‘Up in the air’: Red Sea crisis puts Yemen peace process on hold

‘Up in the air’: Red Sea crisis puts Yemen peace process on hold
‘Up in the air’: Red Sea crisis puts Yemen peace process on hold

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - A member of Huthi-affiliated security forces mans a gun as he stands guard during a rally in the Huthi-run capital Sanaa on February 9, 2024 in support of Palestinians amid ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in the Gaza Strip. — AFP pic

DUBAI, Feb 12 — Amanda Mouawad As Huthi attacks roil the Red Sea and Western air raids target the rebels, moves to end Yemen’s long-running war are at a standstill, threatening further woe for a country on its knees.

As recently as December, painstaking negotiations were gaining ground and the United Nations said the warring parties had agreed to work towards “the resumption of an inclusive political process”.

The Iran-backed Huthis have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, months after they seized the capital Sanaa and most of Yemen’s population centres, forcing the internationally recognised government south to Aden.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the fighting and from indirect causes such as disease and malnutrition. More than 18 million Yemenis need “urgent support”, according to the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA.

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Hostilities slowed considerably in April 2022, when a six-month, UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect, and they have remained at a low level since.

But Huthi attacks on Red Sea shipping and American and British retaliation have thrown the peace process “up in the air”, said Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

The Huthis, who say they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, have launched dozens of attacks on ships in the vital maritime route since November.

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Seventeen of their fighters were killed in recent reprisal strikes, according to the insurgents.

“Peace in Yemen requires international and regional commitments different than those that exist now,” Muslimi said. “The path to war had been closed, but now the door to hell has reopened.”

Peace plan ‘no longer on table’

Top Huthi official Hussein al-Ezzi this month acknowledged “obstacles” on the path to peace, which he blamed on the US, Britain, and the Yemeni government.

But “Riyadh and Sanaa have the courage to overcome these difficulties”, he told a press conference, without elaborating.

However, Majid Al-Madhaji, of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think-tank, said that with the flare up in the Red Sea, “a peace plan no longer has a place on the discussion table”.

In December, the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said there was progress towards a roadmap that would resolve key issues such as agreeing to pay civil servants working under the Huthis, and resuming oil exports.

However, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government is now angling for an “opportunity to reverse the balance of power” in its favour, said Madhaji.

Last month, the deputy leader of the government’s presidential council even called for foreign backing for a ground offensive to back up the US-British air strikes against the Huthis.

In mid-January, Washington redesignated the Huthis a terror group, having lifted the designation in 2021 to aid humanitarian efforts and promote diplomatic endeavours.

But “the idea that we (the US) would now build up the anti-Huthi forces to the point where they could renew the fighting, I think is simply not in the cards”, said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen.

“We’re not going to go down that route,” he told AFP.

The US is “under a great deal of pressure not to do anything that’s going to undermine the (peace) negotiations,” Feierstein added.

‘Watch from afar’

General Joseph Votel, former head of US Central Command, also downplayed the possibility of “a major fight”, saying Washington has more pressing issues, not least the Israel-Hamas war.

“Resolving the situation in Gaza, and restoring some type of deterrence with Iran to me would be much higher priorities,” the retired general said.

US ally Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has engaged in a delicate balancing act as the world’s biggest oil exporter tries to extricate itself from the intractable war on its doorstep.

It has not joined a US-led naval coalition to deter Huthi attacks on shipping and expressed “great concern” following the first round of strikes by the US and Britain, calling for “restraint”.

Riyadh “will watch from afar to what extent Washington will go, but it will not engage in any battle with the Huthis unless they target its lands”, said Muslimi.

But even with Saudi Arabia staying out of the flare-up, the path towards peace in Yemen remains elusive, according to Mohammed Al-Basha, a Yemen expert for the US-based Navanti research group.

“The international community is less likely to support a Yemeni peace plan due to concerns about rewarding the Huthis for Red Sea attacks, thus freezing the UN-led and US-backed peace process,” he said. — AFP

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