In recent interviews and press conferences, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Yemen, the Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheik Ahmed, has explained the U.N.-brokered plan to bring Yemen’s warrying parties to the negotiating table. It involves a step-by-step diplomatic process with various rounds of separate preparatory meetings to take place in Muscat and Riyadh. Only then will Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the leadership of the northern Houthi rebels meet face to face in Geneva.
Technicalities aside (although quite important in this case considering how bad things went in previous talks in Geneva), the question everyone is asking is what are the chances of success of this latest diplomatic push. Yet another question that should be asked is what role the U.N. could play in the event the coming peace talks bear fruit.
The U.N. and its member states should consider the deployment of a robust peacebuilding force to assist Yemeni government forces.Manuel Almeida
The U.N. Secretary-General and the permanent members of the Security Council have pushed for a political solution since the conflict began, while imposing targeted sanctions on the spoilers of the political transition process. U.N. Security Council resolution 2216 of April this year provides the key framework for the peace talks, including the withdrawal of militias from Yemen’s main cities. In case of a diplomatic breakthrough, the need for a deeper U.N. involvement in Yemen will be manifest.
Another failure of diplomacy?
Big obstacles to a peace deal remain in place, first among which are the Houthis’ control of Sanaa and the need to convince the rebel group to withdraw from Sanaa and disarm. Another chief hindrance is the presence of the still influential and always unpredictable Ali Abdullah Saleh in the Yemeni capital. The former president has proved to be willing to do anything, including using of all his financial resources amassed illegally for years, to retain a key position of influence if not de-facto control over the country’s affairs.
However, the receptivity of all parties to hold a serious round of peace talks, especially from the alliance between Houthi leadership and the Saleh loyalists, reflects at least implicitly a recognition their military aggression has proved a dismal choice. In recent months, the Houthis have suffered military setbacks on various fronts (in Aden, Marib, Taiz among others) and lost thousands of fighters, while recent reports have revealed how grim the atmosphere is in the Houthi strongholds in the north bordering Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the Saleh camp is showing signs of fragmentation. In a recent interview to a Lebanon-based TV channel, Saleh himself spoke in a far less bellicose tone than usual and expressed his willingness under certain conditions to step down as head of Yemen’s long-time ruling party, the General People’s Congress. As much as anything of this sort from Saleh needs to be treated with caution, it does reveal pressure is building up. Last week, the GPC replaced Saleh with President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi as party’s chairman.
These developments, coupled with the worsening humanitarian situation, the rising financial and human costs of the war, and the growing international pressure for a political solution, make a political deal more attractive to all parties and thus likelier than it was just a couple of months back.
More U.N. involvement
If the most positive of scenarios is eventually confirmed, with a peace deal and the withdrawal of Houthi militias from Sanaa, the natural priority for the U.N. would be to take advantage of the lifting of the blockade imposed by warrying parties to play a leading role in addressing the dismal humanitarian crisis across the country.
Nevertheless, implementing the peace deal in such a complex situation will be a monumental challenge, most likely beyond the reach of any national unity or provisional Yemeni government. Here is also where the U.N. should jump in with determination.
Pertinently, Ould Cheik Ahmed has already noted the importance of further involvement of the international community and neighbouring countries to assist in the transition process and the implementation of the peace plan. The U.N. envoy, who has previous experience in Yemen, mentioned in particular the idea of setting up an international mechanism to monitor the respect for the ceasefire rules by the various groups on the ground.
However, after such a destructive and violent conflict, remaining grievances among so many different armed groups with diverging interests and allegiances will inevitably affect any political transition. Plus, the dangerous local al-Qaeda branch has taken advantage of the chaos to spread its tentacles across much of the country. It would thus be an irreparable mistake to assume that overstretched government forces alone would manage to keep the peace, oversee an effective disarmament process in a country with such a heavily armed population as Yemen’s, rebuild the national army and fight terrorist groups.
If the conflict subsides, the Saudi-led coalition could continue to assist government forces in this process, but given the central role the coalition forces have played in the conflict, it would be very difficult for them to play the part of neutral peace enforcer.
As risky and unappealing it might be, the U.N. and its member states should consider the deployment of a robust peacebuilding force to assist Yemeni government forces in the disarmament of militias and in guaranteeing that any peace agreement will stand. This conflict has already shown the cost of allowing the political process to derail. Repeating that mistake again would be too high a price for Yemenis to pay.
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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