Arab coalition halts operations in Yemen, indicating breakthrough but Houthis escalate
ADEN/ MUSCAT – The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has indicated that Omani-brokered mediation may have finally led to a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran-backed Houthi rebels who do not seem to have given up on winning the conflict militarily despite the heavy civilian toll.
The coalition put out a statement on Thursday saying it had stopped offensive operations to help “create a propitious political atmosphere for the peaceful settlement process.”
Well-informed Omani sources told The Arab Weekly that an agreement has been nearly reached on a ceasefire and the opening of Sana’a airport and Hodeida port in accordance with the 2018 Stockholm Agreement and that these are intended as confidence-building measures between the parties before dialogue on political issues and moreover, that all these questions are part of a single package.
The sources indicated that this agreement, which may yet fail to hold, considering bloody attacks and provocative statements by the Houthis, was reached after months of intensive meetings in Muscat between Omani, Saudi and Yemeni government and Houthi representatives and against a backdrop of rising international pressure.
Muhammad Mubarak al-Araimi, head of the Omani Journalists’ Association, described the coalition’s suspension of operations as a last chance for the Houthis to stop obstructing the truce initiative, which did not come from Oman or the Gulf, but from the United Nations.
Araimi told The Arab Weekly that developments will become clearer in the course of next week. He expects a breakthrough for several reasons, principally the visit by the high-ranking Omani delegation to Sana’a and its appearance on local television. Such appearances rarely occur unless a deal is about to be struck. He believes that a deal has in fact matured and the time has come to bring it into the open.
Special sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that the delegation from the Omani Royal Office, which visited Sana’a and met the leader of the Houthi group, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, did not obtain final approval of the ceasefire plan as a single, indivisible package.
The sources indicated that Abdul-Malik al-Houthi referred the task of discussing the technical details presented to him by the Omanis to the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi al-Mashat. Mashat emphasised during his meeting with the Omanis, the long-held Houthi view that separates the humanitarian track from the political track. He repeated the demand for the opening of Sana’a International Airport to international flights as well as other unspecified destinations and for the lifting of the restrictions on the port of Hodeidah, before entering into the details of the comprehensive ceasefire.
Mashat said, “The opening of Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah is a simple humanitarian requirement that is not a favour from anyone.”
He also denied linking this demand to any other requirement such as the suspension of attacks on Marib. On Thursday town was rocked by three large explosions Thursday as a result of Houthi attacks.
At least eight people were killed in explosions that shook the Yemeni city of Marib in what the information minister said were missile and drone strikes launched by Houthi forces trying to seize the gas-rich region.
Minister Muammar al-Iryani wrote in a Twitter post that the Houthis fired two ballistic missiles and two armed drones and had hit a mosque, a commercial centre and a women’s correctional facility as well as ambulances rushing to the scene.
He put the initial death toll at eight, including women, and said 27 people had been wounded. Two medical sources told Reuters the hospital received five killed and more than 15 injured.
The Houthi Supreme Political Council said there were “three basic principles that cannot be ignored in any upcoming discussions, namely lifting of the siege, stopping the aggression by air, land and sea, ending the occupation, withdrawal of foreign forces, and non-interference in Yemen’s internal affairs.”
Yemeni political researcher and deputy head of the media department of the General People’s Congress, Abdul Hafeez al-Nahari, told The Arab Weekly, “The Houthis tried in their statements to suggest that the Omani efforts are limited to the humanitarian dimension, but this is not true and just aims to mislead the local public opinion. It is clear that it is contrary to the international package that includes the three dimensions: humanitarian, military and political.”
Yemeni analysts believe that the most prominent threat to the Yemeni peace efforts is the attempt by the Iranian-backed Houthi group to show itself in a position of strength and so being able to impose its own conditions.
Yemeni political researcher Mahmoud al-Taher described the Arab coalition’s statements on the suspension of its operations, as “a new way of dealing with the Houthis so as to encourage them to engage seriously in the political settlement process. But the Houthis are likely to respond to with more intransigence and raising the ceiling of their demands, thinking that they have won this war”.
Taher did not rule out that the rigid Houthi media rhetoric could be an attempt to cover up “secret understandings that the Houthis want to conceal, even though such understanding are alluded to by the Arab Coalition’s announcement of the suspension of overflights and opening of Yemeni airports.”