PARIS — Saudi Arabia will commence a five-day cease-fire in Yemen on Tuesday night, its foreign minister said Friday, but it will not last if the Houthi rebels do not stop their attacks so humanitarian aid can be delivered to civilians caught in the crossfire.
The unilateral “humanitarian pause” called by Riyadh, which is leading a coalition of Arab countries intervening in Yemen’s civil war, is designed to allow international aid organizations to deliver food, fuel and medicine to civilians. It officially begins at 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’ve been in contact with international and relief organizations to facilitate the flow of supplies into Yemen,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference with Secretary of State John F. Kerry after talks between the United States and six gulf nations.
“We want to get them into Yemen and distribute them,” Jubeir said. “Whether or not we do that depends on what the Houthis and their allies do.”
The cease-fire offer comes as the Saudi-led forces are escalating operations in the Yemeni border province of Saada. That is a Houthi stronghold from which the rebels have launched mortar rounds and rockets into Saudi Arabia in recent days. According to Saudi state television, civilians have been advised to leave because the area has been declared a “military target,” and more airstrikes will be carried out.
The air campaign against the Shiite Houthis, who the Sunni gulf states believe are backed by archrival Iran, aims to push the rebels back so Yemen’s president in exile, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, can return to power.
Jubeir defended the decision to escalate airstrikes in Saada even with the pending cease-fire four days away.
“The operations inside Yemen are a direct response to Houthis attacking civilians in Saudi Arabia and killing civilians in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “That is something we will not tolerate.”
Though the Saudis are committed to enacting the cease-fire, it could end very quickly. The Saudis assured Kerry that they would differentiate between an isolated violation stemming from a mistake or a failure to get word of the cease-fire and a prolonged or extensive violation intended to gain territory, Kerry said.
But it is not clear whether the Houthis intend to take part in the cease-fire. Kerry said the United States would ask Russia and Iran to urge the Houthis to lay aside their arms and stick to it.
“Anyone who cares about the Yemeni people, or asserts they do, should take clear notice of the fact that a humanitarian catastrophe is building,” he said. “They’re running out of food, they’re running out of fuel, they’re running out of medicine.”
If it holds, Kerry added, the cease-fire could lay the foundation for negotiations for a more permanent resolution of the conflict.
“A cease-fire is not peace,” he said. “Ultimately, the parties are going to have to find a way back to the negotiating table.”
Kerry met with his counterparts from the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain — in advance of a May 14 summit President Obama has invited them to attend at Camp David.
The gulf states have looked with trepidation at Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, with Yemen the most immediate cause of concern. As the United States and five other world powers are negotiating with Iran to place curbs on its nuclear program and lift international sanctions, some gulf countries are worried that a deal could come at their expense.
Kerry and his fellow diplomats spent part of Friday’s talks “fleshing out” security arrangements and commitments the United States and the gulf states could make. Washington has urged the gulf states to better coordinate their defense systems so that they can create an integrated antiballistic missile umbrella instead of running their own systems independently of each other.
Kerry also said that a Senate bill passed Thursday that would give Congress 30 days to review and weigh in on a nuclear deal with Iran was a “reasonable and acceptable compromise.” He also said he was pleased that 151 House members signed a letter supporting ongoing negotiations with Iran, which face a June 30 deadline for a final deal.
“Now the essential part is to get down to the nitty-gritty and get the details pinned down,” he said.