Understanding ‘Operation Renewal of Hope’ in Yemen

The main achievement of Decisive Storm seems to have been an effort by coalition forces to deprive the rebels of advanced military hardware

David Andrew Weinberg
David Andrew Weinberg - Special to Al Arabiya News
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The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen declared the end of Operation Decisive Storm yesterday, to be replaced with Operation Renewal of Hope effective midnight. Although coalition spokesperson General Ahmed Asiri suggested on Sunday that a “next phase” of activities was imminent, yesterday’s developments still caught commentators surprised and scrambling to explain what the multilateral forces would now be seeking to achieve.

Emphasizing how the news caught so many observers off-guard, Yemen’s press attaché in Washington Mohammed Albasha noted soon afterwards on his personal Twitter account: “I will be honest, I have no idea what’s going on.” The editor of the Middle East Journal, Michael Collins Dunn, gave voice to further puzzlement on his blog: “Wait, What? They won? ... Something just happened, but I’m not sure what.”

Part of the confusion was fed by an announcement earlier on Tuesday by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian that a “halt” to military operations would likely be reached “in the coming hours,” along with reports that former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s faction among the rebels was pushing hard for a ceasefire. Yet General Asiri insisted to the press that “we are not talking about a cease-fire,” pledging that Operation Renewal of Hope would still involve military action to prevent the Houthis “from moving or carrying out any operations inside Yemen.”

Much of the public debate over how to define the new campaign focused on making sense of the prior stage of hostilities. Gulf journalist Jamal Khashoggi suggested that operations would transition from targeting insurgent forces to instead rolling back their transgression against Yemen’s legitimate government.

One outcome that the first phase of operations did achieve was to impose a tight air and sea blockade against further Iranian weapons deliveries into Yemeni territory, something that has proven elusive in other regional conflicts fueled by Iranian support such as in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq.

Perhaps emphasizing the importance of this development, White House spokesperson Joshua Earnest revealed on Monday that Iran was still seeking to supply weapons to Houthis in Yemen. Moving forward, coalition efforts to maintain the arms embargo may be aided by last week’s passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216. Coalition officials announced on Tuesday that they would use the resolution to elicit greater external participation in the blockade.

The other main achievement of Decisive Storm seems to have been an effort by coalition forces to deprive the rebels of advanced military hardware for making further swift conquests or directly threatening Saudi territory. During his briefing yesterday evening, Asiri suggested that Decisive Storm focused on achieving certain military benchmarks in particular, such as denying insurgents the use of Yemen’s MiG-29 fighter jets, destroying missiles which could target Saudi territory or sea traffic as well as surface-to-air batteries that could target coalition aircraft, bombing all major ammunition warehouses that had fallen into rebel hands, as well as demolishing the insurgents’ command and control centers.

Tactically, such measures were understood by some outside observers as a prelude to further military steps rather than signaling a complete departure from military action. Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who previously reported from Yemen as a journalist, wondered whether “rather than the end of war... today’s announcement only signals a new phase.”

King Salman’s decision early Tuesday to mobilize the country’s National Guard fed speculation, yet it seems that Operation Renewal of Hope is primarily about restarting negotiations instead. Coalition forces stated that the number one objective of the new mission would be a “quick resumption of the political process,” and Reuters quoted a member of Houthi politburo claiming that agreement on a political accord was “almost ready.” Rumors even swirled that hostilities were suspended on the basis of an Omani initiative whereby Saleh would be granted safe passage into exile, insurgents would pull out of all population centers, and Yemen’s President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi would yield power to his deputy, Khaled Bahah.

Yet as Saudi Arabia’s UK Ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf noted earlier this week, the military campaign is poised to continue until Saleh and the Houthis fully implement UNSCR 2216, which could be a long time coming. The New York Times reports that the Iranian-backed rebels still have forces in parts of Aden and have full control of Sanaa on the ground. And meanwhile Al-Qaeda has seized the opportunity to launch a sudden new offensive, including but not limited to al-Mukalla, a main sea port and the capital city of the Hadramawt coastal region. Observers seem unsure whether the listing of “combating terrorism” as one of Operation Renewal of Hope's official goals signals a plan to strike back against Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch.

While Operation Decisive Storm did not resolve the conflict in Yemen, some hope it set the ground for more comprehensive progress ahead. As the headline in today’s edition of the pan-Arab-newspaper Asharq al-Awsat proclaimed, “the storm has ended... and decisiveness continues.”

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidaweinberg.

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