Suddenly and without warning, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced its decision to suspend "Operation Decisive Storm" around three weeks into the assault. It then said that it intends to launch another military operation known as "Operation Restore Hope". Between "Storm" and "Hope" observers of this situation find themselves puzzled and unsure about how to interpret these rapid developments on the Yemeni front and the region at large. What are the considerations and what wisdom can be extracted from the development of the Yemeni crisis within the next phase?
Have the Saudis changed their objectives or were they achieved? When Decisive Storm was launched on 26 March, there were several goals, some which were declared openly while others remained unspoken. The three publicised goals of the Saudi-led operation were: protecting Yemen's legitimacy as it is represented by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's presidency; dismantling the Houthis' military capabilities, especially after they were able to take over nearly 70 per cent of the Yemeni military with the help of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh; and preventing the Houthis from threatening the security of neighbouring countries, especially across Saudi Arabia's southern border.
Unofficially, Riyadh hoped to curb Iran's growing political influence in the region and achieve a balance between Tehran and the Arab world. This is part of the Saudis' wider effort to counter the sense of alienation that is currently being experienced by some Arab capitals which are allied to Iran.
From the Saudi perspective, most of these objectives have been achieved, to varying degrees. Decisive Storm succeeded in stopping the Houthi expansion towards Aden, which became home to President Hadi after he fled from Sanaa. If the Houthis had occupied this vital city, it would have paved the way for their expansion in Yemen's other major cities.
Hadi is currently outside Yemen and it is important that he does not return before a political settlement is reached. According to Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, the president will stay away even though the Houthis and ex-president have yet to depose him. Such a threat was acknowledged by UN Resolution 2216, which did not acknowledge Hadi's legitimacy explicitly, but outlined and emphasised the need to protect him from the Houthis and Saleh.
It has, however, also become clear that the Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebels have succeeded in destroying most of the group's military capability. A Saudi military spokesman has claimed that Yemeni airspace is now completely under the control of his country's air force. It also seems that the Houthis no longer have any offensive capabilities, either by air or on the ground, and so no longer pose a threat to Saudi Arabia's southern border.
Nevertheless, fighting continues between the Houthis and their allies on one side and popular resistance groups and tribesmen on the other. This could last for months unless a political solution is found that is acceptable to all.
Operation Decisive Storm was the first warning from the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to Iran not to play in the kingdom's backyard. We can also say that Decisive Storm created a new sense of balance and deterrence between Riyadh and Tehran since the latter now knows that any of its efforts to influence the region will meet resistance on local, regional and international levels.
It can be said that Saudi Arabia has won this round of the conflict with Tehran. Officials in Riyadh managed to gain UN support with its recognition that Iran's influence in the region is having a negative impact. Moreover, UN Resolution 2216 bans the supply of arms to Houthi rebels and decreed that all ships going to Yemen must be searched.
This UN resolution can in itself be viewed as a victory for Saudi and Gulf diplomacy. The passing of the resolution demonstrated a defeat for Iran and its allies in the Security Council where Russia abstained. Moscow's ambassador also refrained from using its veto, which leads us to believe that perhaps there is an unwritten agreement between Russia and the Gulf, since Decisive Storm ended just days after the resolution was passed. It is quite possible that Russia also made a secret deal with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the signing of the nuclear agreement with Tehran.
In addition, it is clear that Washington has tried to reassure its allies by warning Iran not to tamper with the security of the Gulf and the wider region. An American aircraft carrier was sent to the Yemeni coast in order to intercept any Iranian ships that may be carrying weapons to the Houthis, which is a clear message to Tehran that Washington is still keen on ensuring the security of its allies.
One can assume that many events led to the end of the military assault in Yemen, but it should be noted that what has happened is not a cessation of military operations per se; instead, there's been a change in the interim targets, prompting a parallel change in tactics in order to achieve these new goals. Despite the announcement that Operation Decisive Storm will come to an end, the air strikes have not stopped over Sanaa, Aden, Ibb and Dali.
This shift can be put down to a number of reasons. For a start, it seems as though some of Saudi Arabia's allies, including Egypt and Pakistan, objected to the idea of a ground invasion, which pushed Riyadh to reconsider this option. It then realised that involvement on the ground in Yemen may be costly for Riyadh politically and militarily, especially in the absence of strong external support for such an option. The decision to terminate air operations was a sign that the kingdom has the intention of a major military intervention; however, although it may be moving some troops to the border, it will not deploy them deep inside Yemen with the potentially negative consequences such a move may entail.
The Saudi government appears to be satisfied that the military operation has already achieved its goals, not only in terms of highlighting its military strength to deter Iran, but also in its ability to ensure domestic support for such tactics. As such, any continuation of the process without a clear vision or concrete results could be counter-productive. It is also well aware of the fact that Yemen is in need of a political solution and that this requires the dismantling of the Houthis' armed presence. Decisive Storm was intended to pave the way for a political solution by promoting the dominance of alternative political parties in Yemen.
Regional calculations have also proven to be complex as there is repeated talk of putting pressure on the Gulf to end the operation. There are suggestions that members of the coalition were beginning to have second thoughts about their participation due to their relationships with different Yemeni factions. Many also viewed Saudi Arabia's intention to attack the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen as problematic simply because not all of the coalition states regard the movement as an enemy. There is also the possibility that the cohesion of the coalition was threatened by secret deals made between its members and the Houthis, as part of an attempt to ensure their loyalty after the end of military operations.
Furthermore, many of the regional players which took part in the coalition initially may have grown reluctant because of their reluctance to see an increasingly influential Saudi presence in the region. This would help to explain why so many of them opposed a ground offensive in Yemen.
On the international level, it is clear that there are some who do not want to see the fighting in Yemen go on too long. Reports suggest that many international parties have dropped their support for the operation, especially the United States, in order to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid to those affected by the air raids.
It is difficult to predict an end to the military operations in Yemen without a political solution that would ensure that this crisis is not repeated again. And yet, finding a political solution will not be easy, especially if the various parties within the country do not provide real concessions. There are, though, several possible scenarios.
For example, one of the region's credible parties must offer to provide a space in which all Yemeni parties, including the Houthis, can convene in their efforts to find a political solution. These attempts must be matched by the suspension of military operations and air strikes. Although this solution is the best and potentially most effective for Yemen, it will not be without difficulties. The demands of each group will limit the time for dialogue and number of concessions that can be made.
Moreover, we could assume that the military option is the only solution and the various resistance factions in Yemen could be armed for their confrontation with the Houthis. This option is neither easier nor more realistic because it would require a great deal of training and support for local tribes, which would not be feasible in the foreseeable future.