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Hopes for Yemen peace deal fade as ‘obscene’ Marib death toll rises

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The UN fears that hopes for a ceasefire in Yemen are effectively stalled until either the Houthi rebels choose to end their military offensive or decide the mounting death toll running into tens of thousands is unacceptable. The Houthis are currently driving towards the capture of the strategic and oil-rich governorate of Marib.

Extensive talks in April and May, including direct discussions between the Houthi leadership and Saudis in Oman, ended with the Houthis – also known as Ansar Allah – coming close to accepting a ceasefire deal before ultimately rejecting the offer.

One source said the Houthi leadership was taking advice from its military wing, and was told its recently escalated offensive to capture Marib would succeed in transforming the bargaining calculus. Marib is the last stronghold in the north not under its control.

The Marib death toll among fighters, according to western diplomats, is “shocking, even obscene, but for the Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi to pull back he would need a narrative to explain to the tribes why so much blood and treasure has been expended for nothing”.

The Saudis, backers of the Yemeni government, are not only bombing Houthi fighters, but also its supply lines. The governor of Marib Sultan, Al-Arada, has claimed as many as 18,000 have died since early 2020, but the number of deaths has escalated since February.

Western diplomats at one point believed the Saudi-Houthi talks had reached near-90% agreement, including on the full opening of the Saudi-blockaded ports and Sana’a airport, leading to a ceasefire. The talks in Oman had been led by the Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam, who lives in exile in Muscat and had been designated to act as lead negotiator.

In the end, the Houthis were unwilling to link the reopening of the ports to a wider ceasefire. One proposal had been a lifting of the blockade, a limited weeks-long pause followed by a ceasefire leading to national talks.

24m people – 80% of Yemen’s population - require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance.

3m people forced to flee their homes.

85,000 - Save the Children estimate that this number of children under the age of 5 may have died through hunger and malnutrition.

1m cases of cholera in 2017, the largest outbreak of the disease in recent history. 2,200 people died during it. A resurgence of the disease saw more than 137,000 suspected cases and almost 300 deaths in the first three months of 2019.

Over 91,600 fatalities since the conflict started in 2015, as measured by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

18,292 civilian casualties, including 8,598 killed

4,500 military strikes recorded that directly targeted civilians - outlawed by the Geneva conventions. 67% of the deaths caused in these attacks were by the Saudis and their coalition, with Houthis and their allies responsible for over 16%.

19,990 recorded air raids since the conflict began

£770m - the amount of foreign aid given by Britain in food, medicines and other assistance to civilians over the last half a decade.

£6.2bn - the amount of money Britain has earned in the same period selling arms to the Saudis and their coalition partners.

Zero - despite being 527,970 square kilometres, Yemen has no permanent rivers. Just 2.9% of Yemen’s land is considered to be usable arable land.

In a sign of the diplomatic reverse, the Houthis last week refused to meet the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths and Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, in Oman. The Houthis insist on the full reopening of Sana’a airport to unlimited destinations, including Iran, lifting restrictions on the port of Hodeidah, and the complete cessation of Arab coalition airstrikes before halting their offensive on Marib.

In a brief statement this week, Griffiths admitted talks in Oman had stalled.He said: “Unfortunately, we are not where we would like to be in reaching a deal. Meanwhile, the war continues unabated causing immense suffering to the civilian population.”

Work is continuing on an agreement for allowing the unhindered flow of fuel imports through the the port.

Lenderking has visited the region four times, sometimes with Brett McGurk, the White House co-ordinator for the Middle East. Lenderking said he is putting pressure on the Saudis to lift the blockade on the Hodeidha port regardless of a wider ceasefire. He told the US Senate as a result of his pressure “the Saudis have moved several ships, but more is needed. The essential lifelines must be open and cannot be held hostage to other elements of a peace deal”.

Lenderking has described the possible capture of Marib by Houthi rebels as “the single biggest threat to peace efforts”. He said the takeover was “not imminent, but they continue to move closer to their goal of encircling the city, potentially cutting off a city of 1.8m people, many of whom are already extremely vulnerable”.

Oman’s royal court, traditionally a force for reconciliation in the Middle East, had been optimistic since the talks were being held against a more positive international backdrop. The US has been more engaged diplomatically in Yemen than for years, and the Saudis has been holding what have been described as positive direct talks with Iran hosted in Iraq.

Riyadh is eager for its talks with Iran to succeed, with the more progressive wing of the court eager to hold discussions with Tehran for some time, and even claims they were blocked by the Trump administration. Iran’s delegation to the Saudi talks was led by Saeed Iravani, the deputy secretary of the supreme national security council. The Saudi delegation was led by Khalid al Humaidan, the chief of intelligence, also known as Abu Ali, and previously in charge of the Yemen file.

One of the central issues of the talks in Iraq was the influence that Iran could bring to bear on the Houthi movement in Yemen to engage in talks with Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have told western diplomats they will help, but it was unrealistic to ask the Houthis to lay down their arms as part of a ceasefire, and would not recommend them to do so.

The UN’s humanitarian wing says its $3.85bn humanitarian appeal is underfunded by $2.53bn. Aid agencies are reaching only half of the 16 million people it says it needs to help. The collapse in the Yemeni rial this year has driven up food prices so they are now 200% higher than at the start of the conflict in 2015.

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