Without a buffer to safeguard the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has a strategic imperative to limit the al-Houthis' territorial expansion in Yemen. However, this is easier said than done. Even as Saudi Arabia is under tremendous pressure to do something to halt the al-Houthi offensive in Yemen, an air campaign alone is unlikely to have a substantive impact on the battlefield. Unless coherent and competent ground forces emerge, air power will serve only to complement ground power. Without the same level of interconnection between their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure and their strike assets, the Saudis and their allies as compared to the United States will have a far more difficult time avoiding collateral damage during their airstrikes, particularly in densely urban environments. After all, collateral damage involving civilian casualties will be prime fodder for the array of jihadists with their eyes set on the kingdom.
This is where the United States comes in. The White House has been in close touch with the Saudis during the planning phase, and Washington announced it would provide logistical and intelligence support to the operation. With U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, the Saudi-led forces might be able to conduct precision strikes. The campaign could evolve along similar lines to what is playing out in Iraq and Syria, with the aim of crippling logistics lines and undermining the ability of the al-Houthis and pro-Saleh forces to use and move heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery. Still, such airstrikes will do little to limit the al-Houthi infantry, and the constraints on a ground operation remain.
Saudi Arabia also cannot expect to replicate the success of its 2011 intervention in Bahrain to aid the government in putting down a largely Shiite uprising. Putting down an al-Houthi rebellion backed by both Iran and largely Sunni armed forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a mission that far outstrips the capabilities of the Saudi-led force, much less the political will of any of these states. Additionally, the broad swath of land that defines the combat environment contains diverse groups competing for influence, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and southern separatists, further complicating matters.
The best weapon Saudi Arabia can use to deal with Yemen is its financial prowess. Iran is already facing trouble bankrolling expensive wars in Syria and Iraq and is not a sustainable financial patron for the al-Houthis. The best the Saudis can hope for under these circumstances is that combined financial and military pressure will bring the al-Houthis, or at least Saleh, to the negotiating table.
This will take time and is by no means guaranteed. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will be operating under immense limitations in carrying out this military operation. Given the constraints on a comprehensive ground operation, the Saudi-led force will probably focus on an air campaign and embargo of al-Houthi-led territory. Confirmation of the coalition partners will also be highly revealing, not only for who is involved but who is conspicuously absent. Oman, for example, borders southern Yemen and has a delicate relationship with Iran — Muscat was even a key mediator between the United States and Iran in backchannel talks — and would prefer to stay out of this fight.
Turkey is another important player to watch, though there are no signs yet that Ankara is one of the 10 members of the coalition. Turkey has long been vying for Sunni leadership in the region, though Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in trying to militarily counter Iran and its allies from Syria to Iraq and now Yemen. A small number of Pakistani special operations forces have been in Saudi Arabia, allegedly for the Samsam 5 exercise, but they could have been using the exercises as cover for supplementing the Saudi border defenses. Sudan would be a notable contributor to this operation, not for its military capabilities, but for its political backing alone. Over the past several months, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have lobbied Khartoum heavily to limit cooperation with Iran, thus constricting supply lines that run through Sudan and Sinai to Gaza.
Overall, the fact that Saudi Arabia was able to cobble together a coalition of 10 Sunni nations to carry out an unavoidably blurry mission in Yemen speaks to one key truth: The United States is no longer the first responder to crises in this region, though it continues to play a critical logistical role from the back seat. It is time for the players in the region to take the lead. In the meantime, the United States will proceed with its negotiation with Iran, keeping its options open and ready to work with all sides of the sectarian divide to manage the region. This day encapsulates that balance-of-power strategy best: On the same day that the United States provided air support to an Iranian-led operation in the Sunni bastion of Tikrit in Iraq, it is providing intelligence and logistical support to a Saudi-led force in Yemen. Welcome to the new reality of the Middle East.