The Saudi announcement that Operation Decisive Storm is over and the airstrikes have largely stopped (at least one took place today) without a cease-fire suggests prudence is starting to creep into the royal palace. A month of airstrikes has not restored the Hadi government to Aden— let alone Sanaa— nor has it broken the will of the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition appears to have no appetite for a ground invasion. The Saudi announcement leaves a lot of questions.
The Saudis ratcheted down their objectives in Yemen dramatically yesterday. Now the goal is to prevent attacks on the Kingdom from Houthi Scud missiles and other heavy weapons. The RSAF’s “brave Hawks” have that mission mostly accomplished. Houthi threats to Yemeni civilians will still be countered but how was not defined. No ceasefire, but no air campaign leaves the Houthis in control of most of northern Yemen.
The announcement of the end of the air war was accompanied by a curious statement from the royal palace that the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG) has been placed on alert and mobilized to join the war. In response, the SANG’s commander, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (the late king’s son), announced the Guard is ready to defend the Kingdom. This is odd in several ways. First, the SANG was put on high alert at the start of the air war, why again now? Second, Mutaib was sidelined after his father’s death, why is he back in prominence now? Is this announcement a sign of trouble in the family and the beginning of the “who lost Yemen” blame game? Is Salman’s son, the young Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, in trouble? Or is the speculation about palace rivalries overblown?
King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman has wisely chosen to declare victory to avoid sliding into a quagmire, but his reign is off to a poor beginning in Yemen. The Houthis and their Iranian friends may not be winners yet but they certainly are not the losers. The Saudi led coalition has fallen short of its ambitious plans but it retains control of Yemeni airspace and blockades Yemen’s ports. A prolonged stalemate probably will follow. Yemen will be further radicalized and impoverished, al-Qaida will grow, the Houthis will turn increasingly to Iran out of necessity and the region will be even more polarized with sectarian hatred burning as never before.