Hasan Jamali / AP

Despite military drawdown in Yemen, few signs of diplomacy

Analysis: Saudi-led coalition battling Yemeni rebels eases military campaign, but openings for peace seem minuscule

Hopes for a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Yemen were quickly dashed on Wednesday by more airstrikes and ground battles occurring just hours after the Saudi Arabia-led coalition targeting rebels announced a scaling back – but not an end – to its month-long military campaign.

The Yemini rebels, known as Houthis, seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September and have since advanced towards the country’s port city of Aden. Among their demands, the Houthis want stronger representation in government. However, Saudi Arabia and its coalition of nine Sunni regional states view the Shia rebel group as a proxy for growing Iranian influence in the region.

To reign in the Houthis, the coalition mounted a military campaign, dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm,” against them on March 26 that has so far killed at least 944 people, injured thousands more and left the country’s infrastructure in ruins.

Four weeks on, all sides party to the conflict have publicly expressed interest in reaching a political compromise. However, a viable diplomatic opening remains elusive.

“In some sense there's an acknowledgement that it's necessary, but everyone is still waiting for a sign that there are true efforts towards a diplomatic solution — particularly considering the continuation of airstrikes,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

After mounting international pressure on the Saudi-led coalition for a cessation to hostilities, Riyadh on Tuesday said that its air operation had come to an end and that it was launching a new operation to protect civilians and combat “terrorism” called “Renewal of Hope.” However, it stopped short of declaring a cease-fire and left open the possibility of continuing military action against the Houthis.

While Riyadh said it had satisfied its military goals against the Houthis, the ostensible political purpose for the operation, to restore to power the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is still far from a reality.

Hadi and his colleagues remain decamped in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where they are attempting to rule Yemen in exile.

The Houthis said on Wednesday that they were amenable to United Nations-sponsored peace talks but want the coalition to end airstrikes first.

Despite the military drawback, it’s not clear if the coalition will accept that condition. But even if it does, the U.N. Security Council — which has so far only passed a resolution imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis — has yet to chart a clear diplomatic path beyond the fighting.

The Security Council’s position on Yemen has been largely bias, said Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert and professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond.

“The U.S. and the U.N. Security Council [except Russia] seem wholly on the side of one of the principle belligerents, the Saudi-led coalition,” said Carapico.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as the United States, see the Houthi movement as an extension of Iranian power in Yemen, though the extent of Tehran's support for the movement has never been fully established.

For its part, Iran confirmed that it has delivered non-military aid to the rebels. It has also publicly urged for a diplomatic solution, while reproaching Saudi Arabia for its aggression in Yemen.

"History has demonstrated that military intervention is not a proper response to these crises and will instead exacerbate the situation," Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday.

But the dim window for diplomacy is not only a function of how competing outside powers and Yemenis view the Houthi movement, and which side’s first blink enables a diplomatic opening.

“It is not simply a fight between supporters of the deposed government and Houthi partisans,” said Carapico. “To the contrary, the majority [of Yemenis] reject both for having plunged the country into chaos and destruction.”

For its part, the U.S. has backed the Saudi-led coalition’s military operation. However, administration officials have quietly expressed concerns about the growing humanitarian crisis. The International Committee for the Red Cross on Wednesday called the situation on the ground “catastrophic.”

“Our view is we must look forward now to a shift from military operations to rapid, unconditional resumption of all party negotiations that allow Yemen to resume an inclusive political transition process,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said on Wednesday. “There’s going to be no military solution to this problem, only one that is solved at the diplomatic table.”

Seemingly fed up with the political complexities of the crisis and stymied in his efforts to press the parties to the negotiating table, the U.N.’s chief diplomatic envoy to Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar, abruptly resigned last week — underscoring the difficult task ahead.

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