Questions remain about whether the US plans to intercept potential shipments of Iranian weapons to the Houthi rebels.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has officially announced the end of its “Decisive Storm” operation in Yemen and the beginning of a new operation, given the optimistic name “Renewal of Hope”. The decision comes after weeks of air strikes targeting key military bases, military supply capabilities, and communications facilities of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Although the Saudi-led military operation has so far been successful in preventing the fall of Aden, Mareb, and Taiz into the hands of the Houthis, who are allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Decisive Storm operation has not radically changed the political reality on the ground.
Saleh and top Houthi leaders remain in Yemen, continuing to control Sanaa and several other key cities and towns. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his vice president remain in Saudi Arabia, addressing the Yemeni public from the Yemeni embassy in Riyadh.
Furthermore, the Saudi announcement made it clear that this is not a total ceasefire, as the kingdom expressed a clear intention to intervene at any time to prevent military escalation on the part of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. The decision likely resulted from effective backdoor diplomacy with Saleh and the Houthis, seeking to find a political solution to end their control of Yemeni cities.
A political solution may also include a process of political reconciliation, offering Saleh and his family a safe route out of Yemen. And any future political agreement will likely ensure the return of the Hadi government to Sanaa and the beginning of a long process of reconstructing Yemen’s failed infrastructure.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen appears to have also played a role in the kingdom’s decision. The suffering of the Yemeni people has increased dramatically, with Yemen poised for a massive humanitarian disaster, including chronic shortages of basic food items and oil, as well as days-long power outages affecting Yemen’s major cities.
Significant humanitarian relief would be difficult to deliver during heavy military air strikes. Over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has rejected repeated calls from Iran and other actors for a total ceasefire to allow delivery of humanitarian assistance to the war-torn country.
By declaring the end of its Decisive Storm operation, the kingdom is opening the door to humanitarian assistance – Saudi has pledged more than $270m to this end – but still reserving the option of additional coalition military intervention.
Most importantly, the decision to end military operations followed the successful elimination of the grave threat resulting from Houthi control of the Yemeni air force and ballistic missile capabilities. The kingdom has also disrupted any possible military support of the Houthis from Iran through tight control of Yemeni air and sea space.
Iran has been embarrassed politically by its inability to offer military support to the Houthis, their key ally in Yemen. Consequently, a political solution seems to be the only possible solution for the survival of their Yemeni allies, which means giving diplomacy a chance and bowing to Saudi political winds for the time being. After all, Iran and the Houthis were never prepared for the air strikes, which were supported internationally.
Although the United States closed its Yemeni embassy and transferred all military personnel out of the country, US warships have been repositioned near Yemeni coastlines in support of the Saudi-led coalition, sending a strong message that the US is serious about backing its Arab allies in the region – despite its huge interest in reaching an agreement with Iran about its nuclear programme.
There is no guarantee that the Houthis and Saleh will honour any future political agreements, based on their history of broken political promises and commitments during the crisis that has gripped Yemen since 2011. Accordingly, it is possible that despite the initiation of political negotiations between all Yemeni political actors, the coming weeks could bring intense ground battles between the Saleh-Houthi alliance and Hadi’s supporters, making Saudi support for the Hadi government critical at this juncture.
It is unclear whether a quick political solution and an end to hostilities would result in a new political initiative to bring Yemen closer to its Arab neighbours and lay the groundwork for its integration into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Potential accession to the GCC could be strategically useful to motivate significant institutional reforms in Yemen, to encourage the southerners to continue their political union with the north, and most importantly to limit Iranian influence in Yemen.