Anne Patterson, the Obama administration's top diplomat for the Near East, met last week in Oman with representatives of the Houthi rebels according to Marie Harf a State Department spokesperson.
Oman has not joined with the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing Houthi-held areas in Yemen. This is the first official contact between US officials and the rebels who control much of the western area of Yemen including the capital Sanaa. While there were attempts to form a government agreeable to the Houthis, negotiations failed. President Hadi was under virtual house arrest in Sanaa after he resigned. He later was able to flee to Aden in the south where he declared he was still president. However, he was driven out and forced to flee to Saudi Arabia to the safety of Riyadh the capital. The Saudis together with many in the Gulf Cooperation Council are trying to force his reinstatement by attacking the Houthis, so far with no success. The conflict has led to a humanitarian disaster as people flee the fighting and even Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula(AQAP) are capturing more territory as they clash with the Houthis and often find allies in local Sunni tribes. The Houthis are Shia and are supported by Iran.The US takes the view that there can be only a political solution to the conflict and is trying to convince all parties including the rebels that they should take part in a peace process. President Hadi has demanded up to now that the Houthis give up at least some of the territories they have seized as a condition for his attending peace talks. Two main Houthi leaders and their strong supporter former president Saleh are sanctioned by the UN. It is not clear that they could even attend the talks.The US is hardly neutral in the conflict as it has been providing intelligence and advice on targets to the Saudis. It has also continued drone attacks on AQAP even though the Saudis seem not to have bombed any AQAP-held areas. AQAP is one of the most effective forces fighting against the Houthis and are preventing them from advancing further to the east of Yemen. AQAP has virtually taken one province and its capital city. It is not clear whether the US mission was undertaken with the blessing of the Saudis. So far they have made no comment on developments. However, Secretary of State John Kerry and director of the CIA John Brennan met with their Saudi counterparts recently and Obama hosted a meeting with Saudi princes last month at Camp David. The US is no doubt worried that the Saudi military campaign may be hurting their political aim of re-instating President Hadi.The big powers, such as the US and Saudi Arabia who helped put Hadi in power and supported him may have an unrealistic assessment of what their superior military and other powers can achieve in the situation. Even in areas in the south where the Houthis are facing fierce opposition it is often from forces of the Southern Movement, who are no friends of Hadi, and want a separate South Yemen as was the case in the past. AQAP has been able to take advantage of the situation to gain considerable influence and territory as it confronts the Houthis. No military solution seems possible without extensive intervention on the ground.The leader of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, was instrumental in making arrangements for the talks. US officials helped to arrange for several Houthi representatives to fly to Muscat for the talks. As well as Anne Patterson, US Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller also participated in the talks. The US hopes it may be able to broker a permanent ceasefire and then peace talks.The released US journalist suffered a back injury and is in stable condition in an Oman hospital. His mother said she had talked to him and that he was doing well considering his ordeal. State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, said that he had been released through mediation of Oman authorities. Oman is one Yemeni neighbour that is trying to play a positive role in this conflict rather than creating more havoc in Yemen.