Rebels step up attacks as Biden pushes for peace in Yemen

Barely had he Biden administration reversed Donald Trump’s policy on Yemen in an effort to end the country’s six-year war, as some of the conflict’s bloodiest battles have erupted.

The escalation of fighting this year – which has seen Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launch a long-planned offensive to seize Marib, the only northern province beyond their control, and step up attacks against Saudi Arabia – underlines the heavy task which awaits Washington.

US President Joe Biden has made ending the war one of his top foreign policy priorities. What started as a civil war turned into a proxy battle when an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States intervened against the Houthis in 2015. The UN described the situation. in Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.

But analysts say Washington’s decision to revoke a Trump-era designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization and pressure Riyadh to end its six-year intervention in the conflict has failed. only encouraged the rebels.

“The designation of the Houthis was stupid and harmful, but removing it unconditionally is also stupid, because for the first time you have exerted influence on the group,” said Farea al-Muslimi, Yemeni analyst at the Sana’a Center. Strategic studies. “As much as you blame the Republicans for letting the Saudis run free, you can say the same about the Democrats with the Houthis.”

This year alone, the Houthis, a seasoned Islamist movement, have fired more than 50 drones and missiles at the kingdom, targeting airports, towns and oil infrastructure.

Houthi supporters hold anti-US banners during a protest against the US administration and the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, last month © Yahya Arhab / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

While Washington has pressured Riyadh to end the conflict – and Riyadh would like to extricate itself – it has far fewer leverage to cajole the Houthis at the negotiating table.

Washington lifted the Houthi designation in the middle warnings that labeling the rebels as terrorists would trigger the world’s worst famine in decades. Up to 80 percent of Yemen’s population live in Houthi-controlled areas, and the concern was that traders would not import goods into those areas for fear of falling under US sanctions.

A Western diplomat insisted the removal of the designation was “necessary and fundamental,” but admitted the Houthis had been emboldened. “It was an irritant to the new administration, they didn’t want to do this to help the Houthis,” he said.

Diplomats still hope that the intensification of US diplomacy, led by Tim Lenderking, Biden’s envoy to Yemen, can create a breakthrough. Lenderking has previously met with Houthi officials in Oman and spoke to Saudi and Yemeni leaders, diplomats and officials said.

Yemen Map

Riyadh has sought to emerge from the war for more than a year as missile and drone strikes have underscored the vulnerability of the kingdom’s infrastructure, while civilian casualties in Yemen resulting from Saudi airstrikes have drawn widespread criticism.

But Saudi Arabia “never quite pursued [an exit] vigorously, ”the diplomat said. He added that the pressure from the Biden administration on Riyadh, including the freeze on arms sales to the kingdom, had given new momentum.

US and Riyadh back UN-brokered plan that focuses on cessation of hostilities, Saudi-led coalition lifting blockade on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port, and political dialogue between the Yemeni parties, officials said. “If they get a ceasefire, then they continue on what Lenderking called a two-track approach,” one US official said, referring to political talks and humanitarian aid.

But while insisting they want a diplomatic solution, Saudi officials are concerned that the Houthis retain control of the populated north and Iranian influence in Riyadh’s backyard.

“We have continually spoken to the Houthis. But alongside these discussions, we need the pressure, because every time someone takes the pedal off it emboldens those in their leadership who do not want to find a negotiated solution, ”said a senior Saudi official. “The Houthis must have a role and a say in Yemen in the future, but as a minority they cannot be expected to dictate the majority of the population.”

Western diplomats hope Saudi Arabia’s main rival Iran could help convince the Houthis to stop the fighting as the Biden administration seeks to negotiate with Tehran over the United States by joining the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, visited Tehran for talks for the first time last month, and diplomats are betting that Iran’s ties to the Houthis are less strategic as its support for proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

But analysts question the extent of Iran’s influence and whether the Houthis will engage in seriousness, given their strength on the ground as they battle a weak and broken Yemeni government.

“The problem is, the Houthis don’t really want to end the war, they don’t have to. They control 75% of the Yemeni population and the other side [the Yemeni government] is totally fragmented, ”said Muslimi.

If the Marib offensive is successful, the rebels have “effectively” won the war for northern Yemen, said Peter Salisbury, analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. Victory in Marib could also create more divisions within the Yemeni government, which would benefit the rebels if they advanced south.

“The Houthis see this as a war with Saudi Arabia. They want it to end with a deal with the Saudis that makes it clear that they represent the state, ”Salisbury said. “It’s very difficult to see how to find common ground that everyone can accept given the power dynamics on the ground.” A Yemeni government official said it would be a “disaster” if the Houthis captured Marib. “If that happens, no one will talk about peace anymore,” he said.

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