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Breakthrough in peace talks — applauded by U.S. and Iran — is warily regarded in Yemen

After more than three years of civil war, the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have agreed on humanitarian concessions.

A woman holds her baby, who is suffering from severe malnutrition, in Marib, Yemen on December 13, 2018. CREDIT: Said Ibicioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
A woman holds her baby, who is suffering from severe malnutrition, in Marib, Yemen on December 13, 2018. CREDIT: Said Ibicioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

A breakthrough reached in U.N.-led Yemeni peace talks on Thursday night is being celebrated by the Trump administration and, improbably, its bête noire, Iran.

While a peace deal has not yet been reached, what has been agreed to so far is a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah, a key gateway for much-needed food and medical supplies for the country. Also agreed upon is the opening of a humanitarian corridor through the city of Taiz.

Previous talks between Houthi rebels, believed to be supported by Iran, and the Saudi-coalition backed government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had broken down pretty quickly.

But on Thursday, just as the U.S. Senate voted to pull American support of Saudi Arabia in the war, both sides agreed to withdraw forces from Hodeidah and stop fighting. This is certainly a good sign, given that thousands of civilians have already died in the war, with the impoverished country being hit a massive humanitarian crisis that has included cholera outbreaks and starvation.

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U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths said troops would be withdrawn from Hodeidah “within days,” with international monitors ensuring the pullback.

The U.N. Security Council met on Friday to push through a resolution that would support the ceasefire and allow for the U.N.’s Blue Helmets to be deployed.

The Wall Street Journal, however, reported Thursday that neither the Houthis nor the government were entirely sure of how this was all going to shake out. The rebels feel they have given “too many concessions” and want a political solution as well as “a full withdrawal of all foreign forces from Yemen,” which include forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The government, meanwhile, has not praised the agreement, saying it doubts the Houthi rebels will hold up their end of the bargain.

“They want us to discuss a political settlement without having to pay a price for all the damage they caused after their coup,” one Yemeni lawmaker told the WSJ.

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The U.S. State Department, which has blamed Iran for the hostilities in Yemen, issued a statement of support for the agreement, as did Iran. Neither country was involved in the negotiations.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir tweeted on Friday that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has “made great personal efforts to make the negotiations in Stockholm a success.”

As defense minister, the crown prince in 2015 decided to intervene in Yemen’s civil war to fight the Houthis alongside the Yemeni government. It’s unclear what, if any, role he might have played in the negotiations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed two resolutions that signaled frustration with the “blank checks” lawmakers said President Donald Trump has issued to Saudi Arabia.

The first resolution was a vote to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the second found the Saudi crown prince (known by his initials, MBS) responsible for the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the fall.

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Both votes — delivered by a Republican-controlled Senate — were a resounding condemnation to a cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, which allows virtually any action by Saudi Arabia (and Israel) in service of harming Iran, a country Trump and his base view with derision and distrust.

The president and his administration have provided unblinking support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, where its airstrikes have even struck a school bus packed with children.

President Trump has also unquestioningly accepted MBS’s denials of having anything to with Khashoggi’s brutal murder in the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2.

The journalist was killed, and believed to have been dismembered, by a kill team of 15 men, including an autopsy specialist, who flew to Istanbul from Riyadh in two private jets.