Yemen’s Houthis step up offensives as they reject US ceasefire plan

Rebels view proposal as Saudi-authored and seek to take Marib city and avenge bombings

US secretary of state Antony Blinken: “The US supports a unified, stable Yemen free from foreign influence . . . there is no military solution of the six-year conflict.” Photograph: Ting Shen

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have rejected a US ceasefire plan, arguing it offers nothing new and would exacerbate the country’s volatile situation.

The Houthis dismissed the plan as constructed by the Saudis rather than the US in their first comment on the proposal put forward by US envoy Timothy Lenderking during a late February meeting in Oman with Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam.

Abdul-Salam said the Houthis would welcome a ceasefire if the US was serious about halting Saudi Arabia’s military operations and blockade of Houthi-held territory.

However, the US plan was never likely to be accepted. The initiative coincided with the Houthi launch of a two-pronged offensive to force the Saudis to unilaterally end the six-year war and blockade.

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The first prong is an offensive to capture Marib city, the remaining bastion of Saudi-backed forces in northern Yemen. Marib city hosts an oil refinery, a plant for bottling natural gas for cooking and a power plant, while Marib province contains oil fields which, before the war, were the country's main producer.

Hodeida port

By securing Marib, the Houthis could ease shortages of fuel caused by the Saudi blockade of Hodeida port, the main entry point for imports for Houthi-held north Yemen where 80 per cent of Yemenis live.

Due to the serious shortage of fuel, long queues of lorries laden with essential provisions have formed along roads leading to northern towns and cities. The international airport in the capital, Sanaa, has been damaged by Saudi bombing and traffic shut down except for rare UN humanitarian flights.

The second prong involves stepping up short-range ballistic missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Targets have included oil installations, airports and the capital Riyadh and its outskirts.

The Houthi objective is to wreak vengeance for the kingdom’s devastating aerial bombing campaign of Yemen and to undermine Saudi morale. In the Houthi calculation, making Saudi Arabia pay even in a small part for the destruction of Yemen justifies rebel resistance and could strengthen the Houthi position in future talks.

‘Diplomatic efforts’

Undaunted by the Houthi rebuff of Lenderking's proposal, US secretary of state Antony Blinken has told UN special envoy Martin Griffiths that Washington seeks to "reinvigorate diplomatic efforts" to end the war. "The US supports a unified, stable Yemen free from foreign influence . . . there is no military solution of the six-year conflict," Blinken has said .

Yemeni spokesman Abdul-Salam has replied that his reference to “foreign interference” is positive, but the Houthis on Monday fired explosive-bearing drones at southern Saudi civilian and military airports. The Saudis claimed one drone was intercepted.

The Yemen war has claimed 230,000 lives, driven four million from their homes, and rendered 80 per cent of the population dependent on foreign aid. The UN has warned of a potentially devastating famine.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times