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Saudi negotiators met Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Sunday to hammer out the final details of a long-term truce that could pave the way towards a lasting peace after eight years of war. Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have been in direct talks for months, but the prospect of ending Yemen’s seemingly intractable conflict has advanced quickly since last month, when China brokered a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Tehran has backed the Houthis since they took over swaths of Yemen in 2014, and Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab nations to dislodge the rebels in a war that created what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In recent days the Saudis and the Houthis have reached an understanding to extend a ceasefire struck last year until the end of 2023, creating new momentum for a diplomatic end to the conflict. The truce technically expired in October, though there has been little violence since. A Saudi delegation and a group of Omani mediators arrived in Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis, on Saturday for talks that included an end to the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in the conflict and a resolution to the civil war between Yemen’s internal factions, Houthi officials said.
“It is too early to say for sure that the negotiations (in Sanaa) will be successful, but it is clear that an atmosphere of peace hangs over the region, which gives cause for optimism and hope,” a Houthi spokesman, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, said on Twitter. In a gesture that showed the talks’ progress, Saudi Arabia released 13 Houthi prisoners on Saturday in exchange for a Houthi-held Saudi prisoner.
The prospect of ending Yemen’s conflict is among the rapidly moving diplomatic developments in recent weeks in the Middle East. In addition to Riyadh and Tehran restoring relations, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading an effort to end the regional isolation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after more than a decade of civil war.
Ending the Yemen war is a foreign-policy goal for the Biden administration, which has been involved in peace talks. The US had provided Saudi Arabia with logistic and intelligence help in Yemen but reduced its role over the years amid allegations that the kingdom dropped US-made cluster bombs near Yemeni villages. President Joe Biden declared a halt to US backing as one of his first foreign policy acts in February 2021.
The conflict has taken a heavy toll on civilians, with about 377,000 deaths in late 2021, nearly 60 per cent of them caused by lack of access to food, water and healthcare, according to the UN, problems that disproportionately have affected young children. The country is divided between the northwest, where the Houthis largely are in charge, and the rest, where Yemeni factions backed by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates hold power. The country’s main international airport in Sanaa and its biggest port, Hodeidah, are under blockade.
As part of the extended ceasefire under discussion overnight on Sunday, the Houthis would commit to joining official talks with Yemeni factions in the rest of the country to create a phased road map for a settlement, backed by the US and the UN. The Houthis would form negotiating committees with a Saudi-backed presidential council to lay out a path for a negotiated end to the civil war.
Under the deal described by Saudi and Yemeni officials, there would be a mechanism for payment of civil service wages in Yemen as well as members of the armed forces. In addition, Saudi Arabia will further reopen the airport in Sanaa and ease the blockade on Hodeidah.
The deal would also include a buffer zone with Houthi-held areas along the 1300km-long Yemeni-Saudi border and a resumption of oil exports from government-held areas. Eventually, the Saudis would withdraw all troops, though such discussions will come later.
If a ceasefire is agreed to and it holds, it would mark a dramatic departure from nearly a decade of conflict. Washington and Riyadh have long accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis, who fired rockets and drones at Saudi cities for much of the war in response to the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Iran publicly denied arming the Houthis, which would have violated a UN arms embargo. As part of its deal to restore relations with Saudi Arabia, though, Iran agreed to end weapons shipments to Yemen.
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