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Biden hailed Yemen truce in Saudi visit, but war is far from over

A mother holds her injured daughter at a hospital on July 24 after the shelling of a residential neighborhood in Yemen's third-largest city of Taiz. The shelling, which killed a boy, occurred as U.N. officials are trying to extend a four-month truce in Yemen. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden hailed his visit to Saudi Arabia last week, pushing back against criticism of his smiling sit-downs with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other autocrats while citing progress toward ending the Persian Gulf kingdom’s war in Yemen.

The president described success in securing a Saudi commitment to extending a nearly four-month U.N.-mediated truce — a deal that has yielded the longest pause in fighting since a Saudi-led military coalition entered the conflict in 2015 — as one example of what he called “active, principled American leadership” in the Middle East.

But with that truce set to expire on Aug. 2, warring parties appear far apart, Western nations’ leverage over Iranian-backed Houthi rebels remains slim and a political solution to the conflict is not on the horizon — intensifying questions about whether the U.S.-backed peace effort can succeed.

The stakes are perilously high. While the existing truce has halted most of the airstrikes and other violent acts that have killed thousands of civilians, a surge in global food prices caused by the war in Ukraine has deepened Yemen’s slow-building humanitarian catastrophe, thrusting tens of thousands into famine-like conditions.

A Ramadan truce in Yemen offers civilians respite, but no certainty

And in Yemen’s fragile state, every violation of the truce adds to worries of a sudden, violent collapse. On Sunday, Houthi shelling of a neighborhood in Taiz, a flash point city, raised such fears. The shelling killed at least one boy and injured 11 other children, most under the age of 10, according to the United Nations and Mwatana, a human rights group.

Pictures of wounded children and their bloodied sandals circulated on the internet, causing outrage and prompting a stern condemnation from the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who brokered the truce and is now trying to negotiate an expanded version.

Ahead of Biden’s talks with Arab leaders in the Saudi city of Jiddah, human rights advocates urged him to press the Saudi crown prince over what U.S. intelligence agencies said was his role in the 2018 killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, along with the kingdom’s record of harassing and jailing dissidents.

Some critics derided the White House’s attempt in the lead-up to Biden’s visit to highlight its effort to end the war — which has included an 18-month, behind-the-scenes diplomatic push — as a fig leaf for a visit that was aimed chiefly at healing a rift with gulf nations and boosting global oil supplies.

One official with a nongovernmental group, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, said the administration failed to publicly acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s role in the war and its record of bombing Yemeni civilians.

“They’re instrumentalizing the Yemen war to brandish Saudi Arabia’s human rights file, which fails both Yemen and the human rights agenda,” the official said.

The conflict began in 2014, when the Houthis, a militant group from northern Yemen that had fought several wars against the central government, seized control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened the next year, aiming to defeat the Houthis and restore the country’s deposed president.

Within a few years, the war settled into a bloody stalemate between the Houthis and Saudi-backed forces, leaving Yemen’s nearly 30 million people at the mercy of multiple deadly perils: from airstrikes, shelling, land mines, hunger and poverty. The truce announced in April was the first since 2016, and was accompanied by the resignation of Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, widely viewed as a remote leader and an obstacle to a settlement of the conflict.

A senior State Department official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the talks had succeeded in securing an explicit commitment from Saudi leaders — expressed privately to the visiting American delegation — that the kingdom would support a truce extension of six months, something diplomats believe is crucial to give them space to forge a lasting political settlement.

Biden “wanted to walk away from these meetings with a lot of things, but one of which was to feel very solid that the Saudis are committed,” the official said. “The point we made was not only to renew the truce but to build on it.”

But diplomats and analysts said it is unlikely Saudi Arabia would have needed much American prodding. The kingdom concluded some time ago that it needed to extricate itself from the war — a quagmire for the Saudis that hasn’t managed to leave the Houthis defeated, or even weakened, and has led to years of criticism over the kingdom’s human rights record.

