politics

Yemen’s battleground shifts in favor of Iran-backed Houthis

Yemen’s battleground shifts in favor of Iran-backed Houthis

Houthi fighters allied with Iran have gained important new ground in the yearslong war in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia is struggling to defend a strategic, oil-rich city and U.S. efforts to broker peace stagnate. Without coordinating with United Nations peacekeepers in the area, Yemeni forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates abruptly withdrew last week from key positions near the western port city of Hodeidah. At the same time, Saudi Arabia vowed to send more forces to defend Marib, the center of an energy hub near the Saudi border where the Houthis have been methodically gaining new ground for months. The surprising shifts in the front lines of a seven-year war have allowed the Houthis to reopen the road from Hodeidah to the capital, Sana’a, where the group recently stormed a largely abandoned U.S. Embassy complex and took Yemeni employees captive. The battleground realignment is another strategic twist for the Saudis, who initially believed in 2015 that, with American backing, they would need just a few weeks to defeat the Houthi movement, a Shiite offshoot group in Yemen aligned with Iran that had taken over Yemen’s capital. Instead the country’s civil war has dragged on, killing tens of thousands of civilians, including from errant airstrikes, triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and draining Saudi coffers. Some Biden administration officials are urging the president to ease restrictions on military support to Riyadh so that the U.S. can help them beat back Houthi advances. But that would mean backtracking on one of Mr. Biden’s first foreign policy moves, to end offensive support for the Saudi-led campaign. “The war in Yemen must end, Mr. Biden said in February. Since then, his special envoy has traveled to the region more than a dozen times without making any significant headway on brokering a cease-fire or mediating peace talks. A new U.N. envoy has similarly failed to gain traction. People familiar with the matter said Saudi Arabia has launched an internal reassessment of its strategy in Yemen that should be competed later this month. Saudi officials have asked the Biden administration to provide intelligence and military support to target sites the Houthis use to launch drones and missiles at Saudi cities. The Biden administration has approved more than $1 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia for air-to-air missiles and servicing Saudi attack helicopters, but there are few indications that Mr. Biden is prepared to shift course to help Saudi Arabia carry out attacks targeting Houthis inside Yemen. The State Department on Friday said it would level sanctions against the commander of the Houthi-controlled military logistics organization that the U.S. says has led the effort to seize assets from the Houthis’ opponents in Yemen. “We stand with the people of Yemen and will relentlessly target those who fuel conflict and use the humanitarian crisis for enrichment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted. Meanwhile, American officials said they are quietly trying to negotiate the release of five Yemeni guards employed by the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a after they were detained by the Houthis, a provocative move seen as an intentional affront. The personnel were among about three dozen local employees taken hostage last week when Houthi gunmen took over the diplomatic compound, where operations were suspended in 2015. Most of them have already been released, but five were still being held, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Houthi leaders said the last ones would be released quickly, but that hasn’t happened. Mr. Blinken condemned the Houthi attack, calling for the staff to be released unharmed and the compound vacated immediately. A Houthi spokesman declined to comment on the detentions or the recent troop movements around Hodeidah. Nasr al-Din Amir, the group’s deputy minister of information, said the Houthis would continue attacking foreign troops operating in Yemen. Saudi officials said they have no plans to withdraw from the fight in Yemen and said the military moves are meant to put more pressure on Houthi fighters in key areas. With the Houthis just a few kilometers away from Marib city, a battle could be bloody. Over a million civilians displaced from other parts of Yemen are believed to be living there. The spokesman for the Houthis said they aimed to prevent the Saudis from using Marib as a launchpoint to assault other parts of the country. “Our strategy is clear in Marib, said Mr. Amir. “We will liberate all our territories. The Saudi-led military coalition characterized the withdrawal of forces from Hodeidah as “redeployment and repositioning aimed at giving its allied forces more flexibility, and followed up with airstrikes in support of new defensive positions farther south. But the U.N. Mission trying to enforce a three-year-old truce in the area characterized the moves as “a major shift on the front lines and said the Saudis never told the team before they pulled the forces out. Mohammed Albasha, senior Yemen analyst at the Virginia-based research firm Navanti Group, said the moves were a sign that the Saudi-led “coalition is becoming more realistic and signaling that they’re going to pull back to where they have a better defensive line. Mr. Albasha pointed to open-source satellite images that suggest Saudi Arabia was reducing its military footprint. A Western security official said the Saudis appear to be reinforcing the border, potentially in anticipation of the Houthis’ capture of Marib, leaving only a smaller number of forces at a handful of bases in the interior. Even if the Saudis continue to scale back, Mr. Albasha said, that won’t bring an end to the war between the Houthis and the Yemenis who remain opposed to their rule. “If this is the end of the Saudi intervention in the conflict, then war itself will likely continue for a long time, he said. “The Houthis are unlikely to stop, as they want it all. This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text Download.

politics 2021-11-21 Livemint