RIYADH // Saudi Arabia and the United States on Thursday announced the possibility of a five-day ceasefire in Yemen, if Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their allies also agree to stop fighting.
The pause is aimed at allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country, where there are severe shortages of food, clean water and fuel. About 80 per cent of Yemen’s population is believed to be going hungry, according to the United Nations and the Yemen International NGO Forum.
Plans for a possible ceasefire were revealed after US secretary of state John Kerry met King Salman and, separately, Yemen’s president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in Riyadh.
Mr Kerry’s meeting with Mr Hadi showed US support for “the legitimate government of Yemen”, despite its leaders being “in exile”, said Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi Arabian political commentator.
A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the UAE, has carried out a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels and their allies since March 26. The US has assisted the coalition with intelligence and selecting targets.
The campaign began after the Shiite Houthis, partnered with forces loyal to Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took over the capital Sanaa and continued their offensive into the country’s south, forcing Mr Hadi to flee.
Mr Saleh is thought to be seeking revenge for his removal during the 2011 Arab Spring and believes he can use the conflict to negotiate a political comeback.
Saudi Arabia perceives the offensive by the Houthis, allies of Riyadh’s regional rival Tehran, to be a major national security threat.
On Wednesday, five people were killed inside Saudi Arabia by mortars and rockets fired by the rebel fighters.
More than 1,400 people in Yemen are believed to have been killed in the fighting and nearly 6,000 wounded, according to the United Nations.
With the ceasefire dependent on the cooperation of rebel forces, and its start date not yet announced, Mr Shobokshi cast doubt on the proposal’s chances for success.
“[The Houthis] have not been seeking any peaceful settlement to this conflict since day one,” he said.
Mr Kerry announced the initiative in a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel Al Jubeir. “There will be a ceasefire everywhere or a ceasefire nowhere,” said Mr Al Jubeir.
Further details regarding the proposal are expected on Friday when Mr Kerry and Mr Al Jubeir meet foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in Paris.
Mr Kerry said the US remains “deeply concerned about the situation on the ground in Yemen and ... fully supports efforts to facilitate the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid.”
The US secretary of state also said he had encouraged Mr Hadi to support United Nations-brokered “all party” negotiations.
Mr Al Jubeir said Saudi Arabia would provide US$274 million (Dh1bn) in humanitarian aid for Yemen.
Also on Thursday, Iran’s Red Crescent said it would send 2,500 tons of humanitarian aid to Yemen, according to official media, saying that their Saudi counterparts had been informed by fax, Agence France-Presse reported.
The shipment, scheduled to arrive later this month, sets Tehran up for a confrontation with US and coalition warships stationed off Yemen.
The Yemen chief at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Thursday that he was “gravely concerned” about reports that civilians were being killed and injured in fighting.
“Civilians were reportedly targeted while they were trying to flee to safer areas, having been trapped in Aden with limited or no access to water, food and health care for weeks,” said Johannes van der Klaauw.
Meanwhile, a Gulf official said that a Saudi Arabian Apache helicopter had made an emergency landing near the border with Yemen after being damaged on Thursday, but denied Houthi claims that it had been shot down, according to Reuters.
During the press conference in Riyadh, Mr Kerry also discussed plans for the GCC leaders to meet US president Barack Obama at the White House on May 13 and at Camp David on May 14.
The meetings will focus on how the US will support its allies in the Gulf as the international community prepares for the possibly of Iranian sanctions being lifted, something that could allow Tehran a freer hand to pursue its regional ambitions.
“The goal of the GCC effort is to see how we can provide greater assurances to people about the road ahead,” Mr Kerry said. The aim was to build an “architecture” that allows for more effective cooperation, he added.
Commenting on the conflict in Syria, Mr Kerry sought to clarify Washington’s position on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
“We believe Assad has lost all legitimacy,” Mr Kerry said. “And we also know that the only way to make peace, ultimately, is to take away the reason that people are at war. And the reason they’re at war is because of Assad.”
A rift between Gulf states and the US over Washington’s limited support for Syria’s rebel groups was further exacerbated in 2013 when Mr Obama reneged on his comments about Mr Al Assad using chemical weapons being a “red-line”.
“The seeming disconnect between Saudi Arabia and the US over the future of Syria has been a major factor in the somewhat strained relations between the two countries over the past two years,” said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
“It led some Saudis to speak about the need to adopt a more assertive and independent foreign policy. I think this new Saudi thinking has manifested itself in dramatic fashion in the military campaign in Yemen.”