Yemen Houthis offered US incentives to stop Red Sea attacks

Last claim by the rebels of an attack against a ship was on April 10

Cargo ship Galaxy Leader, co-owned by an Israeli company, being hijacked by Iran-backed Houthis from Yemen in the Red Sea in November. Photo: Anadolu
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Mediators have conveyed messages from the US to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, offering “incentives” including lifting the blockade of Sanaa and Hodeidah and accelerating peace talks, in return for the group halting its attacks in the Red Sea, sources told The National.

Since the outbreak of Israel's war in Gaza in October, the Yemeni rebels, who control Sanaa and territories in the north and west, launched dozens of attacks on international shipping in the strategic waters off Yemen.

The group claimed the attacks were being carried out in solidarity with Palestinians and their ally Hamas in the coastal enclave, demanding an end to Israel’s devastating war, which has killed more than 34,000 people.

But the most recent rebel attack was two weeks ago.

"In response to the Yemeni group's attempts to target Israeli ships, the US has not only resorted to military action but also sought to convey proposals that would incentivise the militants to stop their attacks,” a Yemeni political source said.

“Messages containing incentives were sent from the Americans to Sanaa in recent weeks. These messages were delivered through envoys and mediators, including western officials, with the Omani capital, Muscat, also playing a significant role."

US officials declined to comment on the incentives.

However, Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, on Wednesday said her administration "encouraged the sort of indirect and then direct discussions that led to a two-plus year of cessation of hostilities".

"All of that has been a larger project for us, aligned with various Gulf partners starting with the Saudis, but also the Omanis, the Emiratis, and so on," she added.

Ms Leaf said the US "periodically had occasions to have direct discussions with the Houthis, [but] that has changed quite a bit, of course, since October 7, when the Houthis set themselves to the task of basically holding all commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea in the Bab Al Mandeb hostage to their quest to prove themselves among the so-called Axis of Resistance".

"I wouldn't characterise our context as a robust discussion at this point but we are using all sorts of means, some diplomatic, some by shooting down missiles and UAVs, to discourage the Houthis from their ill-considered venture."

Much like Hezbollah in Lebanon and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis are part of the Axis of Resistance, an anti-western political and military coalition led by Tehran.

The heavily armed militia has bolstered its fighting capabilities since the civil war started in the country in 2014, posing a serious threat to its neighbours. Up until the end of 2018, the Houthis frequently used ballistic missiles they captured from army depots. But in the past five years, they have shifted to small, long-range, explosive unmanned aircraft that can evade radar detection.

Showing good intentions

Their attacks in the Red Sea have disrupted global shipping, forcing companies to reroute to longer and more expensive journeys around southern Africa.

This emergence as an off-script threat to Israel and a strategic shipping route prompted retaliatory strikes by the US and Britain since February. Washington also designated the militia that has seized control of Yemen's capital in late 2014 as a “terrorist group”.

A second Yemeni political source indicated that the US incentives offered to the Houthis “include measures to show Washington's good intentions, such as accelerating the Yemeni peace process, ending the war, and fully lifting the blockade” on Sanaa airport and the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.

“Logically, these steps would require Washington to reconsider its designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation and probably recognise its authority in some areas of Yemen.”

The two sources declined to comment on how the Houthis have responded to the incentives, whether positively or negatively.

The reduction in the frequency of Houthis attacks comes as indirect talks between Iran and the US attempt to build on an unannounced truce in Iraq to expand it across conflict-hit areas of the Middle East. The truce saw a cessation of attacks by Iraqi militias on US forces.

The Yemeni political sources reported that during "secret indirect talks" held with the Iranians in Oman about three months ago, there was an American effort to persuade Tehran to help de-escalate the "Yemeni front."

“But the Iranian delegation informed them that the decision was up to Houthis, and that the Americans must speak to them,” said one of the sources.

This week, Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy to Yemen, told The National in an interview that “at the end of the day, the United States wants to return, move away from attacks in the Red Sea to de-escalation, and keep the focus on peace”.

Updated: April 25, 2024, 6:12 AM