Houthis the 'aggressor' in Yemen war, US envoy in UAE says

Iran-backed rebel group 'must be forced to the negotiating table' to agree on a truce or ceasefire

Yemen's Houthi rebels have shown themselves to be more interested in fighting than peace, says US official Sean Murphy. EPA

The seven-year war in Yemen will only end by forcing the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to the negotiating table, the United States' senior diplomat in the UAE said.

The conflict has sparked one of the world's worst humanitarian crises and also threatens the stability of the wider region. The Houthis have also launched attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia using ballistic missiles and drones.

“Right now, the Houthis are the aggressor in that war. And we are working very, very intensely with our partners in the region, with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia and also with the United Nations to try to bring the fighting to a stop,” Charge d'Affaires Sean Murphy said.

It is the Houthis and their Iranian backers who are fuelling the war at this point ... the other parties are interested in peace
Sean Murphy, US Charge D'Affaires

Efforts to broker a peace between the Houthis and the internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, stalled last summer after the rebels launched new offensives.

“We have seen a greater recognition within the international community in the past six months, indeed, over the past year, that it is the Houthis and their Iranian backers who are fuelling the war at this point, that the other parties are interested in peace, and the Houthis and their Iranian backers are interested in fighting and war at this point,” Mr Murphy told The National's Business Extra podcast.

“There are a lot of efforts under way to try to bring pressure to bear on the Houthis to stop fighting.”

The UAE has asked the Biden administration to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist group after the rebels launched attacks on Abu Dhabi in January following significant defeats at the hands of pro-government militia in Yemen’s oil-rich Shabwa province.

Washington taking more action to thwart the Houthis has been a sticking point between the UAE and US since the Biden administration came into the White House.

Mr Murphy stressed the importance of the US-UAE relationship, which he acknowledged “has had its ups and its downs over the years".

“It is built on solid foundations. And it is built on these interpersonal connections between people, between business people, between scientists, between students, between academics. And so, we are very confident that the success of the [last] 50 years, will continue into the next 50 years of the UAE's history.”

Mr Murphy said the US is keen to demonstrate its support for such an important partner in all areas, in particular, defence and security.

After a deadly attack on Abu Dhabi in January, the UAE criticised international efforts to rein in the Houthi rebels as “appeasement” and called for tougher sanctions and other measures against the group.

“We certainly recognise that the UAE faces a very significant national security threat right now, due to the terrorist drone and missile attacks that the Houthis have launched since January 17,” he said.

“We are doing everything we can to try to be responsive to those concerns.”

Sean Murphy, Charge D'Affaires at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

The American response includes providing anti-missile defence systems, moving a guided missile destroyer into the region and placing a squadron of F-22 fighter jets in the country, he said.

“We are collaborating with greater information and intelligence sharing. We are doing things to enhance interdiction efforts of war materials that Iran attempts to illegally introduce into Yemen … we are collaborating on programmes to improve integrated air defence,” Mr Murphy said.

“Ultimately, it is critical that the war stops and, of course, it is the war that has created such a devastating humanitarian situation in Yemen. That is of enormous concern to us, and [of] enormous concern to the international community,” said Mr Murphy.

More than 160,000 people in war-torn Yemen will be affected by famine during the second half of this year — five times the current figure — several UN agencies and international aid groups have said.

The actions of the Houthis in Yemen highlight a wider concern about the risk Iran represents to regional stability. Almost a year of negotiations in Vienna have brought closer the prospect of a new nuclear deal between Tehran and global powers.

The previous agreement in 2015, made under the Obama administration, failed to address the concerns of US allies in the region, including the activity of proxies and Iran's ballistic missile programme.

Regardless of any deal, the US remains committed to “the defence of the region, to helping the region resist Iran's malign behaviour”, said Mr Murphy.

“It is not 2015 any more … we have recognised that publicly,” said Mr Murphy. “We know that whatever happens in Vienna, Iran remains a challenge. And it is a challenge that we are committed to continuing to work on with our partners.”

Updated: March 17, 2022, 5:11 AM