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Yemen diplomacy has not lost its momentum

Even for those Yemenis expecting last week’s Geneva talks to have offered at least a glimmer of hope, the meetings were an utter disappointment

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

Even for those Yemenis expecting last week’s Geneva talks to have offered at least a glimmer of hope, the meetings involving various factions were an utter disappointment. The image the delegates sent home - with refusals to meet face-to-face, insults, shoe-throwing and fist-fights - was of detachment from the calamitous situation on the ground. No agreement, no humanitarian truce during Ramadan, not even an official date for a new round of talks.

What was widely missed in the hangover of what appeared to be a major diplomatic fiasco is that a few members of the Houthi delegation, together with delegates of the General People’s Congress (GPC) allegedly loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not return to Sanaa. Instead, they left Switzerland Sunday morning on a private plane provided by the United Nations and headed to Muscat.

The current situation serves no one, and Houthi-Saleh forces are not winning. The ongoing diplomatic efforts reflect that realization

Manuel Almeida

It was in the Omani capital in late May that Houthi representatives met with Gulf and U.S. diplomats under the wing of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has earned a reputation as a cunning diplomat and mediator. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was also in Muscat around the same time, where he discussed the Yemeni crisis with Omani officials.

Paving the way for talks

These meetings, together with plenty of low-profile discussions in Riyadh and the diplomatic efforts in Sanaa of U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, paved the way for the Geneva talks.

The return of the Houthi-GPC delegation to Muscat shows that diplomatic momentum is not lost, despite the ongoing war and worsening humanitarian crisis. Also, contrary to what seems to have become conventional wisdom in much of the recent coverage of the conflict, the Arab coalition’s airstrikes and the diverse armed resistance have been taking a severe toll on Houthi-Saleh forces.

It is not only the heavy casualties they have been suffering in Taiz, Daleh, Marib, Shabwa and other areas. According to recent reports, tensions and even violent clashes erupted between Houthi fighters and members of the pro-Saleh Republican Guard in the southwestern governorate of Dhale, where they lost dozens of men in recent days.

Collapse of living conditions

With the collapse of basic services and shortages of fuel, water, food and medicine, a dengue epidemic has spread across a few southern governorates, with Aden hit particularly badly. The World Health Organization (WHO) says over 3,000 cases have been recorded since March. A Yemeni government official says more than 5,000 people have been diagnosed.

While the epidemic is having an impact mainly on the local population, the deteriorating situation and the constant disruption of supplies is also an obstacle for Houthi-Saleh forces to hold their ground.

The latest rumors coming out of the ongoing talks in Muscat, overseen by Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, point to an agreement for a Houthi withdrawal from Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. Additionally, a military force of up to 5,000 southerners is due to be deployed in Aden very soon, after receiving intense military training outside Yemen in an undisclosed location.

A potential withdrawal of Houthi and pro-Saleh forces from Aden would be an important shift in the conflict and would bolster the armed resistance. It could also have a positive impact on further talks to achieve a humanitarian truce.

The situation in Aden will remain tricky even if the withdrawal takes place. While Saudi-led airstrikes on targets in Sanaa have received wide media coverage, the conflict in Aden and the level of brutality employed by Houthi and pro-Saleh forces in the south have gone underreported. Aden is probably the worst front in this conflict when it comes to loss of life and destruction of property and infrastructure.

Many southerners of the Popular Committees fighting Houthi-Saleh forces are not supporters of Abd Mansour Hadi, the current president and leader of the Yemeni government in exile. Yet at this point the priority of the leaders of Al-Hirak (the umbrella movement for various southern separatist factions) is likely to be supporting the government and returning to the political transition process backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The current situation serves no one, and Houthi-Saleh forces are not winning. The ongoing diplomatic efforts reflect that realization.

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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.

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