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The illusion behind the Yemen peace talks

June 18, 2015 at 10:29 am

After three months of bloodshed, Yemen’s conflicting parties have finally agreed to sit at the negotiation table at UN-backed peace talks in Geneva. The process so far has been as anticipated; messy. Despite the violence looking to spiral out of control, so far it doesn’t seem like there is a serious drive by anyone to want to halt the fighting and find a political solution.

On Monday, anger erupted as talks commenced without the Houthis, who were stuck in Djibouti, diminishing hopes of peace further. The delegation then threw accusations that Saudi Arabia was the cause of their travel problems and also claimed that Egypt refused to allow them to cross its airspace, which Cairo denied.

The Houthis eventually arrived with more than 25 delegates in Geneva, when the number agreed beforehand was seven. Yemeni foreign minister Reyad Yasin Abdullah accused the Houthis of deliberately trying to disturb the talks by “causing chaos” and already breaking the rules. So far, there has been no visible progress towards a resolution to the conflict; rather, there has been an increase in the diplomatic strife.

Rumours were also circulating on Wednesday afternoon that the delegation of the government in exile wanted to postpone the meeting for two hours, until around 3pm (GMT); Reyad Abdullah said that the meetings will commence in two days.

In the background, violence continues to plague Yemen’s land and skies with a blockade that is putting civilians in a more desperate position than ever. The number of those internally displaced has reached one million, and the death toll has hit the 2,000 mark. Taiz, Aden and Shawaba have seen more intense fighting on the ground and more airstrikes. A Saudi airstrike hit a group of civilians fleeing the fighting in Aden on Wednesday afternoon killing 31 people; the house of an exiled government MP, Abdel-Aziz Jubari, was blown up by the Houthis in Sana’a, apparently as a revenge statement for the delegation being stuck in Djibouti for 25 hours.

It is clear that the delegations are not in Geneva to reach a peaceful compromise, but are there to make a statement based on power. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that an aim for all parties is to have some respect for the Muslims fasting during the strikes, and have at least a two week ceasefire during Ramadan. This is not only proving to be too ambitious already, as Ramadan has already begun, but the fighting on the ground at this stage is beyond the control of the delegations at the peace talks.

Looking at the country as a whole, it’s important to remember that the fighting is not between the exiled government hiding behind Saudi airstrikes and the Houthis. Southern Yemen is full of tribal resistance forces, attempting to fight off Houthi control, but in a disorganised fashion, with conflicting motives. They are quick to be labelled as President Hadi loyalists, simply because they are fighting against the Houthis, and Hadi himself is a southerner, from Abyan. It’s important to remember, though, that Hadi played a sly role during the Yemen civil war and ended up siding with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, by whom he was later appointed as minister of defence; he is not seen as a figure of support for actual sectionalists.

Sectionalism is not limited to reinstating South Yemen. A proportion of the fighters in Hadhramout are not only fighting for southern integrity, but also Hadhrami, as the movement for Hadhramout’s independence from the rest of Yemen is starting to pick up momentum. AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is a faction that we tend to forget is also fighting the Houthis and has an anti-Houthi propaganda scheme.

By being the most organised and dangerous Al-Qaeda branch, AQAP is able to recruit fighters and to show its influence simply on the basis of a hit and run attack in Houthi areas, as it did in Taiz, Ibb and Lahj in April. Those attacks were not made to gain control per se, but were just ways of reminding everyone of their presence in the conflict and their military potential, especially after last year’s retreat from Shawaba and Abyan. AQAP cannot afford to try to take control just yet, but it needs a show of power. Currently, the stronghold that it has captured is the city of Mullaka in Hadhramout. With divided support, as many have in the past and still do join AQAP because of the financial benefits in an increasingly desperate situation, it’s unlikely that the Hadhrami community will be able, logistically and strategically (or even be willing) to unite as one against AQAP.

With the death of the group’s second in command, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi in a CIA drone strike, it is clear that AQAP has now faced a setback, but that does not mean it will retreat quietly. If anything, more aimless violence during these times is expected from AQAP in an attempt to reinstate its authority and morale. Already, two people have been hanged in public with regards to Al-Wuhayshi’s death, after being accused of being Saudi spies and providing intelligence to the CIA to carry out the attack.

At this stage, the difficult start to the talks is not the only problem Yemen is facing. Nor does it seem like the talks will really solve the wider issues. The underlying instabilities in Yemen have burst out into the open. The damage to the country’s infrastructure has created an inevitable post-war development crisis that will take years to repair. The delegations are playing their political games in order to capture the diplomatic upper ground in Geneva, when they know all too well that the situation on the ground is out of their hands, even in the unlikely event that they do reach an agreement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.