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A Long Road Ahead for Yemeni Peace Talks

6 MINS READApr 23, 2016 | 13:22 GMT
Yemen's Peace Process
A U.N. spokesman (L) and the U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh (R), attend a press conference April 22 in Kuwait, where negotiations to end Yemen's yearlong civil war have finally begun after a three-day delay.
(YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

After a three-day delay, Yemeni peace talks have officially begun. U.N.-brokered negotiations to find a political solution to Yemen's civil war opened in Kuwait on April 21. The coalition of Houthi rebels and the General People's Congress, displeased with the Saudi-led coalition's continued violations of a nationwide cease-fire, chose to delay the talks by arriving late. The move, emblematic of the tension that persists between both sides of the conflict, points to the many obstacles that still stand in the way of a lasting peace deal. Even if a bargain is struck, stability will be far from guaranteed because of the rising jihadist presence threatening the country.

In reality, neither the Houthis nor the Saudis have fully adhered to the cease-fire since it was put in place April 10. Instead, the warring parties have opted to implement tentative truces on a province-by-province basis. Saudi jet sorties and airstrikes continue unabated against Houthi targets in Nehim, Sanaa province, and against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in Hadramawt and Lahj provinces. Meanwhile, the Houthis are slowly advancing along Yemen's western coast, and heavy fighting persists around Taiz and Shabwa. Still, the smaller cease-fires are not without value. Fragile truces have taken hold in Marib and Dali provinces as well as in parts of Shabwa in the past few days, bringing some relief to those areas. And indeed, a small-scale truce reached in March in Yemen's northern Saada region helped catalyze the current de-escalation phase in the first place.

The Houthis, in particular, are eager to take advantage of the latest revival of peace talks. Nonetheless, they have complained about the format of the talks, which requires them to surrender their arms before a consensus government is formed. The Houthis recognize that the Saudi firepower supporting the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi is virtually limitless, and finding a way to end the conflict has become their top priority. Of course, the Houthis will still be reluctant to lay down their arms without the promise of a new government in which they play a greater role. In all likelihood, there is no olive branch Hadi can offer that will fully satisfy the Houthis. Consequently, they are bound to keep some of their weapons no matter what deal emerges from the talks, though they may agree to surrender heavy weaponry. But as long as the Houthis are armed, the Saudis will continue to arm Hadi's forces in kind, raising the risk of re-escalation.

The Houthis' dissatisfaction with previous solutions proposed after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 2011 ouster is, in part, what set off Yemen's civil war to begin with. If the fighting is to end, both sides will need to make their peace with some important compromises moving forward. For the Houthis, that means supplying palatable leaders from the ranks of the General People's Congress who can serve as viable candidates in a consensus government. The Hadi government, meanwhile, will have to come to terms with its unpopularity among southern Yemenis, who have protested by the thousands over the past few weeks against the war and Hadi's leadership.

What the Talks Will Cover

Officially, five points based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 will be used to guide the Yemen peace talks. These topics are the withdrawal of militias and armed groups; the handover of heavy weapons to the state; interim security arrangements; the restoration of state institutions and the resumption of inclusive political dialogue; and the creation of a special committee to handle prisoners and detainees.

Within this framework, the Hadi government will likely insist that the Houthis surrender their heavy weaponry, retreat from Sanaa and restore government institutions to the Hadi administration before negotiations can progress. In exchange for their compliance, the Houthis will demand a full cessation of hostilities by the Saudi-led coalition, a request they have already relayed to the U.N. envoy mediating the talks. At this stage, though, the Houthis' demands carry little weight in the face of Hadi's heavy firepower and greater international support.

Several important actors have been excluded from the latest round of negotiations, boding ill for any future deal's implementation on the ground. These parties include Yemen's Southern Resistance Movement and Islah, an Islamist party that will no doubt continue to demand a seat at the table. Even Saudi Arabia, the Hadi government's most prominent foreign backer, will not be represented in the talks.

Security Interests at Stake

As Yemen's civil war has raged on, an enemy common to all the parties involved has taken the opportunity to make its own gains. AQAP, active in southern Yemen since 1992, managed to seize the city of Mukalla in April 2015. Mukalla now serves as a critical stronghold for the group. The Islamic State, though a smaller force in Yemen than AQAP, has also become a greater threat amid the country's protracted conflict.

With peace talks advancing, albeit slowly, the Saudi-led coalition appears to be shifting some of its attention to combating the jihadist groups in Yemen's southern provinces.

With peace talks advancing, albeit slowly, the Saudi-led coalition appears to be shifting some of its attention to combating the jihadist groups in Yemen's southern provinces. Heavy Emirati equipment and tanks have amassed around the region's Khalidiya base, and recent requests by Abu Dhabi for additional assistance from the United States in future anti-AQAP operations have been well received by Washington. The White House has also announced its firm support for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in their efforts to combat the Islamic State and AQAP in the broader region. Over the past week, meetings between U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council officials resulted in Washington's pledge to increase its patrols of the Persian Gulf to stop smuggled weapons from reaching Yemen. Saudi Arabia hopes this will keep Iranian weapons out of the Houthis' hands, stymieing Tehran's rising influence at Riyadh's borders in the process. For its part, the United States hopes to prevent further materiel from reaching the Islamic State and AQAP.

There is a chance that support could build for the extremist groups among some of Yemen's southern populations and tribes. But this pattern must be broken if efforts to combat jihadism are to succeed. Just in the past few days, Saudi King Salman promised greater humanitarian aid to Yemen as AQAP fighters distributed envelopes of money to doctors who would treat the wounds they received during U.S.-led airstrikes on Mukalla. If negotiators manage to eke out a political resolution to the civil war, rooting out the entrenched extremists will immediately become the new government's highest priority.

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