Last week, Egypt was said to have sent as many as 800 troops to Yemen along with accompanying tanks and equipment — though that's been denied by the Saudis — shortly after Qatar reportedly sent 1,000 soldiers of its own to the country. The infusion of boots is meant to bolster a Saudi-led campaign, launched in March, to defeat Shia Houthi rebels who have seized much of the country.
An influx of foreign troops, whatever its actual makeup, could affect the tempo and character of Saudi Arabia's five-month-old war, but the countries involved have precious little experience with this kind of military contribution. Saudi Arabia itself has a limited history of sending forces beyond its own borders, and even the aerial campaign it has spearheaded is a new experience for much of the rest of its coalition. Although many of the coalition's members sent soldiers to participate in the 1991 Gulf War, the politics and combat involved there were wildly different from the current fighting in Yemen.
The current coalition's military operations started after Houthi rebels drove the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. The Houthis, who belong to the Zaydi Shia sect, are (at least nominally) backed by Iran, so the Saudi-led campaign has essentially been portrayed as a Sunni pushback against Iranian regional power. Now, months into a conflict in which all sides are accused of committing war crimes, a new phase is underway that raises questions about what a successful offensive in Yemen might mean for regional military cooperation.
When the coalition began its air campaign, Arab League heads of state met in Egypt and agreed, in the words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, "on the principle" of establishing a 40,000-strong joint military force. A regional military institution of this sort has been a prospect since the inception of the 22-nation Arab League 65 years ago, but it has yet to be realized. The ad hoc coalition Saudi Arabia is leading against the Houthis might look like a hint of realization, but experts suggest that the shared purpose of regional powers in Yemen is so unique that this alliance does not foreshadow a future unified force.
"I see this as a one-off, not as the beginning of what's going to become a joint Arab force that's going to fight Shiites or other enemies," Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service, said.
Rather than being a test case for a more formal Sunni state coalition or Arab League fighting force, the intervention in Yemen represents a unique point of convergence for the shared interests, obligations, and policy choices of the states involved. Shared Sunni faith and anti-Iran posturing can only go so far — for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, these factors would not be replicated in other regional conflicts. Yemen is unlikely to serve as inspiration for a joint commitment that is more than rhetorical.
"You might have a lot of great statements on these things," Lawrence Rubin, assistant professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noted. "But when it actually comes down to it, there are a lot of challenges based on the divisions that occur within the Arab world."
The gap between rhetoric and reality can be found in these divisions. Among the core countries of the coalition, there are a variety of policy goals and regional alliances. Egypt does not share the strength of Saudi Arabia's desire to oust President Bashar al-Assad from Syria, for example. When it comes to a solution on Syria, Sisi's government hascontrived a balancing act, taking middle-ground positions in hopes of not anger Russia or Saudi Arabia while seeking to limit Turkey's role.
Gause suggests that Yemen may provide an opportunity for Sunni states to tangle with Iran in a way that keeps them far enough away from more brazen or consequential direct involvement. But the extent of the Houthis' connection to Tehran is unclear. The United States has painted the claims made by Saudi Arabia about Iran's predations in Yemen as exaggerated.
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The links between rebels in Yemen and the government of Iran may be questionable, but the political role of Iran in coalescing Sunni governments around the war in Yemen is not.
Intervention in Yemen brings not only risk, but also a fair measure of historical baggage. Egypt in particular must face the memory of atroubled pastwith Yemen. Following a 1962 coup backed by Egyptian intelligence, Imam Muhammad al-Badr, who had just succeeded to the Yemeni throne, was ousted by a republican coup. Egypt, which was then ruled by secular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser, quickly intervened to support the republic, and Saudi Arabia jumped in to support the ousted monarchy. The outcome was lengthy and costly, so much so that Yemen is often referred to as Egypt's Vietnam.
"The risk that [Egypt] runs there is what many have faced when you have Vietnam-like situations," Rubin said. "A slow escalation of troops and being committed to a cause.
"It is an important part of Egyptian foreign policy, particularly with Sisi recently, to be seen as a powerful regional leader," Rubin remarked, explaining one of the factors behind Egypt's increasing role in Saudi Arabia's intervention. "It's always been important for Egypt to see itself as the Arab leader…. If it wants to maintain this type of image as a coordinator and a consensus builder, it has to be involved."
Rubin notes that the deaths of other coalition forces may represent an "additional call" upon the Egyptians to participate more fully. These deaths have highlighted how serious this campaign has become for the countries that are militarily committed. An attack in Marib province in central Yemen killed roughly 60 soldiers in early September — nearly all of whom had been sent by the United Arab Emirates to participate on the ground. It was the largest military loss of life in the UAE's history. The enormity of the loss has invigorated Emirati support for what is already the federation's most serious military commitment ever.
Saudi Arabia, which lent support to Zaydi Shia royalists who were the predecessors of its present foes in Yemen, also has reason to be wary of an extended counterinsurgency effort. Yemen's terrain is harsh, and the country has an Afghanistan-like history of rebuffing incursions. The Saudi Operation Scorched Earth, which it launched in 2009 as a response to Houthi clashes with Yemen's government at the time, was… less than successful.
Qatar, which had previously only participated in airstrikes, is alsosendingsoldiers to take part in the ground offensive, but the real picture of its support, as with Egypt, is opaque. Some defense sources in Qatar have asserted that its troops remain along the border within Saudi Arabia, and that they are simply there to protect the boundary. Other regional officials indicated last week that Qatari forces were already making their way to Yemen's Marib province.
Both the air campaign and troop deployments mark new kinds of military activity and cooperation by a number of the participating nations. The conflict in Yemen, which presents a dangerous enough commitment for all players, remains distinctive in its ability to unite the interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Qatar. But it doesn't look like the ability to unite these countries over this conflict means that they will automatically fight alongside one another in conflicts yet to come.
Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett