Despite misgivings, Yemen talks are advancing

Sunday 12/06/2016

The international community is trying to find political settle­ments to the military conflicts in Yemen and Syria. The journey starts with the announcement of a “cessation of hostilities”, then proximity talks between the warring sides along with increased pressure for direct peace negotiations. While the Syrian peace talks may have stalled in Geneva, the Yemeni negotiations in Kuwait are going full speed ahead.
Despite the fact that talks are ongoing, Yemen’s rival parties are not optimistic. Statements coming from the talks in Kuwait are dominated by pessimism and mistrust. This goes beyond mere verbal sparring. There has also been an escalation in fighting on the ground, despite a truce that has been in place since April.
Given this state of affairs, why is there an impression that the talks are moving forward and will lead to a political settlement that will ultimately end the war?
The international desire to end the Yemeni war is clear. More importantly is Saudi Arabia’s desire to end the conflict. There can be no political settlement without Saudi Arabia’s support and agreement.
Saudi officials recently announced the interception of a ballistic missile fired from Yemeni territory. This was the second time in June that a missile has been fired into Saudi territory from Yemen. What is striking is that this breach of the ceasefire did not prompt Riyadh to escalate its rhetoric or military response in a manner that would undermine the truce or talks. In fact, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Riyadh was more committed to the talks than ever.
Most importantly, the opposing sides in the Yemeni talks are discussing the most difficult and vital issues, as opposed to what was happening in the Syrian peace talks.
The Yemeni talks discussed the establishment of a military or security committee that will bear responsibility for ending the war and taking control of the government. When peace talks reach the stage that both sides are discussing what transitional body will be in charge after the end of the conflict and how power will be shared between the two sides, it is clear that each party accepts that political compromise, not a military solution, will ultimately win the day.
Even at this advanced stage of negotiations, the situation is difficult and could break down, particularly as power-sharing is such a sensitive issue. In Yemen, the Houthis, who remain in control of the capital Sana’a and Yemeni ministries, are trying to make as few concessions as possible to ensure that their prospects are not harmed and that they do not return to their pre-2014 state.
In 2014, the Houthis took control of northern Yemen, marched on Sana’a and captured the capital and beyond, signifying a major shift in the balance of power in Yemen. The Houthis said they were facing an “historic opportunity” that must be seized. They may have seized their moment but ultimately found that it was more difficult to hold onto their gains than they might have imagined.
Even with the backing of a regional power such as Iran, a Saudi-led Gulf military coalition has slowly but steadily pushed the Houthis back. This military intervention checked the Houthis’ ambitions.
Until that intervention, the Houthis had been unwilling to engage with United Nations Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and international efforts for peace. He recently declared: “The time has come for the various parties of the conflict to put forward solutions away from considerations of loss and gain.”