UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths made a one-day special visit to Marib 7 March, during which he met with a number of military officials from the coalition to restore legitimacy, Yemeni army commanders, local authorities and tribal leaders. He also met with some of the victims of the ongoing warfare in Yemen. At the end of the visit, Griffiths reiterated his call for a freeze on military activities. “The military adventurism and quest for territorial gains that we have seen since mid-January in northern Yemen are leading us away from peace. Marib must be insulated from conflict, remain a haven for Yemenis and continue its path to development and prosperity,” he said, adding an appeal to the warring parties to return to the negotiation process.
The UN envoy was particularly alarmed about the impact of the recent military escalation on civilian populations. The press release released by his office 7 March noted that “last week more than a thousand families arrived here fleeing the conflict in the neighbouring governorate of Al-Jawf.” Coalition sources accuse the Houthi rebel forces of forcefully displacing local populations.
He seemed to suggest that the warring parties have unofficially indicated a willingness to respond to his call, although he seemed less optimistic than before on their will to follow through and help steer Yemen away from the brink of a backslide into large-scale conflict. His lowered expectations have been reflected in his choice of words. Whereas in Marib he called for “an immediate and unconditional freeze” on military activities, in remarks to the official Saudi press agency following a meeting in Riyadh with officials of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, Griffiths used the term of “de-escalation”.
Yemeni observers maintain that Griffiths’ Marib visit failed to accomplish its objectives. They cite remarks by Yemeni officials and others following the envoy’s meetings in Marib. For example, the governor of Marib, General Sultan Al-Arada said: “We are for real and honourable peace. It would neither do us nor the UN envoy any honour if we supported false peace. There can be no stability or development without peace. But peace under the continued existence of that militia is not peace.”
Baligh Al-Mikhlafi, spokesman for the Yemeni government negotiating delegation in Stockholm agreed that the Marib visit was a failure. “Most of the agenda of that visit had nothing to do with Griffiths’ mission,” he said.
According to General People’s Congress leader Kamel Al-Khoudani, the Griffiths initiative in Marib boiled down to three points. First, Yemeni army forces should cease attempts to recover Al-Jawf or any other area that fell under Houthi control. Second, the Houthis, in return, would cease their advance on Marib, leaving it as a haven for displaced persons. Third, the governorate’s revenues, wealth and oil should be shared with the Houthis.
The Houthis, or the Ansarullah Movement, does not seem likely to respond to Griffiths’ call for an unconditional cessation of all military activity, as is evident from their reactions to his Marib visit. “The solution is to halt the aggression and dismantle the blockade,” tweeted Houthi Spokesman Mohamed Abdel-Salam at the time Griffiths was in Marib. Hussein Al-Azzi, Houthi deputy foreign minister, was more explicit: “A real restoration of calm is the kind that builds trust, that enables people to feel its effects tangibly and that leads to a climate conducive to a comprehensive solution. That type of calm requires the reopening of the airport, the lifting of the blockade on the port and Al-Darihmi, the release of civil service salaries and empowering the people over their oil and gas resources which belong to all the Yemeni people and not just to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The latter was a reference to the Yemeni government which has close ties with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah Party, the political facade of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood.
Such statements are signs that the Houthis have not altered their stance since last September when president of the Houthi Supreme Political Council Mahdi Al-Mashat proposed a peace initiative to Riyadh stipulating the conditions mentioned by Al-Azzi.
Many observers believe that Griffiths wants to repeat the Hodeida scenario: a halt to the anti-Houthi resistance that allows the Houthis to hold on to their territorial advances. Commenting on the UN envoy’s visit to Marib, the former Yemeni diplomat Abdel-Wahab Tawaf said: “The point of that visit was to lay the groundwork for an international resolution that would stop any attempt to regain Al-Jawf and Nahm, just as occurred with Hodeida.” Regardless of whether such a resolution is likely, the parallels between Marib and Hodeida have led pro-government sources to oppose the Marib initiative. They say that after more than a year since it was formed, the UN-sponsored security committee created in the framework of the Stockholm agreement has not only been unable to restrain the Houthis on the Hodeida front, their escalation has increased in tandem with a rise in the Houthis’ demographic engineering. The observers warn against repeating the mistakes of the past in Marib.
It appears that the UN’s peace-making efforts are encountering obstacles at other levels. An informal political consultation meeting of Yemeni political forces that the UN sponsored in Amman last week also failed to produce results. According to sources who took part in that meeting, the participants could not even produce a concluding statement. Mohamed Abdel-Hadi of the Revolutionary Council of the Southern Movement described the UN envoy as “bankrupt” of ideas for a new proposal that would set the warring parties on the path to a comprehensive settlement in Geneva. He suggested that Griffiths’ Marib visit was an attempt to circumvent failure on the political track.
According to some Yemeni sources, the Ansarullah deliberately sabotaged the Amman meeting. They pointed to how the head of the Houthi delegation, Mohamed Abdel-Salam, bowed out at the last minute on the grounds of “a more urgent matter” and to the fact that the Houthi representative, Seif Al-Washli, who arrived in Amman from Germany, made it clear that his presence there was in a purely personal capacity.
In sum, it seems that a breakthrough is still out of reach on both the political and military tracks.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly