Yemeni Rebels, Saudis in Back-Channel Talks to Maintain Ceasefire

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CAIRO (TBEN) — Amid Yemen’s longest lull in fighting ever — more than nine months — Saudi Arabia and its rival, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, have revived back-channel talks, hoping to ease the informal to strengthen the ceasefire and pave the way for a negotiated end to the long civil war, according to Yemeni, Saudi and UN officials.

Calm is fragile and there has been no formal ceasefire since a UN-brokered ceasefire ended in October. It has been rocked by Houthi attacks on oil facilities and fiery rhetoric from the internationally recognized Yemeni government allied with Saudi Arabia, which complains it has been kept out of the talks so far. Lack of progress could lead to a collapse and a resumption of all-out fighting.

But all sides appear to be searching for a solution after eight years of war that killed more than 150,000 people, fragmented Yemen and drove the Arab world’s poorest country to collapse and near starvation in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Saudi Arabia resumed indirect exchanges with the Houthis in September, when it became clear that the UN-brokered ceasefire would not be extended. Oman acted as an intermediary.

“It is an opportunity to end the war,” said a UN official, “if they negotiate in good faith and involve other Yemeni actors in the talks.” Like other officials, the UN official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the fragility of the conversations.

A Saudi diplomat said his country has asked China and Russia to put pressure on Iran and the Houthis to prevent escalations. Iran, which has been regularly briefed on talks by the Houthis and Omanis, has so far supported the undeclared ceasefire, the diplomat said.

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The war in Yemen began when the Houthis descended from their strongholds in North Yemen and took the capital Sanaa in 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee south and then go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia entered the war in 2015, leading military cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries. The coalition, backed by the United States, has been waging a devastating bombing campaign and is supporting government forces and militias in the South. The conflict became a proxy war between regional enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Neither side has gained ground for years. The Houthis maintain their hold on the north, Sanaa and much of the densely populated west. The government and militias control the south and east, including the main central areas with most of Yemen’s oil reserves.

The war has bled beyond Yemen’s borders, with the Houthis attacking Saudi Arabia and the UAE with ballistic missiles and explosive-laden drones. The rebels also attacked ships in the Red Sea. They used weapons from the stockpiles they seized in Sanaa and weapons supplied by Iran, according to independent and UN experts and Western countries.

Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have had indirect negotiations in the past, mainly over prisoner swaps or sporadic ceasefires.

The most ambitious talks, in 2019, helped halt a government advance into the Houthi-owned port of Hodeida on the Red Sea. But Saudi officials accused the rebels of using an undeclared ceasefire to gain territory and advance on the prized government-controlled city of Marib. A months-long battle for Marib ensued, with the Houthis suffering huge losses and finally being repulsed in late 2021.

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The UN brokered a more formal ceasefire that began in April 2022 and was extended twice. It was over in October. Houthi attacks on oil facilities in government-controlled areas have been the biggest disruption in recent months, but so far the warring factions have not resumed fighting.

“An escalation would be costly on all fronts,” said a Yemeni government official. Still, “they are all building up for the next (war) round if the UN effort and the Saudi Houthi talks fail.”

One problem is that previous attempts at a solution have been hampered by the conflicting interests of the powers involved in the war – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, said Abdel-Bari Taher, a Yemeni commentator and former head of the journalists’ union.

“These talks will not lead to concrete conclusions if they do not involve all Yemeni parties in the process,” Taher said.

The Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, said visits to Sanaa by Omani officials show the seriousness of the Houthis. The most recent visit ended on Sunday.

“It’s give and take with other parties,” he said, apparently referring to Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has developed a phased roadmap for a settlement, which has been backed by the US and the United Nations, the UN official said. In it, the coalition makes a number of important promises, including to further reopen the airport in Sanaa and to relax a blockade on Hodeida, the official said.

The Houthis are demanding that the coalition pay the salaries of all state employees – including the military – from oil and gas revenues, and that all airports and ports be opened under Houthi control. A Houthi official involved in the deliberations said the Saudis had promised to pay the salaries.

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However, the Saudi diplomat said that the payment of military salaries is contingent on the Houthis accepting security guarantees, including a buffer zone with Houthis-held areas along the Yemeni-Saudi border. The Houthis should also lift their blockade of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, he said.

The Saudis also want the Houthis to commit to participating in official talks with other Yemeni stakeholders, the diplomat said.

The Houthi official said his party has not accepted parts of the Saudi proposal, particularly the security guarantees, and refuses to resume oil exports from government-controlled areas without paying salaries. The Houthis proposed a distribution of oil revenues according to a pre-war budget, the official said. That means the Houthi-controlled areas receive up to 80% of the revenue, as they are the most populous, according to the official.

The Saudi diplomat said both sides were working with Omani officials to develop the proposal to be “more satisfactory for all parties,” including other Yemeni parties.

All this has left the internationally recognized government without a voice, a Yemeni government official said. He said the government’s presidential council is concerned that Saudi Arabia will make “unacceptable concessions” to reach an agreement.

But the Yemeni anti-Houthi alliance remains torn by internal divisions, so there is little room for manoeuvre.

“We have no choice but to wait and see the conclusion of these negotiations,” the official said.