Saudi Arabia has suspended air attacks on Houthi rebels as diplomatic efforts seek to secure a ceasefire and resume negotiations for ending Yemen’s devastating six-year war.
De-escalation is meant to prepare “the political ground for a peace process”, said Saudi spokesman Turki al-Maliki. He denied reports that Saudi warplanes had struck a Houthi armoured division near the capital, Sana’a.
Saudi Arabia hopes its move to de-escalate will halt halt a protracted Houthi offensive to capture the city of Marib, capital of the last northern province controlled by pro-Saudi forces. Marib is the site of Yemen’s largest power plant as well as an oil refinery and major gas and water resources. It also has camps hosting thousands of refugees.
A Houthi victory in Marib would be a major defeat for the Saudis and could drive refugees into the pro-Saudi government-held south. In addition to the physical resources provided by the capture of Marib, the Houthis could use control as leverage in potential negotiations.
In exchange for a ceasefire, the Houthis have demanded the reopening of the airport and an end to the Saudi naval blockade of Hodeidah port. These facilities are rebel-held north Yemen’s lifelines to the outside world.
In recent weeks the Houthis’ Marib offensive appears to have stalled amid reports that Saudi air strikes have killed scores of Houthi fighters. The fact that the Houthis have begun to repair roads to Sana’a airport in preparation for resuming operations appears to signal a positive response to the latest Saudi proposal.
While UN envoy Martin Griffiths and US ambassador Timothy Lenderking have failed to convince the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, Oman, which had adopted a neutral stance in the conflict, appears to be making progress. Omani foreign minister Badr Albusaidi held talks in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Wednesday following meetings with rebel leaders in Sanaa.
The Houthis responded to a Saudi offer of a limited airport reopening in March by stepping up their Marib offensive and firing missiles into Saudi Arabia. They have come under international pressure to end the Marib campaign and agree to a ceasefire.
Recent reconciliation talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Houthis’ ally, are seen as smoothing the way to a ceasefire.
The World Bank estimates that damage to Yemen’s cities could reach $8 billion (€6.6 billion) while aid agencies say food is now reaching Yemenis in need but that funds will run out before the end of the year.
The UN reports 233,000 Yemenis have been killed, four million have been displaced, and 20 out of 29 million are dependent on foreign aid.