Michael Fallon with General Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Numani, Oman’s Minister of the Royal Office during a meeting on Wednesday. Image Credit: ONA

Muscat: Saudi Arabia has been attacked and it has every right to defend itself against Iran-backed Al Houthi militants and restore Yemen’s legitimate government, British Defence Minister Michael Fallon told Gulf News in an exclusive interview in Oman.

“The UK supports the peace process and we continue to do what we can to get the parties to come to the table,” he said. Iran-backed Al Houthis seized Sana’a in September 2014, then advanced south, raising fears in Riyadh that the militants would extend the influence of Iran in the kingdom’s southern neighbour.

Yemeni forces, backed by a Saudi-led Arab coalition which stepped in on March 26, 2015 to restore Yemen’s legitimate government, have successfully pushed Al Houthis out of many provinces.

Fallon said there have been encouraging signs that the war in Yemen is nearing its end.

“Fighting has subsided and confidence-building measures are taking place such as the recent prisoner exchange,” he said, while pointing out Oman’s constructive role in facilitating the decrease in hostilities.

The UN says about 6,300 people have been killed in the war, more than half of them civilians, and more than 80 per cent of Yemen’s people need humanitarian assistance.

Fallon highlighted the critical need to get humanitarian assistance into the country. “People are short of food. They need help as soon as possible.”

Defending recent criticism that the UK has come under over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Fallon said that Riyadh was “a key ally in the fight against terrorism and extremism, particularly Daesh”. He also praised the Saudi decision to create an Islamic military alliance against terrorism.

On Syria, Fallon expressed optimism that the five-year-old conflict would be resolved soon, but denied that major powers have reached a deal with Russia.

“We support Russia’s role as long as it pushes for constructive diplomacy,” he said.

The latest round of Syrian peace talks, which opened on March 14, wrapped up in Geneva last week, with a paper of 12 points of commonalities delivered to both sides for further consideration.

On top of the points list is the principle of respect for sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and “no part of the national territory shall be ceded”.

“We hope that Russia will push Syrian President Bashar Al Assad into real talks with the opposition which will pave the way to restore peace and stability to Syria,” Fallon said.

“This begins with a transitional phase that includes parliamentary elections and then the formation of an all-inclusive government,” he added.

On Libya, Fallon reiterated that the UK had no plans to militarily intervene in the conflict, but it would consider it if the Libyan government asked for specific military assistance in fighting militant groups like Daesh.

Formed under a power-sharing deal agreed in December, a new unity government is meant to take over from rival groups running the country.

Libya has had two administrations since mid-2014 when the militia alliance overran Tripoli, setting up its own authority and forcing the internationally recognised parliament to flee to the country’s remote east.

International leaders, increasingly alarmed by the rise of terrorists and people-smugglers in the impoverished North African state, have called on Libya’s political rivals to back the unity government.

“So far, the Libyans have not expressed interest in having foreign troops on their soil,” he said, while adding there were other ways to help Libya, citing specific missions that the Italians and French have been engaged in.