The last time an Arab-led force marshaled armies from across the region against a common enemy — Israel — the result was a resounding defeat that shaped the Mideast for decades to come.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Arab states are joining forces again – this time, with the immediate aim of restoring order in chaotic Yemen. But analysts say the alliance could usher in new regional crises and intensify existing ones.
Yemen, whose tribes have for centuries been hostile to outsiders, could prove a deadly quagmire if conventional infantries from elsewhere in the Arab world attempt to wage a ground war against a homegrown, battle-hardened guerrilla force, the Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia has to some extent pre-empted the Arab League’s weekend call for the creation of a regional military task force by assembling a coalition to support its air war in Yemen. On Monday, it pummeled Houthi positions across the country for a fifth straight day.
Terrified civilians fled the capital, Sanaa, and dozens of displaced people were reported killed in a camp in Yemen’s northwest.
The Saudi-led bombing campaign is aimed at halting a Houthi advance on Aden, the southern port city that is Yemen’s main commercial hub, and securing the 1,000-mile Saudi border with Yemen. The security of shipping lanes that lie along the Yemeni coast is also a key concern for Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s leading oil producers.
But Saudi military involvement has already rendered the Yemen conflict more sectarian. The Houthis are aligned with Shiite Iran, the Saudis’ main rival for regional influence.
Egypt is believed to have carried out the first naval bombardment of the Yemen conflict on Monday, reportedly striking a Houthi column outside Aden from warships offshore. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former military man, is eager to bolster Egypt’s status as a regional military shield.
There is an inherent internal contradiction, however, to the Saudi-Egypt axis: El-Sissi describes the threat of terrorism — by which he, in large measure, means his main domestic opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood — as the primary regional security concern. But the main Saudi interest lies in countering Iranian power.
“The Saudis started the strikes days before the (Arab League) summit so it would not look as if they needed a formal consent from Egypt,” Egyptian political analyst Mustafa Ellabbad wrote in the pan-Arabic daily newspaper As-Safir, based in Beirut.
And whereas el-Sissi spoke of Arab nationalism as galvanizing the creation of an Arab interventionary force, Ellabbad wrote, Saudi Arabia’s recently crowned King Salman “set his first priority, which is Iran, as an enemy.”
Efforts to foster regionally led military cooperation date back to the Arab League’s founding in 1945. But in 1967, the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan suffered an epic and humiliating defeat when they tried to stage a three-pronged attack on Israel.
Egypt and Syria, aided by other Arab states, were beaten back again in 1973, setting in motion the process that culminated in Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Since then, regional military efforts have largely come under outside leadership, such as the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq to free Kuwait.
In Yemen, the current Saudi-led air war could be a prelude to a messier phase, commentators predicted. Yemen’s rugged geography could confound foreign troops, analysts said.
“I am against the Houthis, but at the same time against outside interference,” said Mona Shami, who blames the rebel movement for increasing hardships in what is the Arab world’s poorest country.