As the warring Yemeni parties gather for preliminary peace talks in Geneva, Saudi Arabia continues its unrelenting bombing campaign against the tribes of the Houthi movement. For two and a half months, the air forces of the Saudi coalition have targeted military sites, homes and businesses affiliated with the Houthi movement, as well as the palaces and residences of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his political allies. Yet, as the Houthis sit down at the negotiating table this week, their domestic political and strategic position has not been greatly affected by this extensive bombing. Saudi Arabia’s futile air campaign is a further demonstration of the limits of airpower in general, and in South Arabia specifically.
Saudi Arabia did not pioneer the use of airpower to exercise regional power, which originated with the British imperial policy of “air control” in post-WWI Iraq. Winston Churchill, the postwar Secretary of War and Secretary of State for Air championed the use of air force to maintain British control over Iraq while expending the least amount of military force on the ground. Inaccurate intelligence, inadequate navigation equipment and pilot errors led many bombs astray, often hitting the wrong target and with little distinction between civilians and militants. Attacks and patrols by the British Royal Air Force were guided by sparse local intelligence networks and were intended more for the psychological impact of unfamiliar aerial bombardment rather than the ability to achieve a military objective.
This model of British imperial power and control was used in other colonial arenas, including South Yemen, then the British Aden Protectorate. A decade of British aerial patrols and attacks during the 1960s failed to stem the tide of a Yemeni nationalist movement that supplanted British colonial rule in South Yemen. The success of Britain’s air control in Arabia was limited by two main factors. The mountainous terrain of Yemen provided the guerilla opposition with an impervious natural cover from bombs within a cave system that pockmarks the landscape. International media was stacked against the remnants of the British Empire and bombs that found civilian targets were met with a great deal of negative press.
The British Royal Air Force was not the only imperial force in South Arabia trying to use its air force to dominate a tribal opposition. During the 1960s, Egypt transferred nearly a third of its air capabilities to North Yemen in support of the fledgling republic founded in 1962. The tactical success of the Egyptian aerial campaign was similarly hampered by Yemen’s terrain. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser even went as far as authorizing the use of poison gas against cave shelters, intending to flush the opposition out into the open before coming back around for a second round of high explosive incendiary bombs.
Air superiority was the linchpin of Egypt’s strategic model of maintaining a triangular defensive perimeter around North Yemen’s three main cities of Hodeidah, Sana’a, and Taiz, while forestalling a concerted guerilla offensive from the surrounding rural and mountainous regions. Both Britain and Egypt were under political pressure to limit the number of casualties that would have undoubtedly occurred as a consequences of a more effective large-scale ground operation. Air power in Arabia, however, was limited in its ability to achieve tangible military goals. Rather than subdue domestic opposition, aerial bombardment only fed the flames of propaganda and distrust of a faceless enemy from above. Both Britain and Egypt were forced to make an ignominious withdrawal by the end of 1967, leaving failed states in their wake.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition of Arab and African countries appears to be taking the same path as the failed imperial policies of the 1960s. The Saudi air campaign was originally met with tepid enthusiasm by members of Yemen’s Southern Movement and supporters of Yemen’s ousted, but still internationally recognized President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Many Yemenis were alarmed by the speed with which the tribesmen of the Houthi movement took control of the government in Sana’a and extended their military presence southward in pursuit of Hadi and his supporters. Two and a half months later, the Saudi bombing campaign has evolved from a series of tactical strikes to slow the Houthi military assault into a vendetta bombing campaign against Saudi political opponents in Yemen. Many of the airstrikes are targeting civilian houses belonging to Saleh’s family and friends, factories deemed suspicious and civilian transportation hubs and airports across the country, all of which have questionable military value.
Sitting comfortably in his luxury hotel of exile, President Hadi continues to condone Saudi bombings even as a staggering number of his countrymen have become internal refugees and are suffering a humanitarian crisis of serious proportions. Rather than garner additional public support for President Hadi, the Saudi bombing campaign has only increased the skepticism of his remote government and has instead played into the hands of Houthi propagandists. All the while, it does not seem that the military capabilities of the Houthi tribesmen or the segments of the Yemeni army still loyal to Saleh have been greatly diminished.