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Is Yemen headed for a five-week ceasefire?

Source tells MEE that Houthis have offered to retreat from captured territory in exchange from being dropped from UN sanctions list
Armed Yemeni tribesmen loyal to deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi in Marib after clashes with Houthis (AFP)

Indirect talks between Houthi officials and American and British diplomats, to try and end hostilities in Yemen, went into their fifth day in Oman's capital Muscat on Tuesday.

Sources told MEE that the release of an American journalist, held for weeks by the Houthis in Yemen's capital Sanaa, is the first tangible sign of a Houthi climbdown after two months of Saudi-led airstrikes, and a direct result of the ongoing talks in Oman.

Speaking from the capital Sanaa, Hisham al-Omeisy, a political analyst and activist said the Houthis had offered to comply with a UN resolution that would effectively force them to retreat from territory they have captured in exchange for being dropped from the UN sanctions list.

Dropping the Houthis from the sanctions list would require the UN Security Council to convene, so negotiators, Omeisy said, are asking the Houthis to agree to the terms as a starting point.

In parallel, UN Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who took over seven weeks ago when his predecessor stepped down, has been in Riyadh, attempting to coax Saudi officials and Yemen’s government in exile, led by President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, to lower their demands.

The current negotiations in Oman come after talks, scheduled for 28 May, in Geneva were cancelled. If successful, they will lead to the setting of another date for the factions to meet in Switzerland.

Sources say the Houthis want political recognition which they feel they were denied by the country’s national dialogue that followed Yemen’s Arab uprising and the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.

“They want to be recognised as a legitimate power and have their rightful seat at the table,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “and they feel their rightful seat at the table is much more than parties are going to give them.”

The Saudis, who say that the Houthis are backed by Iran and see the group, who have attacked Saudi border towns in recent weeks, as a strategic threat, are demanding that the Houthis follow UN 2216 resolution. The decision, adopted by the UN Security Council in April, demands, in part, that the Houthis pull back from all territory they have seized, including from Sanaa. 

“The Houthis and Saleh, they have to cease operations, to stop their coup,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and commentator.

Retreating according to the terms of the resolution would “effectively be a death sentence" for the Houthis, Baron said.

The obstacles

A sticking point, according to Omeisy, is that the Saudis don’t want Oman – which has close ties to Iran and is the only GCC country not taking part in the Saudi-led air strikes against Yemen - to take credit for the mediation.

“... the Saudis are upset that it’s the Omanis taking the lead and not the Saudis,” he said. “It’s childish.”

The talks are being held now, Omeisy said, because the mediators are attempting to start a five week ceasefire to coincide with Ramadan which begins in two weeks.

The holiday, he said, will give King Salman an excuse to press pause on a war that is reportedly popular amongst the Saudi public. 

“The king will say, ‘I’m going to give a pause only because it’s the month of Ramadan and because I’m a religious man’,” Omeisy said.

But Khashoggi said the Saudis “want a peaceful conclusion to the crisis” and are supportive of Oman’s role, allowing the Houthis to use their airspace to go to Oman. The obstacle, he said, is that the Houthis are offering too little.

“They are offering to leave some localities and some positions, but not all positions,” he said. “It is the Iranian style of give and take. It is like the bazaar mentality. ‘Ok, we withdraw from the east side of Sanaa . . .’ No, it will not work this way.”

A Saudi retreat from Yemen at this point would be difficult for the country’s new king and recently reshuffled leadership in the face of a public largely supportive of the campaign which is seen as curbing Iranian expansionism into Arab capitals, he said.

“If Saudi left Yemen today, it would be seen as a defeat for Saudi Arabia and for the new leadership,” Khashoggi said.

‘Back to the stone age’

As the mediators in Riyadh and Muscat attempt to bridge the distance between the Houthis and the Saudis and pave the road to peace talks in Geneva, the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country “threatens to bring Yemen back to the stone age,” Baron said. “Which is not even a minor exaggeration.”

Last week, Oxfam reported that two thirds of Yemen’s population did not have access to clean water, bringing not only thirst, but concern about the spread of malaria, cholera and diarrhoea.

Food and fuel, which is critical because it is needed to deliver aid and also to pump water from the ground, are also in short supply in the country where more than 60 percent of people needed humanitarian assistance before fighting began, according the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“The prospect of starving to death is much more realistic,” Baron said. “There is the possibility that you will have Yemenis dying of thirst at this point.”

Pointing to a Saudi blockade on fuel and food which he said forces aid organisations to get permission every couple of days to ship in supplies, Omeisy said the Saudis are trying to prompt popular unrest against the Houthis.

“‘Let’s suffocate the population and hopefully there will be an uprising from within against the Houthis’,” Omeisy said. “That’s not happening.”

“Sooner or later, we’ll be out of stock. We will march towards Saudi Arabia. You can’t just starve us to death. We will bring hell,” he said.

From a house in Sanaa where he said he has been sitting through up to 10 hours a day of Saudi-led jets flying over and Houthi anti-aircraft weapons firing off, Omeisy said his hope is on the Omani negotiations to bring an end to fighting.

Khashoggi, who said he didn't believe the talks in Oman would change the battle, said he could understand Omeisy’s frustration.   

“Nobody likes war. Nobody likes to be bombed,” said Khashoggi. “We as Saudis need to try to win the hearts and minds of [Yemenis in] the north. I think we fall short of that. We need to tell them the purpose of the operation.”  

“If it wasn’t for the airstrikes,” he said, “the Houthis would be the sole owner of Yemen today.”