There are signs the Houthi insurgents in Yemen might be talking with Saudi Arabia about ending the year-long civil war, including an encouraging prisoner transfer and the Houthis asking their patrons in Iran to back away from the conflict.
Reuters describes the prisoner swap as “a rare confidence-building measure,” which arrived the day after Yemeni officials said a Houthi delegation was talking with Saudi Arabia about ending the war. The swap reportedly involved trading a Saudi lieutenant held prisoner by the Houthis for seven Yemeni prisoners.
Another interesting development was a senior Houthi official using his Facebook page to tell Iran to back away from the conflict in Yemen.
“Officials in the Islamic Republic of Iran must be silent and leave aside the exploitation of the Yemen file,” said Revolutionary Committee member Yousef al-Feshi, who is “seen as close to the Houthis’ overall leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi,” according to Reuters.
Significantly, this unprecedented Houthi snub of Iran came right after Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff for Iran’s armed forces, was heard to speculate about full-scale Iranian military support for the Houthis in Yemen, comparable to the assistance Tehran is providing the Assad regime in Syria.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said Yemeni tribal chiefs requested a lull in the fighting so humanitarian supplies could be delivered, and the calm along the border appears to be holding up, but would not comment on the rumors that a Houthi delegation was speaking directly to the Saudi government.
The Saudi and Yemeni foreign ministers both said formal peace negotiations with the Houthis could only occur under the auspices of the United Nations and would have to include Yemen’s recognized government, which is the very institution the Houthis, with help from ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been attempting to overthrow.
A U.N. resolution calls for the Houthis, who currently control the capital city of Sanaa, to return the internationally-recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Previous negotiations reportedly stalled because the Houthis did not want to deal with Hadi’s government.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that direct talks between the Saudis and Houthis are indeed taking place somewhere along the Saudi-Yemeni border, hosted by local tribal chiefs, but so far the warring parties have not been able to agree on an agenda for further negotiations.
“It’s a humble step in the right direction of trying to reach a solution,” said Brookings Institution senior foreign policy fellow Ibrahim Fraihat.