ABU DHABI // The latest flurry of diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen has concluded without breakthrough as the UN’s peace efforts remain fruitless.
Both the Houthi rebels and Yemeni forces consider the other to be in a weaker position, and neither appears militarily or politically exhausted despite the profound suffering of ordinary Yemenis.
UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed ended his latest round of talks with Houthi officials in Sanaa on Monday — the same day Yemeni forces, backed by an Arab coalition, made their first significant territorial gains in months after capturing the port of Mokha.
Mr Cheikh Ahmed held talks with President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, the prime minister and foreign minister in Aden last week, after a series of meetings with senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar in their respective capitals.
The UN envoy urged the rebels and their allies loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to provide a plan on the withdrawal of their forces from territory they seized and handover of weapons.
“Delays in providing the plan will result in delays to achieving peace and allow for more deaths and further economic and humanitarian deterioration,” warned Mr Cheikh Ahmed.
Mr Cheikh Ahmed also called on the government to allow commercial flights to resume at Sanaa airport as the restrictions have “prevented scores of Yemenis from receiving badly-needed medical treatment and have left many others stranded outside the country”.
The diplomacy comes as the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces launched a major military operation against the Houthi-Saleh rebels on January 7, aimed at capturing a string of strategic ports on the western coastline in Taiz province close to the crucial Red Sea Bab Al Mandeb choke point.
After taking the small village of Dhubab, Operation Golden Spear wrested control of the larger Mokha port from the rebels on Monday. The ultimate goal is reportedly the capture of Hodeidah, the main port for food and fuel for rebel-controlled territory in northern Yemen, where the majority of the country’s population is concentrated.
Yemeni military officials said another objective was to cut off the Iranian weapons supply line to the rebels that they said went through the Red Sea ports, particularly Mokha. Controlling the Red Sea coastline — which until now has mostly been in the hands of the rebels — is also aimed at finally tipping the battle for Taiz city, the strategic gateway between northern and southern Yemen.
UAE forces were involved with planning the operation and are providing intelligence to the Yemeni ground troops, which are being advised and assisted by Emirati special forces, according to a source familiar with the offensive. Coalition jets, attack helicopters and warships also carried out strikes against rebel targets as the ground forces fought to take Dhubab or Mokha.
General Omar Said Subaihi, commander of the southern resistance forces — one of three main factions that make up Yemen’s forces — was killed by rebel snipers at the beginning of the offensive in Dhubab. His death has been used as a rallying call for other southern militias from the Subaihi and Qasimi tribes to join the fight against the rebels in Taiz.
Retaking Hodeidah would be a major strategic victory, but it is unclear how feasible and sustainable the campaign would be. Southern militiamen motivated in large measure by southern autonomy may be less than willing to sustain casualties for a major northern city.
A much larger population lives in Hodeidah than in Dhubab or Mokha, increasing the likelihood of large civilian casualties, and it would also require significant resources to hold and secure even if the battle was won.
“If the fighting continues to Hodeidah, there are many risks for both sides,” said April Longley Alley, the Yemen analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Hodeidah is not Aden, where the majority looked to the coalition as liberators — instead it is at best a mixed city, historically a GPC-Saleh stronghold where little happened during the 2011 uprising.”
Beyond tactical military gains, the operation appears intended to achieve the broader political goal of the resumption of negotiations. “Already the Houthi-Saleh bloc agreed in November to negotiate on the basis of the UN road map,” Ms Alley said. “It seems that now the government and coalition are determined to try to break the military stalemate and bring them back to talks in a weaker position.”
Yemeni government and coalition officials also say that the increased military pressure on the rebel alliance is creating fissures between the Houthi movement and the Saleh loyalists. But other observers say that despite potential divisions and competition for resources and power, the rebels and Mr Saleh know that if their alliance fell apart both would be greatly weakened and imperilled.
It is also clear that the rebels have underestimated the resolve of the Saudi-led coalition, and they have calculated that the political and financial costs of the war will force Riyadh to blink.
As such, the conditions for meaningful negotiations are still not ripe.