Sunday,20 September, 2015
On Thursday, the government of Saudi-based Yemeni President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi announced it would sit with representatives of the Houthi movement to discuss a political solution to the six-month long Yemen war. The talks were to take place in Oman, the only Gulf monarchy not participating in the Saudi-led military operation against the Shia rebel group, the Houthis, which began in March.
Two days later, Hadi backtracked, demanding that the Houthis accept UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2216 — from April — to withdraw from the Yemeni capital Sanaa as a condition to proceed with the talks.
The aim of the UN brokered talks was to create a framework for an agreement on implementation mechanisms for the said UNSC resolution, a ceasefire and the restoration of a peaceful political transition.
Despite previous failed attempts to get the Yemeni parties to the conflict to discuss a political solution, hopes were pinned on this round to at least result in a ceasefire ahead of the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha at end of next week. After six months of air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi shelling, Yemen’s civilian death toll exceeds 2,000, making the now-defunct peace talks a necessity as the spectre of famine looms in the Arab world’s poorest country.
So relieved was the UNSC that its members issued a press release welcoming the would-be talks and emphasising the importance of approaching the negotiations “without preconditions”. But with Hadi’s sudden interest in the five-month old UNSC resolution, any hopes to avert military escalation on both sides has dissipated and been replaced with fears of what is yet to come if the war moves to the capital, Sanaa.
Observers say the UN’s muted reaction to Hadi’s U- turn has Saudi Arabia in mind.
“Despite the discomfort among many on the UN Security Council about the way the Saudi-led coalition is waging war in Yemen, there is reluctance to cross Riyadh, especially in public,” said Robert Blecher, a Middle East expert in the International Crisis Group. “The US is trying to keep the Saudis from further expanding the war – but through quiet diplomacy, not through the Security Council.”
As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press, unconfirmed reports in the local media claimed that UN special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was resigning. While unlikely now, Cheikh Ahmed’s resignation isn’t farfetched in the near future, given the UN’s continuous failure to broker peace talks or impose a political solution to the Yemeni war. Two previous failed attempts at peace talks between the Houthis, forces of their ally, ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Hadi government testify to the difficulties of the Yemeni crisis, where the influence of regional powers is part of the problem.
Cheikh Ahmed’s predecessor, Jamal Benomar, resigned after giving up on a peaceful political transition in Yemen when the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes end of March to reinstate Hadi.
So why agree to talks only to cancel them? “These negotiations are used as a bargaining chip and a delay tactic on both ends to calm the media frenzy around the war,” said Washington-based Yemen analyst Sama’a Al-Hamdani. “They’re also used to trick the opponent into buying buying time so they can advance on ground,” she added.
The psychological impact on Yemenis could be devastating. Says Al-Hamdani: “Yemeni citizens who have suffered and are suffering at the hands of the war have their hopes up whenever word spreads on the subject of peace, only to be crushed within a few days. It adds to the trauma of the war.”
The Houthis, a rebel group based in northern Yemen, overran Sanaa almost a year ago and later placed President Hadi under house arrest. He fled to the south, prompting the Houthis to chase him down, capturing various provinces as they advanced, including the strategic port city of Aden. Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia in March where his government remains in exile.
The Houthis are followers of the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shia Islam that brought them closer to Shia Iran, their regional ally and Saudi Arabia’s rival.
Widely viewed as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, the Yemen war left 80 per cent of the population (21 million) in need for humanitarian assistance, according to Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights.
Earlier this week Al-Hussein released a report on the human rights situation in Yemen that detailed what could amount to war crimes by both sides, such as the shelling of civilian areas. The report called upon the international community to form an international inquiry to investigate the alleged abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law.
On the same day that President Hadi cancelled talks, Saudi-led forces launched a ground offensive in Mareb province, 120 kilometres from Sanaa. Described by an Emirati general as the “last line” ahead of Sanaa, the coalition’s advance in the Houthi-controlled oil-rich province has signalled the imminence of the battle for Sanaa.
On Monday, the commander of an Emirati contingent that is part of the Saudi-coalition told The Associated Press that his troops are pushing towards the capital after securing Mareb, the capital of the Mareb province.
The commander, Brigadier General Ali Saif Al-Kaabi, was quoted as saying that Emirati troops face a difficult terrain of towering mountains between them and the Yemeni capital.
The UAE’s advance in Mareb comes after its troops lost 53 servicemen earlier this month when Houthi forces fired a missile on an ammunition store. Ten Saudi and five Bahraini soldiers were also killed. In response, the coalition stepped up airstrikes on Sanaa, which witnesses described as the fiercest since the Saudi-led offensive began in March.