Why Arab Intervention in Yemen Is So Significant

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal attends the foreign ministers of the Arab League meeting ahead of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh March 26, 2015. The Arab League on Thursday pledged full support for the Saudi-led campaign against Shi'ite Houthi fighters in Yemen. (Reuters)

One of the main gripes among US officials in the past has been the inability, or unwillingness, of Arab governments to use their own military resources to solve security problems in the region. The US military, long accustomed to an enduring forward presence in the Middle East, has often been called upon by Arab allies to get more involved in the region’s internal conflicts. Indeed, the United States single-handedly managed Iraq’s security needs for nearly a decade. While Arab states participate in operations against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in both Iraq and Syria, the US Air Force is conducting most of the kinetic activity against ISIS targets (as of March 15, 92.6 percent of strikes in Syria alone).

It comes as a welcome relief that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with its Arab partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its allies in the Arab League, are taking matters into their own hands in Yemen—a country that has ceased to have a functioning central government four years after tens of thousands of Yemenis swept Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. The announcement by Saudi Arabia and the GCC on March 25 “to respond to the request of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi … to protect Yemen and its dear people from Houthi militias’ aggression” cannot be seen as anything but an incredibly dramatic development—one for which Washington should be thankful.

Nearly forty-eight hours into the operation, warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar have taken full control of Yemeni airspace and have severely crippled the ability of the Houthi movement to use any of the air assets that it seized from the legitimate Yemeni government. Airfields, airports, and weapons depots previously taken over by the Houthis have either been destroyed or rendered unusable; the Houthi advance towards Aden has stalled on the city’s outskirts; and President Hadi’s forces, which were all but powerless to stop the Houthis’ momentum, are now being afforded a small degree of breathing space.

Yet, however dramatic the explosions have been in Sana’a, Sa’ada, Ta’iz, and the outskirts of Aden over the past two days, equally important (if not more so) Saudi Arabia acting on its own initiative—without being urged by Washington to do so—and its assembly of an exclusively Arab military coalition determined to protect and defend an internationally-recognized Arab government under threat from an Iran-supported militia. In addition to the Saudi Air Force patrolling Yemeni airspace, Gulf Arab forces have conducted their own sorties and the Egyptian and Pakistani militaries openly speak of deploying ground forces into Yemen to root out Houthis from the areas long-governed by the movement. The cooperation of Arab militaries with respect to Yemen, at least over the past two days, has been something that officials in Washington could only dream during the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term.

While it is true that the Arab League authorized a military operation in Libya against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, this is the first time in the twenty-first century that the multilateral grouping has felt compelled to act on its own, without any poking or prodding from the United States, the European Union, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. One day after the first sorties hit Houthi positions in Yemen’s capital, the Secretary of the Arab League indicated that Arab states were prepared to formally adopt a joint resolution establishing a “unified Arab military force,” specifically tasked with providing “rapid military intervention to deal with security threats to Arab nations.” One cannot underestimate Nabil al-Arabi’s statement of intent: Sunni powers in the region, seeing a direct threat to their national security interests, preparing to create and sustain a regional coalition with the possibility of Arab ground troops solving an Arab problem on Arab land.

It is too early to tell if this is the beginning of something larger in the Middle East—specifically, regional governments taking responsibility for their own regional problems. Whether Saudi Arabia and Egypt are actually willing to deploy their own ground troops in Yemen, a complicated country on a good day, is open for debate and may simply be an attempt to pressure the Houthis back to a UN-negotiated political process. In addition, the United States is still a primary power in the region and will continue to have thousands of US troops, dozens of aircraft, and two aircraft carriers deployed in a forward operating position. But, at least with respect to Yemen and the Houthis, a Saudi-led Arab campaign driven to protect a national government endorsed by the UN Security Council—a campaign being implemented without massive US military assistance—is a very positive development.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. and a contributor to The National Interest.