As Yemen swirls into a humanitarian disaster, Saudi Arabia seems ambivalent about how to proceed. Earlier this week, they declared an end to their air strikes and seemed to yield to the Obama administration’s stated preference for a negotiated solution. Yesterday, they gave their operation a new name and seemed to endorse the idea of air strikes again.
The problem, of course, for any air battle involves the limited number of stationery targets for the planes to strike. In a dirt poor country like Yemen, the infrastructure is creaky at best and, in most cases, non-existent. So without any ground forces to mop up after air operations, the insurgent forces can simply stay indoors or otherwise limit the ability of fast flying jets to find anything worthwhile.
The United States is facing similar limitations against ISIS, and the majority of its sorties come back without having dropped their bombs.
Moreover, a sense of pan-Arab nationalism remains in the region, and the pain Saudis are inflicting on innocent Arab civilians may have played into the short-lived ceasefire. Arabs fighting Arabs is more difficult to justify than Arabs against Iran. And the limited effectiveness of the strikes in any case must be factored into the public relations war.
How the turmoil in Yemen plays out remains to be seen, but this inconsequential country may cause the entire region to explode, not the intended result for the Saudis or the United States.