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ANALYSIS: Is Saudi-led coalition's ceasefire just smoke and mirrors?

As ground fighting continues in Yemen on Wednesday, MEE looks at what the end of the Saudi-led air campaign actually means?
The aerial bombing part of the operation in Yemen seems to be over, but there is still widespread uncertainty about the future

Hours after the Saudi-led coalition announced the end of its military operations in Yemen, ground fighting between Houthis and pro-government forces has continued in the country on Wednesday.

Clashes were reported in Aden as well as Taiz, Lahf provincial capital Huta and the southern town of Daleh after coalition strikes halted at midnight (2100 GMT Tuesday).

Almost a month after the intervention was first launched, the Saudi-led coalition on Tuesday said that Operation Decisive Storm would be replaced by Operation Restoration of Hope. 

However, while the aerial bombing part of the operation - which has seen some 3,200 bombs dropped on Yemen in recent weeks - is believed to be over, there is widespread confusion about what the latest phase of operations will bring, why it was announced on Tuesday, and what we are likely to see next.

Yemen’s chief representative in Washington, Mohammed al-Basha, even went as far as to admit on Twitter that he had “no idea what is going on” in the wake of the Saudi announcement.

Military or political?

According to Saudi-led coalition spokesperson, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri, the purely military phase of operations ended at midnight local time. After this point, the process of rebuilding by the Yemeni authorities will begin, he added, while suggesting that military options would also be used.

Getting aid into the war-ravaged country - which has been hard hit by the recent fighting - is said to be a key priority under Operation Restoration of Hope. Since the bombing began on 26 March, at least 944 people have been killed and almost 3,500 injured according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The situation has been exacerbated by the difficulty in getting aid to the worst affected areas, with aid groups failing to gain access to Yemen during the first phases of the war.

Charlene Rodrigues, a journalist focusing on Yemen, said that the humanitarian situation remains dire throughout much of the country.

“With the heavy bombing and fighting, no one has slept for weeks. They have barely eaten and many have had to drink dirty and polluted water. Parts of the country have just been driven back to the medieval ages,” said Rodrigues who was based in Sanaa but is now in London.

“There is a serious and urgent need to get humanitarian supplies in and allow aid groups access.”

As part of the aid effort, the Saudi-led coalition said that evacuations would be allowed to take place, although some were quick to warn that this could be a sign of worse things to come.

The political process in Yemen will also be resumed, Assiri said. President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi is now expected to give a speech during which he might outline some of the political measures that might be taken.

Since the Houthis first stormed Sanaa in September last year, the UN has been urging all sides to return to the negotiating table and continue the dialogue framework outlined in 2012 and designed to stop months’ worth of bloody protest that broke out against Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Other elements of Operation Restoration of Hope though seemed dubious.

During the press conference, the coalition said that they intend to keep "fighting terrorism" in the country. It was unclear whether this meant taking aim at al-Qaeda positions in the country, or possibly the Houthis which were designated a terrorist group by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi last year.

The Saudi-led coalition crucially also stressed that it would continue to monitor Yemen’s borders and apply a naval blockade aimed at stopping the Houthis from rearming. Measures to stop the movement of militias were likewise announced, with the Saudi-led coalition pledging to resume strikes if the Houthis and forces allied to Saleh who have been working with the Houthis once again begin to advance in Yemen.

“I can’t say I’m optimistic about the news. I remain concerned,” Sarah Jamal, a sociologist based in Sanaa told Middle East Eye.

“The internal aggression still continues in the south and in other cities. To me, the war has not stopped yet. The greatest fear is internal conflict that could continue for years.”

“I felt the press conference was manipulative. Each sentence contradicted the next. I understood that the strikes will not continue in the same way, but that the possibility is still open for any military action. I don’t know what this means – will they bring boots on the ground now? It’s still a possibility."

Situation on the ground 

Despite announcements that Operation Decisive Storm had achieved all its goals, destroyed “all threats” from Saleh and the Houthi militias and established “air supremacy” within 15 minutes of the outset of the campaign, a late barrage of airstrikes pounded Sanaa less than an hour before the scheduled end of the air campaign.

Fighter jets targeted a military depot northeast of Sanaa, and were greeted with intense bursts of anti-aircraft fire, calling into question earlier coalition claims that their military had destroyed all of the heavy weaponry.

In the strategic port city of Aden, there were also reports on Tuesday night that Houthi fighters were continuing to shell residential areas with tanks and heavy weaponry, and that shelling from coalition warships stationed just off the coast was ongoing.

The renewed fighting came just minutes after coalition spokesperson Assiri said that the coalition had prevented the militias from taking Aden.

Yet Rodriguez suggested that just hours before the announcement “there had been no sign that the Houthis were ceasing their activities”. She went on to warn that a Saudi airdrop of weapons intended for anti-Houthi fighters in Aden had, in fact, fallen into the hands of the militias only recently.

With fighting ongoing, many Yemenis expressed anger at the coalition’s decision to halt the airstrikes now.

“It’s obvious that the coalition was only ever bothered with Saudi Arabia and things that could threaten its security,” said Jamal.

“They are not concerned with Yemen’s internal conflicts – the Houthis and forces allied to [former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh have been advancing in the south for almost four weeks now.”

Nor are the pro-Saudi forces on the ground likely to be satisfied.

Some in Yemen’s south, where a decades-old secessionist movement has been gaining momentum in recent months, will be “disappointed” that the Saudi-led strikes would end, according to Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni political scientist and conflict specialist with the Washington-based Programme on Middle East Democracy.

“They had high hopes that Saudi Arabia would support them to the end, not only in stopping the Houthis and Saleh but also in achieving their goal of secession.”

Fighters in Aden, allied to exiled president Hadi, carry the flag of South Yemen (AFP)

Why now?

With the violence still apparently raging on the ground, and the future aims of the coalition marred in uncertainty, many commentators and analysts have been left wondering why now?

“I was not sure that they [the coalition] had set out any goals in the first place,” said Rodrigues. “There did not seem to be any plan so I cannot say what has been achieved apart from destruction. The Houthis until now had shown no signs of giving up and they were still fighting.”

According to Simon Henderson, the director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf Programme, “The fighting had appeared to be stalemated for at least the past two weeks.”

“Although the announced outcome is being depicted as a military success, it is unclear how it fits into a Saudi strategy to reinstate the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, currently in exile in Riyadh, though the statement spoke of a political solution,” Henderson wrote on the think tank's website.

Dawsari likewise stressed that the situation remained fragile.

“The decision to end Decisive Storm was a surprise to many people,” he said. “The storm started abruptly and ended abruptly. There is a lack of clarity in the announcement. It’s likely that there have been some negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it’s hard to say.”

The Saudis and Hadi had rebuffed Iran’s offers of mediation just a day before announcing the end of Operation Decisive Storm. Yet, hours before the coalition press conference, the Iranians were dropping hints that a deal was on the horizon.

A ceasefire in Yemen will be announced later on Tuesday, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian had said, according to the Iranian Tasnim News Agency.

"We are optimistic that in the coming hours, after many efforts, we will see a halt to military attacks in Yemen," Abdollahian said early on Tuesday.

Bahah's rise

Some have pointed to a political deal, which could see Hadi replaced by Khaled Bahah, his vice president and former prime minister. Bahah who was appointed VP last week is regarded as less controversial than Hadi and seen to command wider support from across the spectrum.

“The appointment of Bahah as vice president indicates that there is an agreement to remove Hadi from the presidency and replace him with someone with proven negotiation skills and somebody accepted by the different political actors in Yemen, including the Houthis. Bahah is that person,” Dawsari said.

Mohammed Hazam, a civil servant in Sanaa, told Reuters, “Khaled Bahah is beloved of everyone. He's a strong man - the opposite of Hadi, whose weakness led the Houthis to take control of most of the country.”

However, it remains unclear whether Bahah would want to lead the country at this difficult time and whether he could convince all the various factions in the country to back him. The Houthis placed him under de facto house arrest back in January when their launched their major drive in Sanaa and dissolved the Parliament and pushed Hadi to resign.

Despite uncertainty over the future, though, Jamal said that many Yemenis are now hopeful that a real political solution may at last be around the corner. She downplayed widely used narratives that pit this as a conflict between Shiite Iran, which is seen to support the Houthis, and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has backed Hadi.

“This is not a sectarian war, as the Gulf media have tried to portray it,” Jamal told MEE by phone from Sanaa. “This is the result of an accumulation of failures during the transitional period.

“Until all forms of war stop, I don’t think anyone will be happy.”