The United States first tried its hand at mediating an end to the brutal Yemen war two years ago – without success. Secretary of State John Kerry on behalf of the Obama administration traveled to Oman, trusting that the nuclear accord signed with Iran would lead to a breakthrough to peace in Yemen. But when he arrived in Muscat, he found he was alone at the negotiating table; none of the warning sides turned up.
But in February 2018, circumstances have changed and may offer the Trump administration a much better chance of success. All the parties entangled in the Yemen war are looking for a way out of the mess: the Saudis, the Emirates, Iran, the Houthi insurgents and the Yemenis, whose splinter groups are caught up in hopeless internecine warfare. They all agree that the longer the conflict drags on, the less any of them can expect to come out with winnings and, meanwhile, the horrors of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters abound, with men, women and children dying every day of hunger and thirst.
The Houthis’ fortunes have plummeted since early December, when they put to death their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they suspected of betraying them by secretly negotiating with the Saudis. His outraged sons have seized parts of central Yemen and are pinning the Houthi forces down in savage battle. The regime of the Saudi-backed incumbent Yemeni president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is on its last legs. He has lost his loyal forces, who have broken away and are fighting for an independent southern state. In the last few weeks, they captured the port of Aden, evicted Hadi’s followers and established a Southern Transitional Council, headed by the former Aden Governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi.
Zubaidi announced this week that his group is committed to the Saudi-led coalition’s “struggle against the Houthi insurgency,” although he added, “The people of the South have the right to their own state when the international community is ready for that.”
This southern breakaway group won UAE backing for its operations and the Saudis have not objected.
The Houthi leadership is no less divided over whether to carry on fighting. The Iranians, up to their ears in schemes for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, have less time for Yemen, are cooling towards the Houthis and look very much as though they would not hold out against a resolution of the conflict.
The first ray of light appeared in the Yemeni murk this week. Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a senior Houthi commander and leading negotiator, turned up in Muscat without warning, bringing with him an American citizen who had been held captive for three years. He announced he is not returning to Yemen any time soon and would stick around in Oman for as long as necessary for negotiations to start.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in the Gulf report that this announcement was taken in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as an expression of Houthi willingness for the first time to enter into negotiations for terminating the fighting. Some circles in the Pentagon and State Department see the first real chance has come up for dialogue with the Houthis, provided the Trump administration sends the right person to lead the negotiations. One of the names that have come up as capable of getting the talks rolling is that of Marc J. Sievers, a career member of the US Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor. From Sept. 11 to Aug. 2014, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo.
Also under consideration is Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador to Yemen, who has been resident in Riyadh since the US mission in Sanaa was closed in February 2015.
It is estimated in Washington that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman will have no objections to US-Houthi talks beginning, provided the Yemeni insurgents guarantee to stop cross-border attacks and firing ballistic missiles at Saudi and UAE targets. He will also hold out for the restoration of the internationally recognized government in Sanaa and a diminished Iranian presence in the country.
These issues and an agenda await final decisions in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It is also hoped that the Houthi negotiator won’t lose patience with the complicated diplomatic maneuvers entailed in getting the process off the ground. If he packs his bags and returns home, a rare opportunity for a US-Houthi dialogue to end the Yemen war will be missed.