Middle East Ticker

Battle for Hodeidah Pauses for New U.N.-backed Talks

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 3, 2018, 12:45 PM

Emirati-backed Forces Pause Offensive in Yemen

Emirati-backed pro-government forces in Yemen stopped their advance short of the city of Hodeidah this weekend. The pause, which began on Sunday, followed a potential breakthrough in talks with the Houthis mediated by the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. Fighting has continued despite the pause, though, and airstrikes have targeted Houthi leaders meeting near the city. Previous negotiations to reach an arrangement in which the Houthis would cede control of the city and its port, critical to the delivery of essential humanitarian aid, collapsed last month. The Emirati-supported forces began their offensive to take the city on June 12, despite concerns from rights groups that the Saudi and Emirati coalition’s plans to mitigate the disruption to aid flows was insufficient.

The Houthis have reportedly offered to pass control of the port in Hodeidah to the United Nations, but talks are ongoing about the details of the arrangement, including who would have military control of the area. "We welcome continuing efforts by UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, to achieve an unconditional Houthi withdrawal from Hodeida city and port. We have paused our campaign to allow enough time for this option to be fully explored. We hope he will succeed," Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, tweeted on Sunday, though he noted that pro-government forces are prepared to resume their offensive if talks stall again. The Emirati-backed advance has been slower than anticipated, with forces reluctant to enter the city and engage in urban combat or attack the port, which Emirati officials believe has been mined by Houthi forces.

With the ongoing war in Yemen at a critical stage, the United States is considering ending the temporary protected status (TPS) granted to 1,200 Yemenis living in the United States. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is due to decide whether or not to renew the status, which has been in effect since September 2015, by the end of the week. As of last Thursday, Huff Post reports, she had not reached a decision. Nielsen previously decided to limit TPS for Syrians in the United States to only those already in the country.

Ending TPS for Yemenis in the United States would be a staggering act of cruelty, even by the callous standards of the Trump administration. The administration’s refugee and immigration ban bars admittance of displaced Yemenis, and before the ban, the United States accepted only a few dozen Yemeni refugees after the start of the war. Meanwhile, Yemenis fleeing the conflict, which has brought with it an outbreak of cholera and an extreme reliance on humanitarian aid to stave off famine, have sought safety in the countries from which it once received refugees. The United Nations reports that nearly 80,000 Yemenis have registered as refugees in Djibouti and Somalia, and others have traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of ports of entry with lax visa standards (like South Korea’s Jeju Island) where they might enter the country and apply for refugee status. As three recent U.S. ambassadors to Yemen wrote this week for Just Security, “Given these conditions and the certainty that they will persist, cancelling TPS for Yemenis would be tantamount to refoulement, placing their lives and freedom in immediate and grave jeopardy.” That the United States would consider denying TPS to even a token few Yemenis while continuing to provide logistical support in the ongoing war that has displaced them is a profound moral failing.

Thousands Flee to Israeli Border as Assad Regime Advances

The Assad regime has ramped up its offensive in southwestern Syria. The United Nations reported yesterday that 270,000 people have fled the renewed fighting; that number exceeds expectations, and lower estimates had already prompted concerns about where displaced civilians could find safety. Jordan closed its border crossings two years ago, and refugees are amassing at the sand berms that demarcate the border, despite limited access to aid and inhospitable conditions. More than half have fled to the Golan Heights, near the Israeli border, where they hope they will be protected by the Israeli military and have access to aid.

The new offensive ended a year-long ceasefire—a “de-escalation zone” negotiated by Russia, the United States, and Jordan—that froze fighting between the regime and rebels. The collapse of the arrangement evokes previous truces that allowed the regime to concentrate on other frontlines that were then broken when more high-priority areas had been pacified. Regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian proxies, seized the town of Bosra al-Sham over the weekend and are now advancing toward Deraa. The regime’s air campaign has continued to strike civilian targets; three medical facilities near the Jordanian border were bombed last week. “People are so scared here. They know the regime will pick them off one by one,” a doctor told the Washington Post.

The United States has responded cautiously to the violation of the de-escalation zone agreement, calling on Russia and the regime to “restrain pro-regime forces from further actions.” President Donald Trump is reportedly mulling plans to propose a new deal at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki later this month. Officials familiar with the proposal told CNN it would grant Russia an “exclusion zone” in southwestern Syria in exchange for the safe passage of Syrian rebels from the area and the withdrawal of Iranian forces from near the Israeli border. National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested over the weekend that Trump could also discuss broader efforts to try to split the Iranian alliance with Assad, saying that the U.S. priority is to roll back Iran’s presence in Syria and that it is willing to accept Assad’s continued governance and a Russian role if it accomplishes that goal. That more ambitious plan has been floated before, but would require the Assad regime to break with its most dedicated patron after three decades of partnership, an outcome that Brookings’ Tamara Cofman Wittes called “preposterous” on Twitter.

Rouhani Travels to Europe to Save Nuclear Deal while Facing Protests at Home

While Iran is secure in Syria, it is facing problems at home. Recent protests have continued, though they remain dispersed and without organization or leadership. Over the weekend, they spread to Khorramshahr, where a water shortage has strained plumbing systems and residents are reporting muddy, unsanitary water running from their faucets. Those protests turned violent, with some people throwing stones at police and rioting; videos from the scene show security forces responding with tear gas and automatic weapons.

The unrest, which started with economic protests in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar last month and follow a previous bout of protests at the start of the year, has further weakened President Hassan Rouhani and created openings for his hardline critics. Rouhani has tried to reassure Iranians that the country can weather the economic hardship of renewed U.S. sanctions and has implemented policies to prepare for more domestic production and a diminished reliance on oil revenue. But his rivals are looking to capitalize on his weakness, reports Al-Monitor, even preparing plans to seek his resignation or impeachment—though some experts warn that this could backfire and reinforce pressure on the government.

Rouhani is meeting with diplomats in Europe this week in an effort to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a speech in Switzerland today, he stressed his desire to remain in the agreement and said Iran would participate as long as its interests were respected. According to Rouhani, European leaders are preparing a series of measures to maintain the deal that could be announced this week.

However, the planned diplomacy has been complicated by the arrest of an Iranian diplomat allegedly linked to plot to attack a convention hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian political dissident organization affiliated with the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). Six people have been arrested by authorities in Belgium, France, and Germany in connection to the plot, and Austria has requested that Iran revoke the arrested diplomat’s immunity.

The MEK, which until several years ago was listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, is a well-funded, international political organization with close ties to politicians in the United States and Europe. Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich were featured speakers at the event over the weekend and National Security Advisor John Bolton has spoken at previous conferences; speakers are reportedly compensated with large speaking fees. However the organization has little credibility in Iran and has been accused of being a cult centered around a single person, Maryam Rajavi. At the conference on Saturday, Giuliani said that President Trump supports regime change in Iran, telling the audience, “We are now very realistic in being able to see an end of the regime in Iran.”