Houthis Want to Negotiate in Yemen but Still on Offensive

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A senior Houthi official said this weekend that Yemen’s Iranian-backed Shiite rebels are willing to negotiate a peace with the government of recently ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi if a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia ceases its airstrike campaign.

Saleh al-Sammad, the Houthi member who made the claim and was an adviser to Hadi, explained that “we [the Houthis] have no conditions except a halt to the aggression and sitting on the dialogue table within a specific time period … and any international or regional parties that have no aggressive positions towards the Yemeni people can oversee the dialogue.” He also said that the rebels want any talks to be broadcast on Yemeni television.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said the kingdom will accept such negotiations if the meeting is held under the supervision of the Gulf Security Council (GCC).

The request comes as the Saudi-led coalition is bombarding rebel positions for a 12th straight day as part of Operation Decisive Storm to combat Houthi expansion and Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. The airstrikes are also targeting forces loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the United States recognize Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate leader but the rebels oppose his return to power.

Despite the coalition’s show of force aided by U.S. intelligence and logistical support, the Houthis, who are based in the northern part of Yemen, are gaining ground in their push southward to control the southern port city of Aden. In fact, the rebels hold many of the main Yemeni centers, including Sana’a, the capital, and gained control of the presidential palace in Aden where Hadi stayed temporarily after losing power.

As the fight for Aden and elsewhere intensifies, local tribes have mobilized to counter Houthi and pro-Saleh forces around the country. In Aden, tribes are heading there to defend the city, and further north, tribes of the Marib governorate, which are in central Yemen east of Sana’a, have mobilized 35,000 men for battle.

Aden is crucially important to both sides because of its strategic position on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the choke point between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes and oil routes. If Iran controls the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, then it will cut off Saudi Arabia on both sides and control the world’s oil market.

Sammad denies, however, that the Houthis want to takeover the south, insisting that their mission is to confront al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the terrorist group’s most dangerous branch and is based in the south. While most attention has been paid to the Saudi-Houthi conflict, AQAP seized Mukallah, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout, late last week one day after freeing hundreds of prisoners from government buildings.

Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, issued a statement showing her concern for the situation in Yemen, citing that 519 people have been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in the past two weeks.

Russia issued a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for a humanitarian ceasefire to the conflict, which the Red Cross supports. Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the U.N. condemned Russia’s actions for hurting the kingdom’s attempt to broker a peace. Furthermore, Russia’s proposal contains no demands for the Houthis. It is worth noting that Russia recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Iran, and the two countries have worked together in other capacities.

Despite calls to cease violence in Yemen, Aden’s importance will likely drive the Saudis and Houthis to continue fighting. The timing of the Houthis’ request for negotiations – when they control Aden and pro-Hadi forces are preparing a counteroffensive – could be a strategic ploy to preempt a possible military defeat with a diplomatic outreach in hopes of keeping the city. The Saudis will not let this happen, however, indicating that violence in Yemen may just be getting started.

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