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In Their Own Words, Yemen War Rivals See Wary Hope in China-Iran-Saudi Deal

Newsweek 3/26/2023 Tom O'Connor

Eight years after Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented intervention in Yemen, officials loyal to each of the three major factions of the country's ongoing civil war have told Newsweek that they welcome the China-brokered deal to reestablish relations between the neighboring kingdom and its top rival Iran.

And while all three major factions expressed hope this development could help bring about an end to the ongoing conflict, they remained deeply suspicious toward potential hostile interests at play among their foes.

The agreement, announced two weeks ago in a joint statement released by Beijing, Riyadh and Tehran, marked a detente in one of the Middle East's most bitter rivalries, a years-long rift that has seen Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposing forces across the region, including in Yemen. Now, wary optimism has emerged that peace may also come to the largely impoverished nation that remains divided since widespread unrest devolved into all-out conflict in 2014.

"We welcome any agreements in the region that would prove a loss of opportunity for the perpetrators of crises, and I mean the Israeli enemy entity as well as the American regime," Nasreddin Amer, deputy information secretary of the Ansar Allah movement, told Newsweek.

"We believe in the necessity of fully resolving the differences in our region," he added, "because it is not in the interest of the peoples of the region, but rather in the interest of their enemies."

Ansar Allah, widely referred to as the Houthis after slain political and religious leader Hussein al-Houthi, is an Iran-aligned Zaidi Shiite Muslim group that seized the capital city of Sanaa in late 2014 amid unrest that followed the ousting of longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh two years earlier as part of the regionwide Arab Spring protest movement. On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia mobilized a coalition of Arab states to launch a joint campaign backed by the United States in support of the embattled Yemeni government, then headed by former Saleh deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

But last year, Hadi also resigned, leaving the Presidential Leadership Council led by Chairman Rashad al-Alimi in charge of the internationally recognized Yemeni government now based in the southern port city of Aden. Also headquartered in Aden is a third faction: the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council, which seeks an independent south Yemen and is led by Major General Aidarus al-Zoubaidi.

The conflict has long been the subject of peace efforts involving major powers and the United Nations, but the rift between Riyadh and Tehran has largely overshadowed such initiatives. Beijing's contribution proved decisive, however, a role well-received on the ground.

"We also welcome any Chinese role or from any country in the world in order to end the aggression and lift the siege on Yemen," Amer said. "We also welcome any role for any country in the world, provided that it is not involved in the aggression against our country."

"The government in Sanaa is seeking peace and working for it," he added, "but it will not give up any inch of Yemen's land or any of the rights of the Yemeni people."

Also speaking on behalf of Ansar Allah, whose largely northern territory includes up to 80 percent of Yemen's population, is Mohammed Abdul Salam, the group's official spokesperson and chief negotiator.

"We believe that easing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a good step to end the regional crises, and such an agreement will help in stabilizing the region in any case," Abdul Salam told Newsweek.

At the same time, he said Ansar Allah was still awaiting tangible results on the ground in a country where overlapping security, economic and health woes have led the United Nations to refer to the situation in Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"As for its reflection on the Yemeni file, this depends on the implementation of the requirements of the Yemeni people, foremost of which is the humanitarian file (ending the blockade, disbursing salaries and opening the ports)," Abdul Salam said.

The Saudi-led blockade largely cut Yemen off from the world by land, air and sea and continues today, though some restrictions have been eased as a result of international criticism.

And while Abdul Salam welcomed the Iran-Saudi deal, he said that it "will not contribute positively as long as the blockade remains and the aggression continues." These are the "Yemeni requirements" to end the conflict, he argued, and peace cannot come if they are "not achieved positively and realistically on the ground in Yemen."

The internationally recognized Yemeni government also held out cautious hope for the Iran-Saudi deal. But the Presidential Leadership Council and its top diplomat remain suspicious of top foe Ansar Allah and the intentions of its backer, Iran, which are both blamed for beginning the conflict in the first place.

"We, the government of Yemen, have been calling for and working towards peace since the first day the Houthi terrorist militias ignited their war against the Yemeni people," Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak told Newsweek. "Therefore, we welcome any steps or agreements that contribute to achieving stability, security, and peace in Yemen."

"While we have doubts about the Iranian regime's sincerity regarding this agreement, we hope that they will take the necessary steps to help bring an end to the Houthi war," he added.

The top Yemeni diplomat argued that Ansar Allah observes "the Iranian regime's approach by failing to implement commitments or agreements" and, as such, "we remain cautious about the Houthis' intentions, and we know that they will manipulate any opportunities or promises to pursue their own interests."

The government has been joined by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S. and others in accusing Iran of directly supplying Ansar Allah with weapons, including ballistic missiles and drones used to strike neighboring Saudi Arabia. The group and Tehran both deny the allegations.

In comments shared with Newsweek shortly after the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia was announced, the Iranian Permanent Mission to the U.N. told Newsweek that "it seems a resumption of political relations will speed up Yemen's development for establishing a ceasefire, starting Yemeni-Yemeni dialogues, and forming an inclusive national government."

