The best that the latest round of U.N.-sponsored Yemen peace talks - which took place in Switzerland between Dec. 15 and 20 - was able to produce was the promise of another round of talks on Jan. 14 in a location to be agreed. Although a meagre achievement, especially given the dire humanitarian situation, diplomacy still remains by far the best hope for an exit route from the current miserable state of affairs.
This latest round of talks was again marked by a failure to implement a ceasefire, from which other important measures would follow, such as a focus on much-needed delivery of humanitarian aid. Both sides agreed to “lift all forms of blockade and allow safe, rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian supplies to all affected governorates,” as part of confidence-building measures.
There are indications that many of the forces involved in the fighting see little benefit in a peace agreement, at least before any major changes on the ground.Manuel Almeida
However, fierce fighting has continued in various locations, including the city of Taiz in the southwest, and the northern Jawaf and Marib provinces east of Sanaa. The initial ceasefire was still extended by one week on condition that the Houthis commit to the new truce, but the result seems to have been equally disappointing.
An important question that emerged out of the ongoing stalemate is whether any major change has taken place since the previous round of talks in June, which could indicate a greater chance for diplomatic success. Back then, negotiations were interrupted by insults, fist-fighting and shoe-throwing among the delegates, who failed to even agree on a humanitarian truce during Ramadan.
Beyond the root causes of the current crisis, the various competing political allegiances within Yemen, and the involvement of several external players, the conflict has two main drivers. One is the belief by the Houthi rebels’ radical leadership, which is backed by Iran and have close ties to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that a military option could be beneficial to the group.
The other is the refusal of the hugely rich and influential Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, to accept the idea that his days as key player in the complex Yemeni political scene were numbered.
In 2014, these two visions converged. The support that the forces still loyal to the former president provided the Houthis, Saleh’s former foes against whom he fought six wars, proved decisive in the rebels’ military offensive that resulted in the takeover of the capital. Today, despite the participation of Houthi delegates in the peace talks - without which the talks would make little sense - it remains to be seen if the rebels are committed to negotiation.
In early October, the Houthi leadership wrote to the U.N. secretary-general to affirm its commitment to both the seven-point peace plan brokered by the United Nations in Oman, and to relevant Security Council resolutions.
However, just a day before this month’s peace negotiations were due to begin, and hours before the official start of the ceasefire, the Houthis inflicted one of the deadliest attacks on coalition forces, when a missile struck a military base of the Arab forces backing Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Soon after the conclusion of talks, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi made a defiant call to his supporters, which again showed little consideration for the diplomatic process: “Don’t bet on the United Nations, whose role conforms to American policy.”
The war’s cost
Within the factions of General People’s Congress (GPC) - the long-time ruling party - that still support Saleh, it is difficult to tell if there is a unified position regarding the settlement of the crisis through diplomacy. Previous diverging positions between him and his supporters could well be signs of cracks within the party, but it could also be part of stalling tactics.
In October, the GPC accepted the peace plan and relevant U.N. resolutions in an emailed statement. Yet Saleh refuses to talk with the internationally-recognized government, and calls instead for direct talks with Saudi Arabia. “If the war ends, we’ll hold talks with Saudi Arabia and not with the delegate of escapees,” he said this week.
There are indications that many of the forces involved in the fighting see little benefit in a peace agreement, at least before any major changes on the ground. Sadly, the hope is that as the human and material costs of the conflict increase, the perceived benefits of a negotiated solution will eventually outweigh the temptations of prolonging the conflict. Within the unlikely Houthi-Saleh alliance that has defined this war, at least one part has to be genuinely interested in a negotiated solution. Otherwise, the conflict will go on.
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.