Last week, Yemen’s Houthi rebels wrote to the U.N. secretary-general to affirm their commitment to both the seven-point peace plan brokered by the United Nations in Oman, and to relevant Security Council resolutions. Also last week, the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, accepted the peace plan and resolutions in an emailed statement.
This, in theory, comes close to the position of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition, which have from the outset endorsed the U.N. plan as the only way forward. The key Security Council resolution 2216 of April this year demands, among other things, the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of Houthi militias and forces loyal to Saleh from Yemen’s cities.
Key international players should not allow the Syrian crisis and Russia’s military intervention to deviate the focus away from the possible settlement of the Yemen conflict.Manuel Almeida
Do these developments indicate that a political solution to the conflict is any closer than it was a few months ago? Not if previous talks and meetings between Yemeni warring parties as well as U.N.-led negotiations are anything to go by.
In June, negotiations in Geneva were interrupted by insults, fist-fighting and shoe-throwing among the delegates. Not even a humanitarian truce during Ramadan came out of that round of talks. In May, a five-day ceasefire did not stop armed clashes between local resistance and the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
Last year, before the conflict spread throughout the country, the U.N.-sponsored Peace and National Partnership Agreement, signed by all Yemeni factions, collapsed due to uninterrupted attacks by Houthi forces on state institutions.
It is not only the Houthi leadership that has a recent history of striking deals they intend not to respect. After the uprisings against his rule, Saleh himself used the Gulf-backed transition plan of Nov. 2011 (which allowed him to return to Yemen with immunity from prosecution on condition that he transfer power to his vice-president) to play a disruptive role.
Unsurprisingly, the reactions from both the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition to the Houthis’ and GPC’s acceptance of the U.N.-brokered peace plan were unenthusiastic, reflecting deep suspicion about the real intentions of the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri, the spokesman for Arab coalition forces, said operations would continue given that the coalition did not receive any promises of a ceasefire from the Houthis. The press secretary of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the government “position is unchanged. There must be an announcement of willingness to implement all articles of the resolution without any changes.”
However, previous talks and negotiations took place at an early stage in the conflict, when it had not yet run its course. As the conflict drags on, its destructive effects and impact on the civilian population have become ever-more evident, and the gains achieved by the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the first few months continue to be undone. Thus, the chances are a political settlement will become increasingly attractive to all parts.
The U.N. special envoy to Yemen, the Mauritanian Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, this week expressed his optimism about getting peace talks going, noting that all parties take “the U.N. process as the only game in town.”
The window of opportunity should not go to waste. The fact the GPC and the Houthis have expressed in writing their commitment to the U.N. peace plan is relevant in itself. Both may be bluffing, but violations of a plan endorsed by the Security Council will come at a high cost to their credibility as parties to the negotiations.
Further complicating matters, Saleh does not seem to back the GPC’s commitment to the peace plan. His speeches aired on Yemeni TV over recent days were yet another display of belligerence and dangerous illusions. The apparently diverging positions from Saleh and the GPC can be either a stalling tactic or a sign of divisions within the party.
While inevitably a priority for anyone concerned with the stability of the whole region, key international players should not allow the Syrian crisis and Russia’s military intervention to deviate the focus away from the possible settlement of the Yemen conflict.
During last weekend’s visit to Russia of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was fully committed to cooperate with all parties to resolve the Yemen conflict.
What American, European and Russian diplomats could now do is work on a step-by-step road map to implement Security Council resolution 2216 and the seven principles agreed upon in Oman. Both documents provide the key, general guidelines for a political settlement, but translating that into reality in such a complex conflict is another story.
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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