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What are the challenges behind the Yemen peace talks?

December 11, 2015 at 4:13 pm

With the approach of the Yemen peace talks, many are watching with anticipation and hope for an end to the conflict. In the country itself, though, lethargy fills the air as citizens grasp the rope of life with every ounce of resilience in their bodies. Around half-a-million children are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition, more than 80 per cent of the population are in desperate need of aid, and basic necessities are unavailable. The health ministry has released a statement saying that supplies of insulin have now run out, putting 70,000 Yemeni registered diabetics at risk, deteriorating the already fragile health infrastructure yet further. Those who are not killed in a shelling, or an airstrike, or because of illegal landmines, are forced to watch their country being crippled behind their brave smiles and nervous laughter. They are desperate for the peace that all human beings deserve, but are losing hope, not only in the world that has silenced them, but also in their political representatives who have betrayed them.

This time, the UN is conducting the peace talks slightly differently. It has announced that there will be a media blackout and they will be conducted in a secret location. This is most likely to spare the embarrassment of the previous talks, when nothing was achieved and there were more arguments over the delegations than the terms of an agreement.

In fact, the previous talks have effectively followed a similar pattern as those which are coming up probably will: discuss a ceasefire, but with a build-up of violence prior to arranging one; then the argument about the delegates; and then, of course, not really achieving much. They tend not to focus on the one item that should be uppermost in everyone’s mind: the safety and well-being of Yemeni civilians.

This time, the delegations will include representatives from the current Hadi government, the Houthis and ex-President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC). Just looking at the delegation list, it’s clear that as urgent as a peace deal is needed, these talks, yet again, are only a set-up for disappointment. Not only are all three parties out of touch with the needs of the Yemeni people, but they are also approaching the talks as a way of consolidating power, not consolidating peace.

To have the Houthis and GPC as two separate camps, when Ali Abdullah Saleh is in an alliance with the tribal group, makes no sense. People who defend this decision say that there is no official alliance between the Houthis and the GPC and they remain two separate parties. Technically, that is correct, but they are united politically and militarily, on one violent and illegitimate power-grabbing mission.

Saleh has a huge role in the conflict, although he could, potentially, de-escalate the situation if he chose to stop fighting and stop supporting the Houthis as part of his power-hungry inferiority complex to recapture the presidency. The undeniable fact is that Saleh stepped down in February 2012 under a GCC-brokered deal to grant him immunity from prosecution.

Those who were supportive of the immunity deal, in the belief that it would help Yemen to move forward and keep Saleh’s legacy in the past rather than dwelling on his corrupt rule, have been proven wrong. Not putting Saleh on trial for his decades of corruption has led to him scattering as much power as he is able to, only to harbour more and take over the country through any means possible. Allowing him into the peace talks is a moral victory, and is slowly allowing Saleh to re-enter as an official face in the same arena in which the people of Yemen have decided that he does not belong; he’s back in the game of Yemeni politics. By allowing him to be party to the peace talks, the analysis needed during the talks to answer the Yemen question will barely scratch the surface. It risks repeating the problem of allowing Saleh a level of respected authority rather than holding him responsible for his crimes because, once again, he will abuse this factor and use it to claw his way back into power.

His push to relevance in Yemeni politics is also being reflected on the fact that he is turning to the Russians for diplomatic legitimacy. He visited the Russian Embassy in Sana’a after the Russia-bound flight was shot down over Egypt, not only to warm relations with Moscow, but also to reflect his authority as the remaining president of the GPC in a message to his adversaries that he will not give up.

Not only does the structure of the talks ensure that the Hadi camp is outnumbered (because the Houthi-Saleh strategic alliance on the ground puts them in a “two against one” situation at the table), but the Hadi government is also showing open splits. The rivalry between President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah is now in the public domain more than ever. Ex-foreign minister Riyad Yassin was amongst the first officials to expose the rivalry by publicly undermining Bahah’s authority, although this aspect of the rivalry has been settled because Yassin has been replaced by Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi, an ex-spokesman for the presidential committee under Hadi.

There is also a consensus that Hadi is trying to stall the peace talks and ensure that they are unsuccessful, because he knows that a peace deal would mean the end of his career. Such claims have been amplified by an anonymous diplomat close to the regime who has confirmed that the president is actively blocking successful peace talks. This does not seem at all far-fetched, as although he is president of the legitimate government, his incompetence and lack of leadership has left many people discontented with him. Not only is Bahah showing more initiative than Hadi when it comes to attempting to restore national unity to beat the Houthis, but Hadi’s government has failed in securing Aden, which was recaptured from the Houthis in July.

Despite Aden being Houthi-free, the lack of security from threats other than the Houthis means that Daesh and Al-Qaeda are now growing. Government buildings have been bombed over the past few months and officials have been assassinated. The latest killing was the murder of the Aden governor, Jaafar Mohamed Saad, who was respected by many in the city and province for his dedication to rebuilding and to the people of Aden. Soon after his assassination, Daesh claimed responsibility. This is also a sign that the peace talks are not going to succeed, because it is clear that the threats facing Yemen are out of the hands of the delegations.

Although a solution to the conflict is necessary — because the situation is escalating at dangerous levels — this round of peace talks comes with a background that is more complicated than ever. All in all, this signals a lack of hope for a political solution to be achieved, wherever the talks are held.

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