Even as the military offensive continues in Hodeidah there is a path, Arab coalition officials argued, toward a negotiated settlement under UN auspices and envoy Martin Griffiths, but only if the Houthis agree to fully withdraw from the Yemeni city.
Mr Griffiths, who is in Oman today to meet some of the Houthi leadership in Muscat before returning to Sana’a, has been conducting shuttle diplomacy to reach a political deal over the fate of Hodeidah.
The battle in the Red Sea port city has been ongoing for two weeks, and Yemeni forces with support from the Arab coalition have taken control of the airport from the Houthis, but have not waged a battle for the city centre yet.
“The military pressure has worked so far on the Houthis, finally they started a conversation with Martin Griffiths,” one official from the coalition said during a briefing with reporters at the UAE embassy in Washington.
Another official from the coalition argued that the Houthis’ willingness to negotiate now is due to losses incurred on the battlefield across Yemen – not only in Hodeidah. The official revealed that the negotiations are around a four-point plan by Mr Griffiths and that the coalition will only accept the full proposal.
The four points according to the official are:
- UN supervision over Hodeidah port
- Yemeni forces to help secure the port
- Allowing free access of aid to the port
- Revenues from the port will be kept in Hodeidah's branch of the Central Bank and not transferred to the capital Sana'a which is under Houthi control
Sky News Arabia reported this week that the Houthis had accepted international supervision over the port but rejected the idea of withdrawing from the area. Officials from the Arab coalition insisted, however, on such withdrawal for the Houthis not just from the port but from Hodeidah as a whole.
The Arab officials are waiting to hear from Mr Griffiths after his meeting with the Houthis on the three last points of the proposal. One official stressed that “getting the port without the city is not realistic, you can’t secure the port while the Houthis are on its gates.”
There is increasing focus from the officials on a political solution but without taking the military options off the table. The military pressure they argued has helped the UN envoy in extracting concessions from the Houthis. “There is no military solution, we believe that, and we know it has to be a political solution under the UN auspices,” an Arab official said.
They appeared cautiously optimistic that the Houthis, who rejected several political processes since 2014, have no alternative today and could be seeking a compromise to avoid further losses in the city.
Asked about the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah presence alongside the Houthis in Hodeidah, one official said the coalition has information indicating that “a senior leader from the group is in the city.” This week, the coalition announced that eight Hezbollah members were among 41 “terrorist elements” killed in Saada region in Yemen.
The humanitarian efforts are flowing in parallel with the military efforts according to the same officials. One said that 25 ships have unloaded in Hodeidah since the start of the battle, and accused the Houthis of interrupting aid flows. The official said they are receiving information that the Houthis have kidnapped two aid workers from the UN’s World Food Program in Hodeidah.
On Thursday as well, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo weighed on the situation in Yemen accusing Iran and the Houthis of destabilising the Gulf security and risking a deeper humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Mr Pompeo tweeted: “#Iran’s support for Houthis in Yemen not only enables attacks on Saudi Arabia & UAE, but also risks increasing Yemen's already massive humanitarian crisis. Ayatollah Khamenei must be held accountable for destabilizing Gulf's security & prolonging suffering of the Yemeni people.
Mr Pompeo met on Thursday with the Saudi minister of energy Khalid al-Falih at the State Department in Washington.