Saudi ceasefire initiative confuses Houthis, Iran

For the Houthis, a ceasefire at the present time means an end to their offensive on the economically and politically strategic Marib governorate and this without achieving any gains.
Wednesday 24/03/2021
Forces loyal to Yemen’s Huthi rebels guard the area around Sanaa’s Al-Saleh mosque in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. AFP
Forces loyal to Yemen’s Huthi rebels guard the area around Sanaa’s Al-Saleh mosque in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. (AFP)

RIYADH--Saudi Arabia’s plan for a “comprehensive” ceasefire in Yemen confused calculations of Houthi militias and their Iranian sponsors as it came at an inappropriate time for both sides, observers said.

For the Houthis, a ceasefire at the present time means an end to their offensive on the economically and politically strategic Marib governorate and this without achieving any gains.

As for Iran, a ceasefire and the permanent closing of the Yemeni front would mean the abandonment of a key pressure card on its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. This comes at a time when Tehran is hoping to maintain Yemen’s costly war of attrition that is unlikely to be resolved by military means, believing that the longer the conflict lasts, the weaker Saudi Arabia will become.

Iran, in fact, does not want to lose any of its pressure cards, including that of the conflict in Yemen, at least not before it completes rearranging its relations with the new US administration of President Joe Biden, possibly obtaining the lifting of sanctions that were reimposed by the previous administration of president Donald Trump.

In a sign of Tehran’s reluctance to close the Yemeni file, the Islamic Republic’s reaction to the Saudi initiative was almost identical to that of the Houthis, who demanded more concessions before agreeing to a ceasefire.

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday the country welcomes “any peace initiative focused on ending the six-year war on Yemen.”  But it enunciated  so many conditions that their  declared “welcome” of any peace formula amounted to a roadmap for continued conflict.

“The simultaneous declaration of a ceasefire and the lifting of blockade will pave the way for preventing the continuation of this human disaster, and prepare the ground for dialogue,” the ministry said in its statement.

“Iran supports any peace plan focused on ending the aggression, declaring a nationwide ceasefire, ending the occupation, lifting the economic siege, starting the political dialogue, and finally letting Yemenis take the helm of shaping their political future free from any foreign interference,” the ministry added.

However, Iran’s role is viewed with suspicion by Saudi Arabia. While announcing the ceasefire offer, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan urged the Houthi militias to join the initiative. “We want the guns to fall completely silent,” Prince Faisal said.

“However, the time frame is up to the Houthis now. We are ready to go to them. But they have to decide, will they put the interests of Yemen first or the interests of Iran?”

“Iran’s meddling has been the main reason behind prolonging the crisis in Yemen,” the Saudi minister noted.

Saudi Arabia made two concessions to the Houthis in the plan, while not offering everything the militias previously wanted. The first involves reopening Sana’a International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that hasn’t seen regular commercial flights since 2015. Officials did not immediately identify what commercial routes they wanted to see resume.

The second would see taxes, customs and other fees generated by the Hodeida port while importing oil put into a joint account of Yemen’s Central Bank. That account would be accessible to the Houthis and Yemen’s recognised government to pay civil servants and fund other programs, officials said.

The Saudi government and the Yemeni government it backs have accused the Houthis of stealing those funds in the past. A report this year by a UN panel of experts said the Houthis “diverted” about $200 million from that fund. “Only a small portion of the funds were used to pay salaries,” the report said.

Whether the Houthis accept the Saudi proposal remains in question. On Friday, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi proposed a nationwide cease-fire contingent upon Saudi Arabia reopening Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights and lifting restrictions on cargo shipments to Hodeida. The port handles most of the country’s vital imports. Both are long-standing demands of the Houthis, who swept into Sanaa from their northwestern strongholds in September 2014.

“There is nothing new about the Saudi initiative,” another senior Houthi official said on condition of anonymity. “First, the airport and the port must both be opened.”

Prince Faisal criticised the Houthis for making “only more and more demands.”

The Houthis, with Iran’s support, showed their desire for escalation late on Tuesday by launching a drone attack on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia.

There was no immediate confirmation by Saudi authorities or the Saudi-led military coalition of an attack on Abha airport which has been repeatedly targeted by cross-border attacks.

“Our operations will continue as long as the aggression and siege continue,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said in a Twitter post.

Regardless of whether the Houthis and Iran will accept the Saudi initiative or not, the international community, including Saudi Arabia, are still pushing for peace in the war-torn country in efforts that reveal that Iran-backed remain the main stumbling block in ceasefire negotiations.

On Tuesday, British foreign minister Dominic Raab said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and foreign ministers of Germany and France met to discuss peace initiatives for Yemen.

“From pushing for peace in Yemen to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Britain, US, France, Germany stand together as force for good,” Raab said in a tweet, using images of the flags of the four countries instead of naming them in words in his message.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has allowed four fuel ships to dock at Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Four vessels, including two carrying a total of 45,000 tonnes of gas oil, a ship loaded with 5,000 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas and a fourth tanker with 22,700 tonnes of fuel oil have received clearance from the coalition, the sources said.

As of Wednesday morning, the four vessels had not yet begun moving towards Hodeidah port, which is controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthi group battling the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The deputy transport minister of Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Nasser Sharif, said on Twitter that a number of oil ships had been allowed to the port of Hodeidah to ease the humanitarian situation. He did not give further details.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthi chief negotiator, said, “The provision of fuel, food, medical and basic goods is a humanitarian and legal right for the Yemeni people. We do not accept any military or political conditions for receiving them.”

SAudi Yemen map (AFP)

The Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen’s war in March 2015 as the Houthis threatened to take Yemen’s port city of Aden and completely overrun the country’s internationally recognised government. The Saudis promised that the offensive would be over in short order.

Six years later, the fighting rages on. The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project. Tens of thousands of children have died of starvation and disease.

The Yemen conflict is seen as a regional battlefield where Iran supports the Houthis as proxies to target the kingdom and carry out its agenda in the Gulf.