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A slim chance for dialogue in Yemen

There seems to be a certain realization among Ansarullah’s leadership that they have overstretched their hand

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

The events of March 18, 2011 paved the way for the GCC initiative under which Ali Abdullah Saleh eventually agreed to cede his presidential post.

That day, the Yemeni revolution took a tragic turn when Yemeni security forces and plainclothes snipers placed on rooftops killed 51 people in an anti-government rally in Sanaa. Soon before the massacre, Saleh had promised to defend the regime “with every drop of blood.”

In a desperate attempt to placate protesters, Saleh sacked his entire cabinet (asking it to remain in place until a new one was appointed). Yet a number of key tribal leaders (including the powerful Al-Ahmar), generals, and government officials resigned or declared support for the uprisings.

During April and May, Saleh continued to resist the GCC proposals to put an end to the crisis, until early June when he was seriously injured in an explosion inside the presidential compound.

It was in Riyadh, where he received treatment for his injuries, that the former president signed the power-transfer agreement brokered by the GCC in late November. The deal involved Saleh abandoning the presidential post that would be taken on by Vice-President Abd Mansour Hadi.

Numerous commentators have not only announced the death of the GCC deal but have named it the main culprit for how things turned out

Popular referendum

The provisions of the GCC initiative defined a two-year transition period and the formation of a national unity government composed by ministers belonging to the ruling General People’s Congress and from the opposition Joint Meeting Parties.

It called for presidential elections, a new constitution to be subjected to popular referendum and the obligation of the new government to submit a timetable for parliamentary elections.

Also as a consequence of the GCC initiative, a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) backed by U.N. Security Council resolution 2051 went on from March 2013 until January 2014 in Sanaa’s Movenpick Hotel.

It was tasked with addressing most of Yemen’s key challenges such as the federation issue, the Saada conflict in the North, the Southern problem, reform of the army and security apparatus, as well as drafting a new constitution.

Given its very overambitious agenda and the context of crisis, those expecting a swift and smooth process were bound to be disappointed.

Today, with the country on the brink of full-scale civil war and the revivalist Zaidy group Ansarullah (also known as the Houthis) and forces loyal to Saleh in control of much of the North through an awkward alliance, the political transition process seems to have collapsed altogether.

Numerous commentators have not only announced the death of the GCC deal but have named it the main culprit for how things turned out.

Few of the key provisions of the GCC initiative have been met by the government of Abd Mansour Hadi, although circumstances were hardly in his favor.

In particular, giving Saleh immunity has been subject of strong criticism. However, for the GCC states this was a damn if you do, damn if you don’t situation.

No alternative

The immunity deal was used to lure Saleh into agreeing to hand over power. Plus, having the GCC states forcing a national leader (regardless of his lack of legitimacy) to stand down and be prosecuted could have had dangerous consequences within Yemen, given the influence Saleh still has.

Despite all the shortcomings of the GCC initiative and the NDC, not to mention the weakness of Hadi’s government, there is no alternative to the political transition process set out by the GCC initiative and the NDC but civil war and partition.

This is why GCC diplomats are right to stress the need to return to that road map, regardless of its various unresolved issues.

Even the leadership of Ansarullah, a movement that has grown increasingly aggressive and radical in its actions, has not rejected the outcomes of the NDC altogether despite not having been part of it process.

Their declarations and re vindications have often pointed out to outcomes of the NDC they oppose and want to revisit, such as the provision of the draft constitution agreement that divides Yemen into six federally-administration regions.

In the Peace and Partnership Agreement signed by all parties in September, Ansarullah agreed to be part of a committee to implement the outcomes of the Saada Working Group of the NDC.

Chances are slim

In Yemen as elsewhere, from words and documents to deeds goes a long way, so is there any chance of bringing Ansarullah and the National Salvation Alliance to the negotiations table?

Chances are slim, and the recent large-scale military exercises conducted by Ansarullah’s forces near the border with Saudi Arabia and the announcement that a number of weekly flights will be operated between Sanaa and Tehran have only added fuel to the fire.

Unsurprisingly, Ansarullah’s leadership do not seem keen on attending suggested talks in Riyadh.

Nevertheless, if confirmed, the recent news of ongoing indirect talks between Saudi Arabia and Ansarullah offer a glimmer of hope that a negotiated solution is still possible.

The release on Monday of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, placed under house arrest by Ansarullah, is another positive development.

There seems to be a certain realization among Ansarullah’s leadership that they have overplayed their hand. Integrating the mainstream political process and abandoning their unilateral initiatives could offer the movement the credibility it has lost.

It would also be a chance to prove wrong those who think they are just a pawn of Iran’s disruptive activities in Yemen.

Although seeing Ansarullah participating in negotiations or a transition process brokered by the GCC remains a remote possibility, the movement’s intransigence and its leadership’s ties to Iran could prove not to be the biggest obstacle to a negotiated solution.

Instead, the ultimate spoiler could be Saleh’s clan and the support and power he still has within the GPC, the army and the security forces.
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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.