Amid airstrikes, rebel offensive, Saudi Arabia offers peace initiative to end war in Yemen

It's the first major plan since President Biden vowed to end the conflict.

March 22, 2021, 12:09 PM

Saudi Arabia and its coalition in Yemen on Monday proposed a major initiative to end the country's six-year war that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis -- their first diplomatic proposal since President Joe Biden announced he'd halt U.S. support for the coalition.

While the proposal lays out a path to a ceasefire and a political settlement, the warring parties have been here before. Deadly clashes have escalated in recent weeks as the Houthi rebels continue their battlefield advances on a key stronghold held by the Saudi-backed government, making it unclear whether the two Yemeni sides are themselves interested in ending the fighting.

In the meantime, the Yemeni people continue to suffer, especially children. Nearly one in four civilians killed or injured in the last three years has been a child, according to a new report by the aid group Save the Children.

"I want the world to stop this war," said Fathiya, whose son Mahmoud was walking home from the market on Feb. 20 when he was killed by an artillery shell. Her other son Omar survived, but fractured both of his legs, the report said.

Mohamed Fahim inspects damage done to his home by an intercepted missile in the aftermath of what Saudi-led coalition said was a thwarted Houthi missile attack, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 28, 2021.
Ahmed Yosri/Reuters

"Children are not safe. Can you imagine that children are being targeted by shelling while playing in streets? This is a big crime," Fathiya, her voice quivering with emotion, told Save the Children. "The biggest war is to destroy children and make their mothers sad. All mothers are hurt, and all houses are unsafe."

Yemen's powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their coalition have been supporting the Yemeni government against the Houthis, a Shiite movement backed by Iran that seized the capital Sanaa in 2015 and now governs over some 75 percent of Yemenis. Both sides have faced allegations of war crimes, including targeting civilians.

The U.S. has provided the Saudi coalition with military support like arms sales, midair refueling, and training, but Biden halted that last month and vowed to end the conflict.

His newly appointed special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, wrapped up a 17-day tour of the region last week, culminating in the United States' own plan for a nationwide ceasefire. But the Houthis rejected it as a Saudi scheme that had nothing new in it.

"Tragically -- and somewhat confusingly for me -- it appears that the Houthis are prioritizing a military campaign to take Marib ... over suspending the war and moving relief to the Yemeni people," Lenderking told the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, on Friday.

Marib is an oil-rich province in Yemen's northwest and one of the last major government strongholds. Since February, the Houthis have sustained an offensive there despite international outcry, with the United Nations warning millions of civilians are at risk, and despite heavy losses.

PHOTO: State Department spokesman Ned Price, left, listens as  U.S. special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking speaks via teleconference during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 16, 2021.
State Department spokesman Ned Price, left, listens as U.S. special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking speaks via teleconference during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 16, 2021. Lenderking, named by President Joe Biden in his first days in office in a sign of renewed effort to address the humanitarian catastrophe, will visit several Gulf nations on a trip that will last through March 3, the State Department said.
Andrew Harnik/Pool via AFP/Getty Images, FILE

It's those losses that give the Saudi coalition some optimism that the Houthis may accept their new proposal, according to a senior Saudi coalition official.

"This is very important for the Yemeni government and the Houthis to take it as an opportunity to improve the humanitarian situation of the Yemeni people and stop attacking and fighting the Yemeni people and Saudi Arabia," the official said Monday. "It will help Yemenis to start thinking about peace and start thinking about their future together."

Their proposal includes an offer for a nationwide ceasefire if the Houthis accept and several confidence-building measures between the two sides, including reopening Sanaa's international airport -- facilitating aid into the country -- restoring access to the key port Hodeida where most of Yemen's food is imported, and depositing oil revenues from the port into the country's beleaguered central bank.

If both sides agree, the United Nations under its special envoy Martin Griffiths would oversee the various agreements and mechanisms to implement them -- including consultations to reach a political agreement.

The State Department has not yet said whether the U.S. supports the Saudi initiative. En route to Europe, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud Monday and discussed efforts "to end the conflict in Yemen, starting with the need for all parties to commit to a ceasefire and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid," according to his spokesperson.

Some Yemen analysts, however, believe that days after the Houthis dismissed the U.S. plan, the new proposal is largely a public relations move by the Saudis to pin blame for the ongoing fighting on the Houthi side.

PHOTO: A Yemeni boy looks at smoke billowing above a neighborhood following Saudi-led airstrikes targeting positions in Sana'a, Yemen, March 7, 2021.
A Yemeni boy looks at smoke billowing above a neighborhood following Saudi-led airstrikes targeting positions in Sana'a, Yemen, March 7, 2021. The Saudi-led coalition's warplanes waged a series of airstrikes on positions across Yemen, including the capital Sana'a.
Yahya Arhab/EPA via Shutterstock

Either way, it seems clear that the warring parties are still not interested in a negotiated settlement. On the same day as the announcement, the Saudi coalition launched dozens of airstrikes that struck in Sanaa and the Houthi-controlled port Salif, according to Reuters, striking grain stores there.

"The external parties to the conflict have the political will to end the war - the Saudis, the Emiratis, the U.S., the United Nations. But it's the internal parties -- the Houthis and the (President Abdrabbuh Mansur) Hadi government -- that are missing that political will, due to circumstances on the ground," said Elana DeLozier, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While the Houthis press their advantage and work to take Marib, the Yemeni government may put the sword first to avoid being forced to make concessions at the negotiating table.

"The Houthis are in a position of strength now, and the Yemeni government is nervous to sit down with them as a result," added DeLozier.

That fighting continues to disproportionately affect children, according to Save the Children. The aid group's analysis of data found that there were 2,341 confirmed child casualties between 2018 and 2020, although exact figures are hard to determine and the real number is likely much higher.

The war is also becoming deadlier for children, the group said, with one in five civilian casualties are child in 2018, but one in four in 2019 and 2020.

"Children continue to be killed and injured on a near-daily basis. They go to bed hungry, see people starving to death, and miss out on school," said Xavier Joubert, the group's Yemen country director, adding his call for a ceasefire and political settlement -- "the only way to truly end this humanitarian catastrophe."

The fighting has long exacerbated conditions in the Arab world's poorest country. In between bullets and bombs and on the brink of famine, Yemenis face starvation, a collapsed economy and currency, the world's worst cholera outbreak, and now the silent sweep of the coronavirus in a country with little to no health care infrastructure. The vast majority rely on humanitarian aid to survive, which faces constant interruptions by fighting.

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