention in Yemen is partly perceived as an effort to stop the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab world, it must be remembered that while a wide range of Arab forces, both Yemeni and otherwise, are already directly involved, Iranian forces are not. States risk little in having their proxies or clients become bogged down in stalemates, but they risk much if they find themselves in that position.
None of this is an argument against the regional intervention in Yemen. On the contrary, the stakes are so high that the intervention is widely supported both regionally and internationally, including by the United States. It is also readily defensible. Therefore, it’s essential that it is, sooner rather than later, successful.
The spectre of a quagmire like Vietnam immediately suggests what should be avoided: an open-ended conflict with unattainable goals, backed up by insufficient resources. Therefore, the keys to avoiding such a scenario are to define the aims of the conflict narrowly, and in achievable terms, and to commit the necessary resources and determination in order to secure those goals.
Half measures or insufficient steps won’t do. That is precisely how quagmires are produced. History teaches that such interventions must either be decisive and effective, or they are better not undertaken in the first place.