For over two months now, Saudi Arabia has been leading an intense air campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shiite movement that Riyadh sees as a dangerous Iranian proxy on its southern border. Yet despite thousands of airstrikes, the Saudi military operation has yielded anything but a decisive victory. The mission that started off as Operation Decisive Storm has failed to decisively alter the balance of power in Yemen, reinstall exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, or wrest the capital of Sanaa from Houthi control.
If anything, the Saudi campaign bears a remarkable similarity to Israel’s 2006 war against the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. That conflict also laid bare the limitations of air power in a war against an elusive guerilla organization: Israel, despite launching 12,000 air raids over a 34-day period, failed to stop Hezbollah from firing daily rocket barrages and paralyzing all of northern Israel. Nearly a decade later, Hezbollah remains a formidable foe and the most powerful actor in Lebanon.
This similarity is no coincidence. When the Houthis took over Sanaa and ousted Hadi last September, Yemen analysts argued that it seemed like the Houthis had been reading Hezbollah’s playbook. In that respect, one of the most interesting byproducts of the ongoing Saudi-led campaign is the new light it has cast on Hezbollah’s influence over the Houthis’ war strategy.
It should come as no surprise that the two Shiite, Iran-backed movements share operational military links. Last month, the Financial Times quoted a Hezbollah commander in Beirut as saying that Houthi fighters had “trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.” A second Hezbollah source told the newspaper that while Iran was “probably” supplying weapons to the Houthis, “We are the guerrilla experts, so we give advice about the best timings to strike back, when to hold back.”
However, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah provided the most interesting indication of the Lebanese organization’s influence over the Houthis’ military tactics. Nasrallah has long argued that his organization’s military experience against Israel constituted a “model” for other movements fighting an overwhelmingly superior military adversary. In August 2013, for instance, he argued that the 2006 war produced a military “doctrine” that was being analyzed by military academies worldwide. In sum, the “resistance model,” as articulated by the Hezbollah leader, is premised on guerilla organizations’ capacity to retain a degree of invulnerability to the superior actor’s air supremacy, while gradually capitalizing on the latter’s own vulnerabilities. This is accomplished by the shelling of military and civilian targets across the border, as Hezbollah did in each and every military confrontation it had with Israel.
This model posits that the stronger side will eventually be compelled to limit or cease its airstrikes, or raise the stakes and deploy ground forces. Of course, ground maneuvers in asymmetrical conflicts are often costly and tend to play into the hands of guerilla organizations.
This is precisely what Nasrallah has been telling the Saudis in recent weeks. In a televised address just one day after the Saudi air campaign began, he argued that the military operation was analogous to Israel’s experience in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and to that of the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
“All military schools in the world now say that aerial strikes do not make victory or decisively end a battle,” he said on March 27.
Three weeks later, he once again weighed in on the situation in Yemen — arguing that just like Israel in 2006, the Saudis had quickly exhausted the limits of their air power. He claimed that Riyadh was now “hitting the same places for the second and third time…. What do you do now? In the end, you will have no other choice but a ground operation. By all means, go for it. This is the stage at which your weakness is exposed.”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, known for its close ties to Hezbollah, reported on May 13 that the Houthis had acquired “balance breaking” air-defense systems (which, the daily claimed, had been used to down a Moroccan F-16 two days earlier) and surface-to-surface missiles “capable of inflicting a destructive blow on military, civilian, and petroleum infrastructure” in Saudi Arabia. Al-Akhbar later claimed that Iran had provided the Houthis with the technical know-how for producing Fajr-5 rockets with a range that exceeds 60 miles.
Nasrallah has been the bellwether for much of what has taken place over the past month along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Weeks before the Houthis began to strike back at Saudi-border targets, cities, and military bases, the Hezbollah leader hinted that this was about to take place. On April 6, he noted that the Houthis were “capable of hitting military targets in Saudi Arabia with rockets” and of “advancing into Saudi Arabia.” Then on April 17, Nasrallah noted that while the Houthis had so far practiced “strategic patience” in attacking Saudi Arabia, “Now is their chance” to attack the Saudi towns and regions of Najran, Jizan, and Asir.
On May 5, the Houthis and their local allies began shelling the very targets that Nasrallah had specified — initially employing mortar shells and Katyusha rockets, but gradually stepping up their attacks by using rockets and missiles with heavier payloads and longer ranges. The following day, Saudi officials reported that five civilians had been killed in both Jizan and Najran by mortar shells fired from northern Yemen.
Houthi social media platforms are now replete with details and images of daily attacks on Saudi military posts. Two weeks ago, several video clips emerged on YouTube, allegedly showing the successful targeting of a major Saudi air force base some 60 miles north of the Yemeni border. On May 31, the Houthis released a video purportedly featuring the launching of Zelzal rockets — an Iranian missile with a 90-mile range — on Saudi Arabia. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it had shot down a SCUD missile with which pro-Houthi elements had tried to hit Saudi Arabia’s largest air base in the southern city of Khamis Mushayt.
With no immediate end in sight, it is too soon to draw conclusions about the Saudi war effort. Moreover, the kingdom’s highly restrictive media environment makes it all the more difficult to gauge the real impact of the Houthi cross-border rocket campaign. Nevertheless, the Houthis’ apparent ability to place Saudi assets at continuous risk could have a significant long-term impact on Riyadh’s threat perception and willingness to engage in similar military campaigns against the Houthis.
In the long run, Saudi success will depend on its ability to prevent the establishment of a formidable Iran-backed military power across its southern border, like the one Israel faces on its northern border. However, Israel’s experience in Lebanon suggests that this is an extremely difficult mission — and one that requires more than just air power.