Newsweek also reached out to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. for comment.

A map published by the Congressional Research Service in April 2022 shows areas of control help by the three major factions of Yemen's civil war, as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Congressional Research Service © Congressional Research Service A map published by the Congressional Research Service in April 2022 shows areas of control help by the three major factions of Yemen's civil war, as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Congressional Research Service

Still, bin Mubarak asserted that cutting off these alleged Iranian shipments would be necessary to achieve progress toward a lasting solution.

"Specifically, we expect Iran to stop supplying the Houthis with weapons and exert pressure on them to accept a cessation of violence, refrain from any actions that undermine the peace process, and engage seriously in achieving peace," he said. "Unfortunately, on the ground, we see the Houthis practicing military escalation and opening new battlefronts in Marib and other regions in Yemen."

The oil-producing province of Marib has been the site of some of the conflict's fiercest battles. Sporadic clashes persisted even through a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that lasted from April through October of last year and have yet to abate in the wake of Riyadh and Tehran's recent rapprochement.

The two powers have feuded for decades across the Middle East and ultimately severed relations in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed Riyadh's embassy in Tehran in response to Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric. The war in Yemen, already the most active front between Iran and Saudi Arabia given the latter's proximity and open involvement, only exacerbated without official ties between the two foes.

But quiet inroads began to be paved over time, marked by a series of meetings between the two sides that began in 2021 with the help of Iraq and Oman. The process was halted several times, however, and its status remained unclear to the public until their landmark agreement was announced this month when China emerged as a dealmaker.

This breakthrough came after Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Saudi Arabia to oversee the first-ever China-Arab States Summit in December and later hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last month. Beijing's neutrality matched with its political and economic influence has made the People's Republic uniquely positioned to facilitate such discussions.

This position has also promoted the view of China in Yemen as an honest broker without ulterior motives.

"As for China, they have no special interests in Yemen other than achieving peace and alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people," bin Mubarak said. "In fact, the Chinese government is one of the most important supporters of the legitimate Yemeni government."

The Chinese role was also received with particular warmth by the Southern Transitional Council, whose spokesperson, Ali al-Kathiri, told Newsweek that "we believe that friends in China have a historical presence and distinguished relations with all parties, which qualifies them to play a constructive role alongside brothers, friends and the international community in general."

"The Transitional Council is open to all regional and international efforts," Kathiri said, "and in this context it welcomes the role of the People's Republic of China towards creating this comprehensive and desired peace."

Yemenis displaced by conflict receive food aid and supplies to meet their basic needs, at a camp for displaced people in the Al-Khoukha directorate, in Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, on October 19, 2022. KHALED ZIAD/AFP/Getty Images © KHALED ZIAD/AFP/Getty Images Yemenis displaced by conflict receive food aid and supplies to meet their basic needs, at a camp for displaced people in the Al-Khoukha directorate, in Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, on October 19, 2022. KHALED ZIAD/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike the other two primary factions in Yemen, however, the Southern Transitional Council is not fighting for the whole of the country.

Rather, it seeks the restoration of an independent south Yemen, which existed as a separate entity for well over a century, first under British colonial rule and then as a communist state, until unification in 1990. Tensions between the country's north and south have sparked previous civil wars both before and after they were united, and the fate of the south's aspirations for a self-determination movement has remained a contentious issue throughout the current conflict.

While formally allied over a promised post-war power-sharing pact, the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council have engaged in clashes in recent years. Also proving consequential in the south has been the rise of jihadi militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the self-proclaimed Yemen province of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Amid the multilayered divisions present in Yemen, Kathiri said the Southern Transitional Council's tenets today "represent the cause of the people of the south, which is based on the will of the southern people, historical and political facts that cannot be overlooked, and a reality on the ground that cannot be bypassed."

This cause would need to be represented in an effort to achieve a durable peace endorsed by the separatists. Kathiri reaffirmed the council's "readiness to engage in any comprehensive negotiations that include an agreed framework," but emphasized that such a framework "has to include the issues of the people of the south."

"No one can pass or apply any unrealistic solutions, and the experience during the previous decades is sufficient to avoid repeating inaccurate attempts," he added, "and we and our people are able to thwart any attempt to bypass the cause of our people and trample upon their sacrifices."

So while Kathiri said the Southern Transitional Council "believes that dialogue, calm and peace between Riyadh and Tehran and the resumption of diplomatic relations between them will reflect positively on stability and peace in the region in general and will also have a positive impact on advancing the success of peace efforts and ending wars and political crises in the region," he also said "our welcome to the agreement is not that of an absolute deed on the future of the solution in the south and Yemen."

Instead, "it is a welcome to the peace decision and the idea of calm," he stated.

"And without any doubt," he added, "we will have a clear and decisive position towards any negative repercussions against the national cause of our people that may result from the agreement."

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