Dubai, United Arab Emirates:
As Houthi attacks roil the Red Sea and Western airstrikes target the rebels, efforts to end Yemen's long-running war are at a standstill, threatening more misery for a country on its knees.
As late as December, difficult negotiations were gaining ground and the United Nations said the warring sides had agreed to work toward “the resumption of an inclusive political process.”
The Iran-backed Houthis have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, months after capturing Yemen's capital Sanaa and most of Yemen's population centers, forcing the internationally recognized government south to Aden.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died during the fighting and from indirect causes such as disease and malnutrition. More than 18 million Yemenis need “urgent support,” according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.
Hostilities eased significantly in April 2022, when a six-month UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect, and have remained at low levels since.
But Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and U.S. and British retaliation have thrown the peace process “up in the air,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, a researcher at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program.
The Houthis, who say they stand in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, have carried out dozens of attacks on ships on the vital maritime route since November.
The insurgents say 17 of their fighters have been killed in recent reprisals.
“Peace in Yemen requires international and regional commitments different from those that currently exist,” Muslimi said. 'The road to war was closed, but now the door to hell has been opened again.'
Peace plan 'no longer on the table'
Top Houthi official Hussein al-Ezzi this month acknowledged “obstacles” on the path to peace, which he blamed on the US, Britain and the Yemeni government.
But “Riyadh and Sanaa have the courage to overcome these difficulties,” he told a news conference, without elaborating.
However, Majid Al-Madhaji, of the think tank Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said that with the flare-up in the Red Sea, “a peace plan no longer has a place on the discussion table.”
In December, the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, said there was progress towards a roadmap that would resolve key issues, such as agreeing to pay civil servants working under the Houthis and resuming the oil exports.
However, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government is now looking for an “opportunity to turn the balance of power” in its favor, Madhaji said.
Last month, the deputy leader of the government's presidential council even called for foreign support for a ground offensive to support US-British airstrikes against the Houthis.
In mid-January, Washington re-designated the Houthis as a terrorist group after withdrawing the designation in 2021 to support humanitarian efforts and advance diplomatic efforts.
But “the idea that we (the US) would now build up anti-Houthi forces to the point where they could resume fighting, I think, is simply not in the cards,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen .
“We are not going to go that route,” he told AFP.
The US is “under a lot of pressure not to do anything that is going to undermine the (peace) negotiations,” Feierstein added.
'Look from afar'
General Joseph Votel, former head of US Central Command, also played down the possibility of “a major fight” and said Washington has more pressing problems, not least the war between Israel and Hamas.
“Resolving the situation in Gaza and restoring some form of deterrence with Iran would be a much higher priority for me,” the retired general said.
Meanwhile, US ally Saudi Arabia is engaged in a delicate balancing act as the world's largest oil exporter tries to extricate itself from the intractable war on its doorstep.
It has not joined a US-led naval coalition to deter Houthi attacks on shipping and expressed “grave concern” after the first round of attacks by the US and Britain, calling for “restraint” .
Riyadh “will watch from a distance to see how far Washington will go, but will not engage in any battle with the Houthis unless they target their country,” Muslimi said.
But even as Saudi Arabia stays out of the flare-up, the path to peace in Yemen remains elusive, said Mohammed Al-Basha, a Yemen expert with the US-based Navanti Research Group.
“The international community is less likely to support a Yemeni peace plan due to concerns about rewarding the Houthis for attacks on the Red Sea, which would freeze the UN-led and US-backed peace process,” he said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)