Extending the truce provided the Saudis with something they desperately wanted: a pause in cross-border Houthi missile and drone attacks that have also targeted the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s partner in a military coalition fighting the Houthis.

Yemen’s Houthi militants launch new attack on UAE as conflict widens

“The war exhausted them economically and politically,” said Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, referring to the Saudis. The crown prince, she added, “wants to discuss any subject other than Yemen.”

Yemen experts attribute the truce, first announced in April and extended for another two months in June, to Saudi Arabia’s changing calculations as well as those of the Houthis, who struggled before the truce to capture the strategic city of Marib.

The truce resulted in several notable achievements, including an increase of fuel shipments to the Houthi-controlled Hodeida port; the reopening of the airport in Sanaa to limited international flights; and dramatic decreases in civilian casualties and displacement as a result of violence.

“The truce has been transformational for Yemen. It has made a tangible difference to people’s lives,” Grundberg said in a statement this month.

But there have been several stumbling blocks, including a refusal by the Houthis to reopen roads through Taiz province, which has made traveling across Yemen time-consuming and dangerous.

Egypt, one of two countries that allows international flights from Sanaa, has so far refused to accept more than one flight during the truce, leading Biden to personally appeal to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to allow more, two people familiar with the matter said. There is also an effort underway to expand the list of destinations from Sanaa.

Just after Biden’s Jiddah talks, Houthi officials said they had rejected a further truce extension, calling the arrangement “disappointing.” Officials said they hoped they would eventually accept extending the truce, but perhaps not for as long a period as the United Nations and the Biden administration have sought.

As the wrangling continues, “everyone is talking about truce and not political settlement,” Shuja al-Deen said. A political process promises to be far more complex, given fractures that have emerged from the long conflict and pessimism that the Houthis will make any concessions, given the power and the territory they have acquired.

And it was far from clear that the United States had the appetite to wrestle with those complexities, Shuja al-Deen said.

“For them, Yemen is the south of Saudi Arabia.” The United States could use its influence to pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to aid Yemen in the postwar era, by rebuilding infrastructure they had helped destroy, she said. But the Americans had “no leverage over the Houthis.”

U.S. officials say they have held direct and indirect talks with Houthi counterparts, and that they eventually hope to include Iran, which they say continues to provide arms and support to the Houthis, in the peace process. They note that Tehran has twice issued statements of support about the truce.

“There will probably come a time when it would be appropriate to include them,” the State Department official said. But, he added, “I don’t think anybody is convinced that this is the time.”

“If you can extend and expand the truce I think that would really give us faith that the conflict parties are really seeing this as the moment in the war” to begin sketching out a longer-term solution, the official said.

According to a new analysis from the U.N. World Food Program, more than half of Yemenis are expected to be food-insecure in the coming months, including more than 160,000 people facing “famine-like conditions.” But the agency, facing a surge in commodity prices due in part to the war in Ukraine, has already cut food rations for Yemenis because of funding shortfalls.

Before the war, import-dependent Yemen bought more than 30 percent of its wheat from Ukraine, and another significant share from Russia, according to aid groups.

While Yemeni traders used to be able to purchase a ton of unmilled Ukrainian wheat for $240, the groups say, their next best option now was Australian wheat at $470 a ton. That has already translated into high bread prices and smaller portions.

While a new U.N.-brokered deal to resume shipments of blockaded Ukrainian grain, announced Friday, could help ease the supply crunch, that won’t occur immediately. Less than a day after the deal was announced in Istanbul, Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian port of Odessa, threatening the agreement.

Scott Paul, senior manager of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America, said the response to deepening crisis in Yemen was inadequate.

“Donors need to step up their contributions now, and the parties to the conflict need to renew the truce and make sure it delivers even more relief in its next phase as part of a path towards sustainable peace,” he said.

Ryan reported from Washington and Fahim from Istanbul.

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