Saudi Arabia Offers Cease-Fire Deal in Yemen War
Saudi Arabia unveiled a proposal for a cease-fire aimed at disentangling itself from Yemen’s civil war, as rebel forces press an offensive and the Biden administration seeks to extricate the U.S. from the six-year-old conflict.
The proposal announced Monday includes a nationwide cease-fire, reopening of both the airport in the capital San’a and the country’s largest port at Hodeidah, as well as the start of political consultations under United Nations supervision, which have so far failed to resolve the conflict between the Saudi-backed forces and the Houthi rebels.
“We want the guns to fall completely silent. That is the initiative and that is the only thing that can really help us get to the next step,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters Monday. “We hope that we can have a cease-fire immediately, but the onus is on the Houthis.”
The Houthis, who are aligned with Saudi archenemy Iran, dismissed the proposal as containing nothing new.
“Any positions or initiatives that don’t recognize that Yemen has been subjected to hostility and blockade for six years, and don’t separate the humanitarian aspect from any political or military bargain or lift the blockade are nothing new or serious,” said the group’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdel Salam.
Following the announcement, the State Department said Secretary Antony Blinken had spoken with Prince Faisal by phone to reiterate U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense and support for efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.
U.S. officials said they welcomed the commitment of both parties to a cease-fire and a political process to resolve the conflict. “We call on all parties to commit seriously to a cease-fire immediately,” a State Department spokesperson told reporters on Monday, calling it “one step in the right direction.”
The U.N. also welcomed the Saudi announcement, which it said aligns with its own initiative, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.
Washington has backed the Saudi-led coalition since the Obama administration gave the green light for its initial intervention. The U.S. has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members, including the United Arab Emirates, and supplied it with intelligence and other support.
The latest proposal is in line with past Saudi statements and the agenda previously set out by the U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen. It also tracks closely with the terms laid out by U.S. special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, during his meetings in the region earlier this month.
Peter Salisbury, a Yemen specialist with the International Crisis Group, said the move makes public what was being discussed in private: “The Saudi offer and the Houthi response more than anything show us that the gap between them hasn’t narrowed that much since last year, but that they are a little closer.”
Saudi officials say the public nature of the announcement was aimed at clarifying the position of the kingdom, which faces unrelenting international criticism over its role in the war, and eliciting a response from the Houthis, who have disparaged the recent U.S. efforts.
Riyadh is struggling to extricate itself from the costly and unpopular conflict. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, just months into his position as defense minister, intervened in 2015 to halt the advance of Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who had just overrun the capital San’a, Saudi officials said the fighting would last only a few weeks.
Since then, the war has raged on despite repeated mediation efforts by the U.N. and others. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has failed to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power.
The Houthis, on the other hand, have taken control of most of the country and have stepped up a campaign of firing missiles and drones into Saudi Arabia, hitting civilian sites and key energy infrastructure, including a civilian airport near the border and last week an Aramco refinery in Riyadh.
Coalition airstrikes have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in attacks that hit schools, buses and public markets, while partial blockades have contributed to food shortages and the outbreak of diseases like cholera. Saudi Arabia says it ended airstrikes in most Houthi-controlled areas two years ago and now only uses air power to support Yemeni troops at the front-line and defend its own territory.
President Biden launched a fresh push last month to end the conflict, lifting the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist group, appointing Mr. Lenderking as a personal envoy to work on peace efforts and announcing an end to the remaining U.S. offensive support for the Saudi-led military campaign there.
The Saudi peace proposal faces steep odds. Similar efforts have failed in the past, including a unilateral cease-fire by the coalition a year ago and a partial cease-fire in 2019.
And it comes as the Houthis advance within miles of Marib, the last stronghold in Yemen’s north for the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the site of a coveted oil refinery. If the city falls, Saudi and Yemeni officials warn, it would give the Houthis and their Iranian allies control of a strategically valuable area that could serve as a launchpad for continued strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. But U.S. officials don’t think the Houthis will manage to seize it.
Prince Faisal said the Saudi government was in touch with the Houthis about the proposal and had conveyed its interest in having the group at the negotiating table with other Yemeni parties.
“What we have heard so far is only more and more demands, not a clear indication that they are ready to put the interests of Yemen and the Yemeni people first,” he said.
Most recently, the Houthis told negotiators they wanted the Saudis to allow a certain number of ships to enter Hodeida port before they would engage in more talks, Saudi officials said.