Yemeni fighters backed by the Saudi-led coalition ride on the back of an armored vehicle as they leave the front lines near Marib (photo: AP)
Yemen is witnessing escalation on all fronts despite reports of an imminent peace deal. Last week, fighting flared up in oil-rich Maarib as the Houthi militia launched a three-pronged attack on the government forces controlling the region. The Coalition for Support of Legitimacy launched multiple air raids on Houthi forces west of Maarib in response. The weekend fighting left more than 100 dead, mainly Houthis.
Maarib is the only northern part of Yemen under the control of the internationally recognised government. The rest of the north has been in Houthi hands since the Iran-backed militia deposed the legitimate government in 2014. The Saudi-led Coalition started a war in 2015 that freed the south of Houthi control. But the legitimate government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi suffered many setbacks and does not enjoy very much popularity in the war-torn country.
In a Saudi effort to bring all parties around the Hadi government to focus on fighting the Houthi rebels, Riyadh mediated an agreement between the government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) at the end of 2019. The STC aspires to independence for Southern Yemen but has agreed to take part in the gradual efforts to rein in the Houthis. The implementation of the Riyadh agreement was suspended this weekend as a protest by the STC to increased Muslim Brotherhood influence in the Hadi government. The most recent government included the Brotherhood-affiliate Islah Party. On Saturday, the militia arm of the Brotherhood attacked a demonstration in Shabwa organised by southerners.
The breakout of heavy fighting and political struggle is not confined to Yemen. Houthi rebels have intensified drone and missile attacks on southern Saudi Arabia since the Maarib battle started earlier this year. In recent weeks, not a day has passed without the coalition announcing that its air defences destroyed bomb-laden drones or ballistic missiles launched from Yemen across the border into Saudi Arabia. The Houthi and Iranian media talks of dozens of drones and missiles being launched over the last few days, especially after the coalition intensified its bombing of Houthi militias in Maarib.
The current wave of conflict coincides with the UN and the US working on a peace settlement to end the war in Yemen. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and US Envoy Tim Lenderking have been talking to all parties in the hope of starting a political process. With Oman now active in the mediation, messengers between Riyadh, the Omani capital Muscat and Sanaa are racing to start a peaceful reconciliation
This week, Reuters reported that “Yemen’s warring parties are thrashing out terms for a peace deal that would extricate Saudi Arabia from a costly war and help alleviate a devastating humanitarian crisis, two sources close to the talks and a Houthi official said”. The report noted that talks between the Saudi-led Coalition and the Houthis are focused on “steps to lift a blockade on Houthi-held ports and Sanaa Airport in return for a promise from the rebels for truce talks. According to a Houthi source, their leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi made a commitment to an Omani delegation that visited Sanaa this month to enter into ceasefire discussions immediately after the blockade is lifted, in line with the latest proposal from UN Envoy Martin Griffiths”.
In what looked like an American attempt to help the peace efforts, Lenderking said for the first time that the US recognises the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels “as a legitimate actor” and accepts the idea that both sides in the conflict are responsible for violence. He made the remarks during a webinar organised by the National Council on US-Arab Relations on Thursday.
As one Saudi academic put it, this could be the flare before the end of war and the start of political settlement in Yemen. “The Americans are involved in tough negotiations with the Iranians about reviving the nuclear deal,” he told Al- Ahram Weekly. “They have not completely ignored Iran’s meddling in the region. For example, they are targeting Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. They may look lenient on the Houthi militia in Yemen, but that is not actually the case. It seems to be part of the Vienna talks.”
That optimistic tone is not shared by others who believe that the US is shifting its focus away from the region. The new American administration is focusing on China, Russia and the Indo-Pacific region. According to those commentators, the Middle East is no longer that important for the US, which provides regional powers with the opportunity to sort out their issues on their own.
A Gulf source close to decision-making circles downplayed the chances of a breakthrough via the political route. He acknowledged the UN and American involvement in consultation with Saudi Arabia, but cast doubt on the prospect of Omani mediation efforts bearing fruit, accusing the Houthi rebels of reneging on promises. The present Omani role is different from the role Oman played seven years ago helping the US and Iran to reach the nuclear deal. He noted that at the time there was no war between Washington and Tehran, and neither had border proximity to the Sultanate. Those were talks between two states, what is more, while present talks involve a militia that is a proxy for Iran.
Asked by the Weekly if the issue is Saudi Arabia agreeing to direct dialogue with the Houthis, the source reiterated that Saudi Arabia and the Arab Coalition would recognise Houthi as part of the Yemeni landscape and would definitely be a party of any peaceful settlement. But he stressed that “so far, it is up to the Yemeni factions including the Houthis to come up together and reach a political reconciliation” towards a lasting peaceful solution. “Unless the rebel militia lays down arms and accepts the political track it will be futile to engage with them. The coalition does not want to continue with the war, but Iran is encouraging their proxy to keep the fire on.”
What is clear is that all parties are wary of the prolonged military conflict with its disastrous humanitarian consequences. Yet it seems every party is trying hard to improve its bargaining position in any upcoming negotiations by scoring advances on the ground. How long this manoeuvring will continue is not clear. In the course of it, millions of Yemenis continue to suffer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly