Operation Decisive Storm three years on

The campaign has achieved a good portion of its goals, the first of which was restricting Iranian influence to Yemen.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Soldiers stand guard before aid supplies are unloaded from a Saudi air force cargo plane at an airfield in Yemen’s central province of Marib, on March 12. (AFP)
Rising to the challenge. Soldiers stand guard before aid supplies are unloaded from a Saudi air force cargo plane at an airfield in Yemen’s central province of Marib, on March 12. (AFP)

March 26 marks the third anniversary of Operation Decisive Storm. This is the code name for the military campaign by the Saudi-led Arab coalition forces to prevent Iran from taking control of all of Yemen. In three years, the campaign has achieved a good portion of its goals, the first of which was restricting Iranian influence to Yemen.

Decisive Storm succeeded despite the difficulty of the terrain in Yemen and despite the Houthis’ tactic of using civilians as human shields. It has proven that Iran is not the only side in the conflict that can rely on long-term strategies. The Arab side can play the same game and looks at security in Yemen from a wider angle, which is the security of the entire Gulf region.

Operation Decisive Storm began two months after the enthronement of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. It was a clear sign of the definite awareness in the Saudi and Arab camps of the security threats represented by Iran’s expansionist plan in the region.

Decisive Storm has also shown that the Arab world is willing and capable of rising to the challenge. Gaining control of Yemen was part of this Iranian project, which needed to be countered with a long-term and comprehensive strategy rather than quick and limited reactions. Such a strategy had to consider Iran’s multiple militias in the region.

In other words, Operation Decisive Storm was not an isolated move disconnected from the rest of the larger anti-Iranian campaign in place since 1979, the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for “exporting” the Iranian Revolution. Keeping Iranians busy with that project was and still is the best way for Iran’s mullahs to cover their inability to give the people what they had revolted for in the first place.

Rather than deal with the country’s enormous problems, the regime finds it easier to “export” its time-worn ideology to Iraq, the Gulf countries and Lebanon.

Perhaps the best illustration of the Iranian regime’s deep hatred for Saudi Arabia is Juhayman al-Otaibi’s failed coup at Mecca’s holy mosque in the fall of 1979. Concomitant with the bloody events in Mecca, Iran pushed Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern region to revolt.

Such is the Iranian regime, always ready to invest in extremist sectarian strife regardless of the colour of religion. The important thing is to destabilise the targeted country. Iranian officials overtly speak of four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a — being directed from Iran. Those officials were hoping to add Manama to that list.

Such brash talk appeared after September 21, 2014, when the Houthis laid their hands on Sana’a and started talking about the “revolutionary legitimacy” in Yemen.

Taking Sana’a was the first step in the Iranian project in Yemen. The Houthis had to spread their control towards the centre and the south to include Aden and Mocha. From there, Iran would control Bab el Mandeb Strait and all navigation through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

By taking control of two major maritime gateways — the Hormuz Strait and Bab el Mandeb — Iran could pretend to be a regional power.

Two important events took place following the takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis. The first was the visit to Iran of a Houthi delegation to sign a cooperation agreement with Iran in the name of the Yemeni government concerning air traffic between both countries. The consequence of that agreement was weekly flights between Sana’a and Tehran.

The second was Houthi military exercises close to the Saudi-Yemeni border. Those operations were clear Iranian provocations towards Saudi Arabia. Iran had bases right across the Saudi border.

There was no escaping a military solution like Operation Decisive Storm. The Houthis were kicked out of Aden and Mocha and the pressure is on Sana’a. On the fronts near Taiz, a status quo is in place.

Operation Decisive Storm has lifted the veil on the Houthis’ objectives in Yemen. They have no intention of sharing power or listening to a different viewpoint. Without hesitation, the Houthis assassinated their former ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Operation Decisive Storm is but one component of a well-thought-out strategy to contain Iran. In addition to military actions, political solutions must be pursued. The “legitimate” front in Yemen needs to be restructured taking into consideration the new realities on the terrain.

Given that the war in Yemen risks becoming protracted, life needs to be reorganised in areas outside the control of the Houthis. More specifically, how is life restored in Aden? Finding answers to that question is of major importance if the Yemenis are to be convinced that the Arab coalition is determined to free Sana’a and return it to its legitimate owners.

Operation Decisive Storm is taking advantage of the fact that the Houthis have no viable political, economic or cultural project to offer the Yemenis. Quite clearly, Iran’s economic woes cannot help its regional pretensions. One needs only to look at the failed experiment by the former Soviet Union to control South Yemen and Ethiopia to be convinced that the same fate is reserved for Iran’s project in the region.

The Arab coalition has a clear, concerted strategy for the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s recent visit to Egypt was an illustration of that strategy.