Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

One-sided talks in Geneva

Talks began in Geneva this week in a bid to find a solution to the conflict in Yemen but in the absence of the Houthi delegation, reports Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

Talks were scheduled to begin between the Yemeni government in exile in Riyadh and the Houthi forces in the UN headquarters in Geneva on 14 June. Yet, when the sun rose over Lake Geneva on Monday morning, the delegation from Sanaa had not yet arrived.

The plane was still in Djibouti as according to Yemeni sources Cairo had refused to allow it to refuel on Egyptian territory or pass through Egyptian airspace. It has been conjectured that the root of the problem lay in security concerns and reports that the Houthi delegation had refused to board two planes before the one that eventually took off for Djibouti.

Meanwhile in Geneva itself the inaugural day of the conference occasioned only the preparation of two separate rooms, one for the delegation that had arrived and the other for the delegation whose plane was still held back.

In accordance with UN procedures, the UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ahmed, will shuttle between the two, carrying proposals from one side to the other in the hope of eventually bridging the gap between them sufficiently to bring them to the same table.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the delegation from the Yemeni government in exile and with representatives from the countries sponsoring the talks.

In spite of the air of pessimism due to the delay of the delegation from Sanaa, Ki-moon’s remarks conveyed a different impression from those coming out of Riyadh and Yemen regarding prospects for a solution. The Yemeni crisis had not yet reached the point of no return, he said, and opportunities were still at hand for a solution in the light of the consensus of UN Security Council members over the general outlines for a political solution.

The international community was keen to prevent another “open wound like Libya and Syria,” he said, as “the fighting is giving new strength to some of the world’s most ruthless terrorist groups.” He urged the parties to pursue a course similar to what had been proposed for Syria, which was “to reach agreement on local ceasefires, with the withdrawal of armed groups from cities and a pathway towards a comprehensive and lasting ceasefire throughout the country.”

He called for “a renewed humanitarian pause to allow critical assistance to reach all Yemenis in need and provide a respite for Yemenis as the Holy Month of Ramadan begins.” He stressed that “we don’t have a moment to lose. In Yemen’s case, the ticking clock is not a timepiece, it is a time bomb.”

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyad Yassin was not optimistic about prospects for a peace agreement, however. “I am not very optimistic,” he stressed. The Iranian-supported insurgents “do not respect any truces,” he said. The “delegation of the insurgents” consists of “more than 25 people who want to come [to Geneva] to create chaos”.

In response to Ki-moon’s appeal for a two-week humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Yemeni government in exile adopted a far from conciliatory tone. Ramadan was a month for jihad and did not require the fighting to stop, the foreign minister said, adding that the Houthis “saw no difference” between Ramadan and other months.

The As-Safir newspaper cited a member of the Yemeni government delegation, Abdel-Aziz Al-Jibari, secretary-general of the Yemen Justice and Construction Party, as saying, “we will not allow a repetition of what happened in the past.” He said the Houthis had exploited the five-day truce that Washington had imposed “in order to move heavy weaponry and scud missile launchers towards the borders with Saudi Arabia”.

Opposition to a truce was stronger still from Ahmed Al-Masiri, the leader of the Southern Resistance forces that are fighting the Houthis and regiments from the Yemeni army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the ground.

No one could accuse him of being “part of an exile government living in luxury”, Al-Masiri said, saying that he had come to Geneva “from the battlefront and from Aden by way of Hadramawt and Sharurwa.” He rejected the idea of a humanitarian truce, saying it was “out of the question during Ramadan and after Ramadan”.

“Ramadan is a holy month in which jihad is permissible,” he said.

The conference got off to a heated start, with the Yemeni delegation brandishing Riyadh-inspired slogans. “We came to speak about implementing the UN Security Council Resolution, not to negotiate,” it said. “The task is to reinstate the government and withdraw the militias.”

Echoing these notions, Yemeni Vice-President Khaled Bahah said at a press conference in Riyadh that the meeting in Geneva was for “the purposes of consultation” and the priority was to “restore the state” and then complete the political process on the basis of the agreed frame of reference which was “non-negotiable.”

This frame of reference was the Gulf Initiative and its executive mechanisms, the Yemeni National Dialogue and especially UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for an end to the conflict in Yemen. Bahah added that a return to negotiations would be “to ignore the four past years of negotiations” between the Yemeni parties.

The rigidity of the Yemeni government and its Saudi backer stems from the fact that they have opposed the negotiations from the outset. They have insisted on the term “consultation” and originally pushed for Riyadh as the venue. “We agreed [to come to Geneva] to please the UN, so that they don’t say we are against peace or that we are stubborn,” Al-Masiri said.

Riyadh has its own reasons for reacting in the way it has. It went to Washington to complain about the nuclear agreement with Iran only to find Washington urging it to agree to a “partnership” with Iran to resolve the Yemeni crisis. Then came the back channel of dialogue that opened up in the Omani capital Muscat and brought together delegations from the Gulf, the US and the Houthis. It appears that the Omani channel has continued in advance of the Geneva Conference and will most likely continue afterwards.

When the Houthi delegation returned to Muscat after a visit to Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif called in at the Omani capital where he met his Omani counterpart Youssef Bin Alawi to discuss “bilateral issues and regional developments,” the Iranian Fars news agency reported.

As the situation stands, the prospects of success for this round of talks in Geneva are slim. Nevertheless, they have registered a certain success for the Houthis, indicating that the UN has recognised them as an authentic party in the conflict and accepted their insistence that talks be held in a neutral capital.

This leads to the crux of the dilemma in Geneva. What will have the greatest say, the text of the UN Resolution or the realities on the ground in Yemen? Which way is the international will headed, towards attrition through protracted warfare and negotiations, or towards effective pressure for a peace?

For the moment, the Yemeni crisis has extended to Geneva in the form of a war of words that started before the talks began. Meanwhile, the fighting has escalated in Yemen itself, with coalition forces intensifying their bombardments of Sanaa, targeting the Ministry of Defence and weapons stores in the surrounding mountains, and the Yemeni side unleashing mortar and missile fire across the border into the nearby Saudi areas of Jizan and Zahran.

On the day before the negotiations were set to begin, the Houthis succeeded in seizing control over Al-Hazm, the capital of the northern Yemeni province of Al-Jawf, adjacent to the border with Saudi Arabia.

The climate of suspicion and the repercussions of the warfare are not the major obstacles to the negotiations. These are to be found in the sharply conflicting intentions of both sides and in the equally sharp contradictions between the text of the UN Resolution, to which the exiled government and its Saudi backer cling, and the realities on the ground where the Houthis remain in control of most Yemeni cities.

The bombing campaign mounted by the coalition has so far failed to alter these realities, although it has placed the Houthis under pressure and upped the morale of their opponents. But this is a war that can only be settled by a ground offensive, begging the question of which side would win.

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