Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Reading the Kuwait negotiations

Indications are that serious negotiations over a political transition in Yemen are yet to start, with tactical negotiations still underway, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Yemeni negotiations have not budged since they began 17 April in Kuwait. The joint committees of the two sides have made no breakthrough of note. “The parties are still at the stage of rapprochement before dialogue,” a source close to the negotiation proceedings told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel Malek Al-Mikhlafi said that the Yemeni government delegation and the Houthi delegation were separated by a broad gulf. Perhaps the only positive point, which was achieved somewhere other than the negotiation table, was the possibility of bringing in food supplies and financial aid to Sanaa.

It appears that the Houth delegation is determined to overturn the order of the negotiations agenda, according to Al-Mikhlafi and other sources. It wants talks to start with the political track, beginning with an agreement on a consensus government. This is seen as an implicit refusal to recognise the internationally recognised Yemeni government that has established temporary headquarters in Riyadh.

The Yemeni government, for its part, continues to adhere to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for the reinstatement of the recognised government to power, the handover of government institutions, the surrender of heavy weapons and the withdrawal of militias.

It has been presumed that the Kuwaiti talks would fare better than their predecessors in Geneva last year, especially as the round in Kuwait followed a tactical settlement process with the Houthis in the Saudi towns of Abha and Dhahran. The purpose was to build confidence between the leaders of the Houthi movement and Riyadh, which has a main party in the current conflict, a key player in Yemen historically, and leader of the Storm of Resolve coalition formed to reinstate the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in exile. Confidence-building on this track is essential to achieve progress in the negotiations process as a whole.

However, such positive shifts may have run up against challenges related to the formal aspect of the negotiations, which has ramifications on other aspects of the crisis, most notably the operational one in the event that a roadmap is devised or, conversely, the situation breaks down into a renewed flare-up of warfare.

The chief challenge is the simultaneous existence of military and diplomatic tracks, a feature common to all regional conflicts at present (in Libya, Syria and Yemen). The UN may be largely responsible for this condition, as it was keen to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table as soon as possible, as an end in and of itself, before these parties fulfilled the conditions related to the five points of Resolution 2216.

The natural result of this was that the Houthi delegation arrived in Kuwait two days late and hostilities continued on four major fronts (Taiz, Maareb, Al-Jawf and Nahem) with no sign of abating. This was then used to justify upending the negotiations agenda in order to bring the political track before the security track. This naturally caused the negotiations to stall since it was clearly an attempt to legitimise the coup against the recognised legitimate authority.

It is important to recall that on 9 April — a week before the negotiations in Kuwait were scheduled to begin — the Houthis and their ally, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, released a joint statement pledging their commitment to a ceasefire “which includes a halt to all hostilities, combat operations and military movements on the land, sea and air, with the hope that the other parties make the same commitment”.

Nonetheless, 74 breaches were recorded during the first two days after the ceasefire, and these rose to 86 during the next five days. The violations are still ongoing and mounting.

Another formal problem for which the UN is chiefly at fault relates to the negotiations ceiling, or the excessive and unwarranted build-up of expectations.

At the start of the talks in Kuwait on 17 April, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that the Yemeni partiers were “closer to peace than ever”. This was inaccurate as we are not looking at a peace process, but rather a settlement process. The two concepts are different.

Peace is made by the results of a conflict, but the conflict is not over yet. A settlement is made or imposed by de facto realities. In fact, the UN envoy acknowledged as much when, on 24 April, he said that a “settlement” was possible but that it was important to build trust between the parties concerned. By 10 May, the term “peace negotiations” had ceded way to “consultations” between the sides, which the envoy urged to make concessions.

To analyse the Yemeni settlement process we must analyse the positions of the stakeholders at local, regional and international levels. The general opinion is that, locally, no serious steps have been made to build mutual trust. The most immediate and tangible evidence of this is found in the decision by disputants to withdraw from or suspend the negotiations and the ongoing skirmishes and redeployment of troops around various cities.

In the Yemeni case, we can speak of two types of settlement processes: tactical and comprehensive. At the regional level, there has been a tactical settlement process. Its two immediate parties are Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement, and it took place and continues to take place in Abha and Dhahran.

It has led to a number of understandings that Houthi leader Mohamed Abdel Salem described as “good”, and so far it has resulted in prisoner exchanges and written understandings signed by both parties. In addition, work is underway to clear the landmines that were planted along the Saudi-Yemeni border.

