Yemen endgame?

02 Oct 2019

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A FLURRY of activity in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region points to the fact that the ruinous war in Yemen — now in its fifth year — could be wound up soon, if the protagonists agree to terms. This would come as welcome news to the beleaguered people of Yemen, who have been facing death, disease and starvation since the Saudi-led intervention in their country was launched in mid-2015. However, there should not be any premature conclusions, as the complex and volatile situation in the region can change within hours. Moreover, the road to peace in Yemen goes through Riyadh and Tehran, as the Saudi war against the Houthis is primarily seen as part of the larger regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A number of recent events show that the Houthis are capable of inflicting major damage on Saudi Arabia if the stalemate drags on. While the Yemeni militia claimed responsibility for the devastating attacks on oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia last month, Riyadh and its Western allies put the blame on Iran. Even if there were questions involved regarding the Houthis’ capability to carry out such sophisticated attacks, fresh evidence has emerged that the Iran-allied militia recently launched a major incursion near Saudi territory; the Houthis claim they killed or wounded hundreds of Saudi-allied troops, along with having taken Riyadh’s troops prisoner. The group has released what it says is footage of the operation to back up its claims. Moreover, on Monday the militia, which controls the capital Sana’a, released hundreds of enemy combatants, including a handful of Saudis, calling upon the “other party to take a comparable step”. The moves are, apparently, not going unnoticed in Riyadh. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told American outlet CBS that he looked upon a Houthi ceasefire offer as “a positive step to push for ... active political dialogue”. He also said in the same interview that the solution to his country’s stand-off with Iran lay in a “non-military solution”.

Perhaps these realisations have emerged after it dawned upon the powers that be in Riyadh that the war in Yemen is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster, and a simple victory is out of the question if the current situation continues. From here, the Saudis should reach out to the Houthis and respond to their ceasefire offer; such an opportunity to end this atrocious campaign must not be lost. Moreover, a settlement in Yemen may help create the groundwork for direct Saudi-Iranian talks to bring peace and stability to the region. There are also reports in the media that Riyadh has approached Iraq to open a backchannel with Iran. Indeed, the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran is fraught with mistrust, so no miracles should be expected. But if there is a desire on both sides to negotiate a way out of the quagmire, it would be a much preferable alternative to conflict.

Published in Dawn, October 2nd , 2019