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Yemen sinks deeper into crisis

June 30, 2015 at 3:09 pm

It didn’t take long for talks between Yemen’s warring factions to fall apart earlier this month. The five-day process, which was brokered by the UN and took place in Geneva, at times descended into farce. The UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, was forced to spend his time running between the two sides since representatives refused to sit at the same table. Yemen’s exiled foreign minister, Riad Yassin, blamed the rebel Houthi side for the collapse of talks, saying they refused to meet with the government’s team.

Ahmed insisted that there was “a certain willingness from all the parties to discuss issues around the ceasefire.” The two sides agreed in principle on the need for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of forces, but no ceasefire was agreed. In the end, the differences between them were greater than the similarities. The government insists that the rebels must withdraw from the territory they have seized. The Houthi rebels demand that Saudi-led airstrikes be halted before they agree to a ceasefire.

Yassin said that efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict would continue, but admitted that no date has been set for a second round of talks. Indeed, negotiation seems fruitless when neither side is ready or willing to make concessions to the other – or even to share a table.

In the meantime, violence continues in Yemen. Since airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition to oust the Iranian-backed Houthis began in late March, more than 2,800 people have been killed and more than 13,000 injured. This is on top of the millions already affected by several years of upheaval and conflict. Terrorist groups have taken advantage of the continued chaos in Yemen to stage an ever-increasing number of attacks. This week, ISIS claimed responsibility for a car bomb targeting two Houthi leaders in the capital city of Sana’a that killed at least 28 people. This is just the latest in a long line of violent terrorist attacks. The frequency of such incidents points to the complicated nature of the conflict in Yemen; the Houthis, who seized control of the capital in September, are not only fighting against pro-government fighters but also against southern separatists and extremist groups.

While media reports often focus on the success or failure of Saudi Arabia’s military gamble in Yemen, or on the power struggle between the Houthis and the ousted government of exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a humanitarian crisis is growing. The conflict has led to a collapse of basic services, as well as extreme shortages of fuel and food, meaning that an estimated 20 million people – 80 per cent of the population – is in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 1 million have been forced from their homes. Stephen O’Brien, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has described it as a “humanitarian catastrophe”. He has accused all warring parties of showing an “utter disregard for human life, repeatedly attacking civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools, power stations, and water installations.”

The UN has appealed for a further $1.6 billion for humanitarian aid – to cover emergency medical supplies, food, and shelter. Earlier this month, the UK announced a £40 million donation. But the delivery of aid is currently very difficult because of intense fighting on the ground. O’Brien called for an urgent ceasefire to allow aid to reach those in need.

But, of course, as the unadulterated failure of talks in Geneva demonstrated, a ceasefire is not forthcoming. On 19 June, as it was announced that talks had collapse without an agreement, Friday morning airstrikes hammered the cities of Sana’a, Aden and the provinces of Lahj and Jouf. Ahmed, the UN special envoy, said that a ceasefire needed to be agreed before talks could recommence and that he would be redoubling efforts on this; while a UN spokesman told reporters that talks could still happen without parties meeting in Geneva.

That may be true, but one of the basic tenets of negotiation is that parties must be willing to compromise. Thus far, neither the Saudi-led airstrikes nor the Geneva peace talks have led to any concessions from the rebel side, while Saudi Arabia – concerned that its intervention has not yielded the desired results – is not keen to halt fire. Of course, the Saudi intervention is just the latest chapter in the protracted history of conflict in Yemen. Healing these long-term rifts will take decades; but in the short-term, Yemen’s people cannot wait much longer for the aid they so desperately need.

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