Iranian experts have been involved in the mine clearance, which is a sign that these understandings also have Tehran’s blessings, as though it were telling the Houthis, “Go as far as you can in these understandings with Riyadh. It is sufficient that it has recognised you.”

Nevertheless, it appears that there is at best a partial tactical settlement with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh may have made overtures to Riyadh. However, Saudi Arabia, based on previous experience, feels it has little reason to trust him. Moreover, he is the one who created the crisis to begin with. He is also one of the major problems at present.

He has 60,000 soldiers in the various war theatres, half from the Yemeni army and the other half drawn from tribes loyal to him, according to reliable sources. The same source estimates that the Houthis have 15,000 fighters.

As tactical settlements pave the way to comprehensive settlements, with the former incomplete, there is still a long way to go before the parties in Kuwait can reach a comprehensive settlement. It also appears that the Houthis are not acting as intermediaries between Riyadh and Saleh and that they are interested in understandings or agreements with Saudi Arabia that will promote their own particular interests in the Yemeni political arrangements.

At the international level, according to current information, 18 countries are presumably supervising the process of transition from war to peace in Yemen. Prime among these are the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council. These five do not appear to have reached a clear consensus on a roadmap for Yemen.

One of the many signs in this regard is that, before launching the negotiations, the UN envoy asked for a declaration of support from the P5 on the basis of which he could expand his mission and increase its budget. Russia opposed this and wielded its veto against a British-proposed resolution to support the memorandum submitted by the UN envoy.

Apart from the foregoing, there are issues beyond the framework of the formal aspect of the negotiating process. For example, where does Oman stand now? Muscat was instrumental in getting the negotiation process started last year. And what of the UAE? Inside Yemen, what are the positions of other parties toward the settlement process? In particular, where does the Southern Movement stand?

The movement has sent a message to Kuwait indicating that it wants to take part in the negotiations as long as it is laying the foundations for a political transition process. But at the same time it has begun to raise the “secession” banner again.

In considering these many questions it is important to bear in mind several points. First, Saudi Arabia in this conflict is the key to both the war project and the settlement project. It would appear it has reached the conclusion that the war has lasted longer than it had imagined and that it will not be resolved because the warring parties have reached a form of stalemate on the ground.

At the same time, Storm of Resolve remains a distinct Saudi strategy in the sense that Riyadh has a clear project as a major regional power that has come to adopt military force as one of its foreign policy instruments. This has been witnessed in another domain, namely the war against Al-Qaeda in Lahj, Abin, Makable and Zinjibar.

There are US forces on the ground fighting Al-Qaeda, but this is the first time that Saudi forces are fighting side by side with, or perhaps even in advance of, US forces in the operations in Hadramawt.

Second, with regard to the UAE, it is likely that it is expected to play a “role” in concert with Saudi Arabia in secondary arrangements. But it would not have any independent decision-making power.

Third, Oman, in light of the roles it has played in the past, could act as a spare oxygen tank for the negotiation process if it reaches an impasse.

Fourth, other capitals that have taken part in the Saudi-led coalition may have a role to play. Cairo, for example, was originally suggested by former president Saleh as a venue for the talks, before Kuwait was chosen. Cairo in the end declined and Saudi Arabia felt that negotiations in Cairo would occasion too much commotion in the media.

Fifth, the Yemeni south is present geographically and politically, but not as an effective party in the settlement process. The Southern Movement is not coherent and its leadership is constantly in flux. Some parties in Yemen believe that if there is a favourable response to the grievances that have inspired this movement, it will shift to a force that supports unity.

But is this likely? The argument may have been convincing during the phase of unification in the 1990s. However, the generation of youth that bore arms in the face of the invading “cave people” (meaning the Houthis) will not accept less than what the Southern Movement exists to demand.

In light of the foregoing, it appears that it will be some time before the settlement process can be translated into a political process, unless some new factor arises that makes it possible to circumvent the current challenges and move from questions of formalities to substantive talks.

Accordingly, we can say that the dialogue process marked a starting point for the settlement process. However, beyond that starting point, the negotiation process will be very bumpy and may falter. But eventually it will stabilise, especially once there occurs some synchronicity between tactical and comprehensive negotiations.

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