Yemenis have long suspected the Saudis of pursuing polices that keep their country weak but not so weak that its internal problems spill across the border. If this was ever the case, the new Saudi rulers seem to have jettisoned their approach. They have embarked on a military adventure that will create the kind of instability and violence that not only will weaken Yemen beyond repair but could rebound upon the kingdom itself.
Last month, the Saudis, backed by the US and nine mostly Arab Sunni states, launched an air campaign to reinstate the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and roll back both the Houthis, a group Riyadh views as an Iranian proxy, and their ally, forces aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
They also imposed a naval and air blockade to prevent the Houthis from receiving weapons, while the US has expedited arms deliveries to the kingdom. Saudi officials say Operation Decisive Storm will continue until stability is restored and hint a ground offensive might be necessary.
The intervention was triggered by Houthi overreach. Rather than settling for a political deal in the capital, they are trying to establish dominance at gunpoint and are engaged in a brutal campaign to control Aden that is destroying the city and creating a humanitarian disaster.
Yet, Saudi Arabia has exaggerated Iran’s role in what is mostly a local Yemeni conflict and in doing so is creating a new, dangerous dynamic. The external military intervention will complicate and prolong suffering, especially without a viable political exit strategy.
Fourteen days in, the dangers of Decisive Storm are readily apparent and growing. First, it is deepening the humanitarian crisis. Air strikes have hit critical infrastructure, factories and allegedly a camp for the displaced. Despite aid groups’ best efforts, the blockade is preventing essential supplies in a country heavily dependent on food imports. Backlash against the Saudis is particularly strong in the north, where the Houthis draw their primary political support, and people are bearing the brunt of bombing.
Politically, the campaign is widening the gap between north and south and between Zaidi (Shia) and Shafai (Sunni) areas. It has militarised existing divides, while encouraging a sectarian Sunni against Shia dynamic previously absent in Yemen.
Militarily, it has yet to tip the balance and in some ways has benefited the Houthis, who survived six rounds of conflict with government forces after 2004, and repelled a Saudi military incursion in 2009. The group is first and foremost a militia, forged in war, with deep roots in Yemen’s northern highlands. Politics, not war, is its weakness.
Anti-Houthi forces fragmented
Ironically, Saudi intervention appears to be making the loose Houthi-Saleh coalition stronger just when political tensions were fraying it. Despite heavy bombardments, its forces were able to enter Aden, the symbolic seat of the pro-Hadi resistance. By contrast, Houthi opponents are fragmented, and Hadi, who fled to Riyadh, is perceived as weak and incapable of unifying anti-Houthi forces.
If bombing continues, the Houthis and their allies might retaliate by a ground attack into Saudi territory. It could also could trigger a proxy war with Iran, if Tehran were to up the ante by providing major financial and military support ...
The Saudis have decimated the Yemeni air force and destroyed missiles that could have targeted the kingdom. But while some threats have been reduced, new ones appear. If bombing continues, the Houthis and their allies might retaliate by a ground attack into Saudi territory. It could also could trigger a proxy war with Iran, if Tehran were to up the ante by providing major financial and military support to the Houthis, who have been far less dependent on Tehran than Hadi and his allies are on Riyadh.
Then there is al-Qaeda, which is thriving in the spreading chaos, most recently freeing at least 150 supporters from prison in the southern port city of Mukalla.
All this should give the Saudis and their coalition pause. Instead of wagering on an uncertain military outcome, they should restrict military objectives to eliminating Houthi capacity for air raids or missile strikes into the kingdom and degrading a ground-invasion capability. This accomplished, they should support a UN-brokered ceasefire and inclusive negotiations over a transitional government.
Willingness for talks
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Yemenis were close to agreeing on a collective leadership. The Houthis have expressed a willingness to return to talks and Oman, the only Gulf Cooperation Council country not part of Decisive Storm, could use good relations to facilitate meaningful negotiations. Agreement on a strong president or presidential council, based on power-sharing and backed financially by the Saudis, would provide incentives for implementation that were absent before the crisis.
The Saudis say they support a political track but with preconditions almost impossible for the Houthis to accept, such as accepting Hadi’s legitimacy and relinquishing arms taken from the state. A better approach would be to support a ceasefire and negotiations without preconditions, thus making the Houthis accountable to the Yemeni people if they refuse to end the suffering.
Yemen has yet to descend into the mass communal violence and rampant sectarianism of Syria or Iraq, but the situation is rapidly worsening. The combination of proxy wars, sectarian violence, state collapse and spreading rule by militia is sadly familiar in the region. Nobody is likely to win such a fight. An alternative exists, but only if Yemenis and their neighbours choose it.
April Longley Alley is the senior Arabian Peninsula analyst for the International Crisis Group. She holds a PhD in government from Georgetown University and has conducted field research in Yemen since 2004.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.