UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths completed a round of talks that included Jeddah where he met with Saudi officials to discuss the proposal he presented to the UN last week.
The proposal consists of two initiatives, one on Hodeida and the other addressing a comprehensive negotiating track to resolve the Yemeni crisis.
At the end of the meeting, Griffiths reported via the Twitter account of the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen (OSESGY): “Constructive meetings in Jeddah. I appreciate continued Saudi support of my efforts and the prospects for resuming intra-Yemeni negotiations to reach a political settlement for the conflict in #Yemen.” He provided no further details.
It was the same formula he used following his recent visit to Sanaa, where he met with Houthi leaders for the second time since assuming his duties in March.
His tweet of 4 July reported that the three days of meetings in Sanaa were “positive & constructive” and gave the impression that the Houthis had shown considerable flexibility towards his proposal for neutral technical administration to assume charge of the port of Hodeida.
Griffiths also met with internationally recognised Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Aden, but he provided no details on this meeting.
The special envoy has been shuttling frequently between Sanaa, Aden and elsewhere during the past two weeks in the hope of furthering his declared aim of halting the warfare in and around Hodeida and restarting negotiations on the basis of the two abovementioned initiatives.
But there are conflicting reports concerning the results. Houthi media reports affirm that the Ansar Allah leadership has accepted Griffiths’ Hodeida initiative which would give the UN a leading role in supervising the port.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani appears sceptical. In remarks to the press, timed to coincide with Griffiths’ meetings in Sanaa, he called on the Houthis to take the UN special envoy’s proposals seriously and “to seize the current opportunity for peace because it might be the last”.
He said that the government “extends its hand for peace” while simultaneously cautioning the Houthis against “waiting for support from abroad because it won’t come anymore… Iran today is not the Iran of yesterday. It is no longer capable of taking a single step.” Al-Yamani then pointedly contradicted Griffiths: the UN special envoy’s talks with the Houthis “failed to accomplish anything serious that can be built on, in spite of all his optimism”.
According to a number of Yemeni sources Al-Ahram Weekly contacted, the Yemeni government took exception to the wording the UN special envoy used when briefing the UN on Yemen last week which allegedly cast the two sides of the conflict — the legitimate government and the Houthi rebel movement — as “equal”.
According to these sources, the Houthis also refused to hand over the port entirely, proposed to act as a partner in administering the facility and insisted that it should still receive its revenues.
The sources also say that the government continues to insist on obtaining full control over the port city and that the Houthis must turn in their heavy weaponry before the start of any negotiations.
If the situation is as the sources describe, Griffiths has a problem. These sources, moreover, have levelled some harsh criticisms against his approach.
Some hold that his professional background makes him prioritise the solution to the humanitarian crisis in a way that will impact negatively on the solution to the conflict.
Griffiths has stressed the need to put the Hodeida port back into operation so that the flows of urgent humanitarian relief can resume.
The critics fear that this will induce Griffiths to side with the view of the Houthis, who currently control the port, or lead him to reject the option of handing over the port to another party for fear that this would trigger a counter-assault and, again, halt operations in the port. Indeed, he made such concerns clear in his briefing to the UN last Thursday in which he underscored the need to keep the ports of Hodeida and Al-Salif open and functioning in view of the extremely grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Yemeni Ambassador to the UK Yassin Said Noman is among Griffiths’ critics. He holds that the UN special envoy is still “fact-finding” whereas he should be carrying out UN Security Council resolutions on Yemen, most notably Resolution 2216 adopted in 2015.
“The confusion arising from the way he conducts his mission has lead and continues to lead to failure to formulate a diplomatic framework for political action. The envoy should accommodate to his assigned role to end the conflict or, at least, to tell the UN Security Council the truth about the party that refuses to abide by international resolutions,” Noman said, adding: “Hodeida is one facet of the crisis caused by the coup against legitimacy and the Houthi militias’ seizure of control of the country.”
Yemeni sources close to the Hadi government say that Griffiths’ approach tries to combine the “Kerry-2 plan”, referring to mediating efforts of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, with former UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s initiative on Hodeida.
The Kerry proposal called on the Houthis to surrender their heavy weaponry to a third party, to transform themselves into a political party, and to help set into motion a new interim period characterised by an agenda that guaranteed them a place as a political partner.
The Houthis rejected the proposal on the grounds that, like the proposal in the negotiations in Kuwait in 2016, it failed to furnish sufficient guarantees.
The Ould Cheikh initiative, which he explained in detail in an exclusive interview with the Weekly before the end of his tenure, aimed to create a model for political and security transition in Hodeida that could then be expanded and built on. However, he said, the necessary political will for such an initiative did not exist on either side.
On the battlefield, the Saudi-led coalition to restore the legitimate government in Yemen continues to pursue war on several fronts. Coalition command reports striking targets in Taiz, Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis, Aal-Tahita directorate south of Hodeida, and Saada, the Houthi homeland.
Brigadier General Saleh Qaroush, commander of the Fifth Regiment of the Republican Guards, which is fighting under the flag of the Hadi government, announced that “[Houthi] militias launched three attacks in succession in an attempt to penetrate army positions and recapture locations they had lost. However, these attempts were repelled in violent battles that resulted in dozens of dead and wounded.”
Qaroush acknowledged that Houthi forces retained fire-power control over the centre of Baqem district and held strategic and advanced positions from which it could shift the focus of battle.
Official statements from both sides speak of pushing and shoving along the fronts on both sides. News reports broadcast on Al-Masira, the official TV station of the Houthi-controlled government in Sanaa, confirm that Houthi forces continue to hold firm at the front in Al-Tahita, belying recent Hadi government claims that its forces have taken control of Al-Tahita.
Houthi forces also continue to fire missiles into Saudi Arabia. Official coalition communiqués report that the missiles are intercepted by Saudi aerial defense systems.
Meanwhile, civilian losses remain high according to reports by UN and international rights agencies. Coalition sources have lashed out at reports from these agencies, arguing that the Houthis are to blame because they are the party that rebelled against the legitimate government.
The UAE added an official criticism levelled by Foreign Minister Anwar Qarqash who posted a comment on his Twitter account timed to coincide with Griffiths’ tour, stating: “Every war and crisis comes with its big lie. In Yemen, the UAE has been the victim of an unjust slur campaign because it undertook its responsibilities for regional security with courage and dignity.
The fictions on our role in Socotra and secret prisons are fake news whose lies and falsehoods have begun to emerge clearly.” He accused “hostile sources” of being behind the campaign, saying: “As for the fake news and false accusations against the UAE, their source is either an enemy who is tasting one defeat after the other or impotent political trends. The record of the Emirati men in the Arab coalition during the past three years testifies only to victory and progress.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Prospects for Yemen remain dim