(United Nations) — United Nations peace envoy Martin Griffiths has warned of the “frightening prospect” of Yemen’s war getting dragged in to a broader confrontation between the United States, its regional allies and Iran.
Griffiths, the special envoy for Yemen, warned that angry rhetoric between Washington and Tehran would only worsen a conflict in Yemen that has already pushed millions of people to the brink of famine.
“Yemen is near the front lines of a potential tragedy arising from the tensions in the region. It’s not in the interest of Yemen to be dragged into a regional war,” Griffiths told the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday.
The 15-nation body met against a backdrop of worsening violence in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have stepped up drone and missile strikes on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi-led coalition has hit military sites belonging to the group, especially around the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
The Iran-aligned Houthis said they launched a drone strike on Jizan airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, while the Saudi-led coalition said that it had intercepted and shot down three Houthi drones in the border region on Tuesday.
“I am particularly alarmed by the continued [Houthi] attacks on civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia,” Griffiths said.
“Yemeni parties should desist from any actions that take Yemen in that direction. We need to prevent this to reduce regional tensions and to save lives. We have to see de-escalation of violence now.”
As fighting worsens, millions of Yemenis face ever-greater hardship, with hunger and cholera high up the UN’s list of priorities, said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator and under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
“Conditions for most people in Yemen are getting worse, not better. And if the current trajectory continues, we should all expect they will continue to get worse,” Lowcock told diplomats in Manhattan.
“The fighting rages on. Since June, 120,000 more people have fled their homes, bringing total displacement this year to more than 300,000 people – on top, of course, of the millions forced to flee in previous years.”
Yemen’s conflict broke out in late 2014 when Houthis seized much of the country, including Sanaa. The war is widely seen as a proxy battle between regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition intervened against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and in support of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government in March 2015.
But regional tensions involving all these powers have exploded in recent weeks, with US President Donald Trump ratcheting up sanctions against Iran in an effort to renegotiate an Obama-era nuclear deal.
Trump withdrew from the major 2015 nuclear pact last year and reimposed sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports and pressure the Islamic Republic to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy.
Feisty rhetoric from Trump administration and Iranian officials has prompted fears of military action between the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Iran and its allied militias in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
Last month, Trump said that he was not seeking war with Iran but, if forced, the country would face “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”
Revelations this week of a deployment of 500 US troops to Prince Sultan Air Base, in the Saudi desert outside Riyadh, were the latest in a series of steps in which the US has boosted its military footprint in the Middle East.
Iran came close to sparking a conflict with the US last month after the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented shoot-down of a US drone with a surface-to-air missile nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by Trump.
Washington and Riyadh have accused Iran of carrying out attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, a critical maritime choke point between the Gulf and Gulf of Oman, in the past two months. Tehran has denied this.
In a recent online post, Houthi political leader Mohammed al–Bukaiti wrote of a “great war” between Washington and its allies against an “axis of resistance”, made up of forces from Yemen, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere.
Such a conflict “has begun to loom on the horizon and the people of the region are ready to begin”, al–Bukaiti wrote.