When Saudi Arabia announced late Tuesday it was ending its 27-day air campaign in Yemen, it said “Decisive Storm” had “achieved its goals” and paved the way for a political process to restore the government of its ally, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
But pressure from the United States and President Hadi’s Saudi-based government-in-exile also played a role in the decision to scale back airstrikes, with Riyadh acknowledging that the decision came at the “request of the Yemeni government.”
According to Yemeni government sources, Hadi had expressed concern to Riyadh over the humanitarian cost of the aerial campaign. The World Health Organization reported that spiraling violence in Yemen had killed 944 people and injured 3,487 between the campaign's launch in late March and April 17. It could not determine how many of the casualties were civilians.
Should the airstrikes continue and the death toll climb, Yemeni officials said, they feared Hadi would lose public support even among his staunchest supporters.
“The government made it clear that we did not want a humanitarian disaster or suffering in Yemen – we wanted a swift political solution,” said a close aide to Hadi who was not authorized to speak to the press.
The surprise suspension reportedly also came as Washington was pushing Saudi officials to halt the fighting to allow implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the disarming of Houthi militias and reinstallment of the Hadi government.
“The suspension of airstrikes is a chance to give the political track a chance, which has been the main request of the coalition’s Western allies for the past two weeks,” says Jasser Abdulaziz al Jasser, a political analyst and managing editor at the Saudi daily Al Jazirah.
Pause for Saudis to reconsider
Regional observers say the decision was also a shrewd tactical move for Saudi Arabia, giving Riyadh a chance to reconsider the long-term costs of a wider – and much longer – war.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to be dragged into an unwinnable war,” says Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
“The cease-fire allows Saudi Arabia to look decisive, give the political process a chance, while really weighing the risks of a larger war in the face of domestic pressures.”
On Wednesday the airstrikes continued, however, and Saudi Arabia is bracing for a potential military escalation in Yemen, officials and observers say, readying ground troops should political dialogue fail and rebel Houthi militias refuse to abide by the UN resolution.
Limits of air power
The Saudi military declared that the air campaign had “severely weakened” the Houthis and loyalists to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, saying that 2,415 sorties had destroyed 80 percent of the fighters’ weapons depots, 90 percent of their airpower, and spurred 10 military brigades to break ranks with Mr. Saleh and pledge their support for the Hadi government.
But the Saudis had failed to dislodge tens of thousands of Houthi fighters and Saleh loyalists from the capital, Sanaa, or even the pro-government stronghold of Aden, which was the focus of intense fighting between Houthi and pro-government tribes over the past three weeks.
“If the Houthis or Saleh’s forces fail to respect the UN measure, we will see ground forces operations in Yemen – and soon,” Mr. Jasser said.
“Although Decisive Storm has ended, we will continue to protect our national interests and security,” said an official close to the operation who was not authorized to speak to the press. “If we feel our homeland is threatened, or the security and stability of Yemen is threatened, ground forces will be ready.”
To pave the way for a ground incursion, King Salman issued an edict early Tuesday announcing the participation of the National Guard in Decisive Storm operations – a mere few hours before the campaign was concluded.
Fate of talks unclear
Military officials and observers say that by putting the 100,000-strong National Guard on alert, Riyadh will be able to swiftly respond to any incursions near its 1,000-mile shared border with Yemen, which has been a flashpoint for clashes between Houthi fighters that killed three Saudi officers over the past month.
As of Wednesday, it was unclear how and if a political process leading to the implementation of the UN resolution would take place.
The tough-worded UN Resolution 2216, proposed by Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, calls for arms embargoes on Houthis and Saleh loyalists and placed sanctions and travel bans on Abdulmalik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement, on Saleh, and on his son Ahmed.
The text of the resolution urges Houthi militias to “withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict,” surrender arms seized from security and military forces, and refrain from “threats to neighboring states.”
Houthis were quick to denounce the UN resolution and so far have declared no intent to enter any dialogue.
'Limited' ground operations
Even on the first day of its political campaign, “Restoring Hope,” Saudi Arabia showed little sign of slowing its military intervention.
Saudi warplanes continued to strike Houthi targets in the city of Taz on Wednesday, while Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri warned that the end to Decisive Storm did not amount to a "cease-fire.”
Yet even should talks fail to take place and Houthi militias refuse to recognize the Hadi government, Saudi military sources say operations will most likely be “limited” to surgical ground operations to bolster government-aligned tribal militias in key cities – something the airstrikes largely failed to do.
“Saudi Arabia’s main goal is to improve conditions on the ground for the Hadi government to return to Yemen,” says Brookings’ Mr. Sheikh. “It has yet to be seen how far they will go to achieve this.”