Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Geneva talks fail, for now

Predictably, UN sponsored talks between Yemen’s warring parties went nowhere. But that doesn’t mean Operation Decisive Storm can last forever, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

If war is an extension of politics by other means, as the German strategist and military historian Karl von Clausewitz put it, negotiations are an extension of war less violent but certainly not nice or gentile. The Yemeni talks in Geneva illustrate this perfectly.

On the fringes of this event, and in the context of the process of rallying support, shoes were turned into missiles when a Yemeni woman flung hers at the head of the delegation from Yemen, Hamza Al-Houthi, while he was holding a press conference. Then brawling and fisticuffs erupted between the Houthis and Yemeni protesters who had to be physically removed from the premises. The shuttle talks being carried out by the UN envoy between the opposing parties saw none of that physicality, but nor did the talks make any progress.

So, as expected, the delegations left the Palais des Nations empty handed and the people of Yemen were left without the humanitarian truce that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called for in the opening ceremonies. The participants came nowhere near an agreement over a mechanism to realise the withdrawal of Houthi militias from Yemeni cities and camps and the surrender of their weapons, and they certainly did not secure Houthi recognition of the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The two sides could not even agree to a date for another round of talks.

But negotiations are still continuing, as is the warfare. The fact that the balance on the battlefield has not tilted significantly one way or another has cast a shadow over negotiations. In the tug-of-war between the exiled government’s demand that the Houthis surrender their weapons and withdraw and the Houthis’ demand that the Saudis halt their aggression first, the talks bogged down in futile debates between the two sides speaking from separate rooms over schedules, priorities, numbers of participants and advisors, and principles of justice and equality.

Unfortunately, this all was probably a foregone conclusion. Neither of the parties went to Geneva with the intent to help the talks succeed. The Saudi-supported government in exile in Riyadh was fully aware that the Houthis would never agree to UN Security Council Resolution 1622 and the Houthis were fully aware that Riyadh would never let up on its aerial campaign until the Houthis relinquish all the gains they have achieved on the ground.

All this is precisely what the UN envoy heard as he shuttled between the two delegations.

The exiled government delegation kept insisting that the Houthis recognise the legitimacy of President Hadi and his government, stop bombarding Yemeni cities (meaning the locations of pro-Hadi “people’s committees”), withdraw from major locales such as Aden and Taiz, and agree to the principles of Resolution 2216 and the outputs of the National Dialogue Conference.

The Houthi delegation insisted on a halt to foreign aggression and refused to withdraw. It also pressed for an increase in the number of its representatives in the negotiations. In addition it wants the Geneva talks to be framed as an extension of the dialogue sponsored by UN Envoy Gamal Bin Omar in the past. As such, it held that the talks should focus on reaching a political solution based on the principle of partnership, rather than delving into the details of what is happening in combat arenas.

On the other hand, the talks may have yielded some fruit in the form of a proposed 10-point plan approved by the Riyadh delegation and opposed by the delegation from Sanaa, but not categorically as it left the door open to possible modifications. The 10 points call for:

- A ceasefire linked to the implementation of Resolution 2216 stipulating the withdrawal of the “coup-makers” from areas over which they seized control.

-The creation of a mechanism to realise the ceasefire and withdrawal of Houthi-Saleh militias and to prevent a security vacuum.

- The creation of an international mechanism to monitor respect for the truce and the withdrawal process.

- A specialised technical team to implement the points of the agreement.

- A resumption of the provision of necessary services to the Yemeni people.

- Cooperating with regional and international parties in order to implement the agreement.

- Guarantees for the rapid and unrestricted arrival of humanitarian aid to intended recipients.

- The establishment of a UN mechanism for inspecting commercial freight arriving from abroad via land, air or sea.

- Respect for international humanitarian law and human rights and gender equality law.

- Continued consultations on the part of the UN envoy with all components of Yemeni political and civil society.

Clearly, all these points, even if agreed on in principle, would require reaching agreements on arrangements, priorities and timeframes, which in itself could be a lengthy process. Nevertheless, there might be some hope if priority is given to the points regarding humanitarian aid and the resumption of essential services, particularly in light of reports that Houthi and Saleh forces began to withdraw from certain parts of Aden following an outbreak of dengue fever there. Centred in Krater, international health organisations have been unable to enter since the outbreak. There are reports, mostly from local inhabitants, that it has also begun to spread to Tawahi, Mualla, Qaloua and Sheikh Uthman.

Naturally, the Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin blamed the Houthis and their supporters for the failure of the talks. Just as naturally, the head of the Houthi delegation told a press conference that “the other side, or the so-called governmental side, tried to impose agendas aimed at reducing the parties engaged in consultations in the conference to only two, which is a notion rejected by political components.”

Given a negotiating mill that was only going around in circles, in the end participants had to depart. But even that was not without oddities. Yemen was not the destination of either delegation. The representatives of the government in exile returned to their base in Riyadh while Houthi representatives returned not to Sanaa but to Oman where, according to various rumours and conjectures, the next round of talks is to be held.

Because of its proximity to Iran, Muscat has opted for strategic neutrality that is appreciated by other parties of the critical Saudi-Iranian conflict. Indeed, for this reason, Oman has been described as a “Switzerland of the Gulf” for having bought its safety and peace of mind by remaining non-aligned. Thus Muscat was in a good position to host US-Houthi talks. There were also reports that it hosted Houthi-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) talks, which paved the way to Geneva.

Political analyst Giorgio Cafiero, in a study co-authored by Daniel Wagner for the Atlantic Council writes that the talks that senior US officials  led by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ann Patterson  held with Houthi representatives in Muscat discussed the implementation of a ceasefire and political transition in Yemen. He added that the purpose of this meeting was to build a diplomatic bridge with the parties supported by Iran, because of fears the Obama administration has that Al-Qaeda will continue to benefit from conflict in Yemen.

The political analyst noted that the US was pressing for the inclusion of the Houthis and Ansar Allah (the Houthis’ military wing) in any talks that could lead to a political settlement. The reason, he said, was that in spite of the Obama administration’s concern over the increasing Iranian influence in Yemen, it has made diplomatic overtures to both Iran and the Houthis in an attempt to strengthen stability in Yemen.


THE TIME FACTOR: It appears that the Houthis are banking on what the time can deliver in the form of pressure on others. The Decisive Storm coalition cannot sustain its war forever. The Yemeni war, like all wars, is a process of systematic erosion, constant attrition on resources, and pressure on the regional and international environment. It could also be a means to promote the redrawing of maps.

Perhaps with time, the partners in Decisive Storm may realise that the war is becoming one of those conflicts that can have no winners but outside powers. This realisation might prove an incentive for Riyadh to conclude an unprecedented military pact with Russia aside from pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as a response to the Iranian-Western agreement and Washington’s disregard for GCC demands for a defence pact in order to allay fears on Iran.

Ultimately, a protracted conflict could culminate in the partition of Yemen, which in turn could set into motion partition projects targeting Saudi Arabia, aggravating the dangers looming over the region. Even in the short-run, new and unpredictable developments and patterns of interplay could impose themselves. The region is still very much in flux, which is why a new and different mode of strategic thinking probably needs to be brought to bear, with regard to the nature of coalitions, forms of government, questions of national security, and relations with neighbouring states.

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