U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow on March 24 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Despite some awkward teasing during Kerry's reception, one imagines that the conversation on Syria and Ukraine took on a much more serious tone behind closed doors. After all, Russia's drawdown in Syria and its efforts to cobble together a power-sharing agreement in Damascus are designed to open negotiations with Washington and Europe on matters of greater Russian interest, such as sanctions, Ukraine and NATO's military buildup in the former Soviet periphery.
At the same time, Moscow is trying to gain leverage in another, much less prominent, theater of conflict. Yesterday in New York, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen announced that peace talks would resume to end the yearlong conflict in that country. Since two previous peace talks in Switzerland last year unraveled relatively quickly — parties refused to submit proposals or even meet in person — the announcement must be taken with a grain of salt. Even if the new talks are carried out as planned, an agreement in Yemen will not automatically produce peaceful circumstances on the ground. Yemen is a country rife with extremist activity and divided by resource crises and tribal differences.
Nonetheless, airstrikes in the country have slowed over the last two days, and violence along Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia has decreased considerably in recent weeks. The change has prompted some in the capital city, Sanaa, to consider that perhaps the "de-escalation phase" announced last week by Saudi coalition spokesman Ahmed Asiri was not just rhetoric, after all. Though fighting in Yemen's restive southern region continues, as of today, a cease-fire is set to begin at midnight April 10 in anticipation of the third attempt at peace talks, which will take place in Kuwait starting April 18.
But lingering questions loom over the cease-fire chatter. For example, what will happen to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former president and a figure central to the conflict, during and after the negotiations? How is Saudi Arabia trying to mold Yemen into a state that the kingdom and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members can manage? Will Iran get involved in the negotiations? Two weeks ago, quiet talks between delegates of the Houthi insurgency and Saudi officials resulted in a border truce and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas. It is very likely that the meeting also produced a deal — or the promise of a deal — that would cut Saleh, whose loyalist forces fought alongside the Houthis, out of the picture in Yemen's future. In exchange for laying down their arms, promising to keep Saudi border skirmishes to a minimum and respecting current President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's rule, the Houthis would get relative sovereignty over their northern Saada province.
What happens on March 26, the anniversary of Saudi airstrikes against Houthi rebels, will shed more light on the fraying alliance between the Houthis and Saleh. To commemorate a full year of airstrikes, two competing rallies will occur: one in the morning, led by Saleh's General People's Congress party, and one after working hours, led by the Houthis. Separate rallies suggest that the alliance of convenience that has held the Houthis and Saleh loyalists together in defense of Sanaa is cracking. The Houthis have even reportedly warned civil servants in the capital that March 26 is a working day, pre-emptively expressing disapproval of the morning rally. Saleh has support from loyalists and his Republican Guard, but the Houthis have prevailed in direct dealings with Saudi Arabia, preserving their negotiating power as best they can.
Furthermore, attitudes in Yemen toward Saleh, remembered by many for his corruption during a presidency that spanned four decades, complicate the complete implementation of a cease-fire. They also raise the question of where his family can safely go in the likely event that a peace deal denies him any degree of authority in Yemen. This question has attracted the attention of other states that see peace talks as an opportunity to gain leverage elsewhere.
As the clock ticks for Saleh, the Yemeni government is discussing his safe departure from Yemen with outside parties, namely Oman and Russia. Oman did not want to host the freshly ousted president in 2012 for fear that doing so would hurt its relationship with Yemen's newly established Hadi government, which had the approval of the GCC. But four years later, providing refuge to Saleh would be a huge help to Hadi's government.
Iran would like to be involved in the negotiations to bolster its influence in Yemen. This week, Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs called the U.N. envoy to Yemen to discuss the Yemen crisis and urge a political resolution. But Houthi rebels recently rebuffed their involvement, saying they do not need the country's support. Thus, it appears that Iran will not have a strong stake in the negotiations, even though they have provided support to the Houthis in the past.
Instead, Russia is a likely candidate to take Saleh, defusing tensions between the various factions involved in Yemen. Like the Syrian crisis, Yemen's war is a conflict wherein Saudi and Iranian interests collide, and Russia could be a mediator in its resolution. Generally, getting involved in conflicts like these affords Russia leverage in the country. Since Russia has no real interest in Yemen's politics or future direction, they could instead use the traction they would gain with Saudi Arabia to bend negotiations in Syria to their favor. Moreover, Saleh is a treasure trove of information on Middle Eastern dynamics, which could be invaluable to Moscow.
Yemen's conflict is a chessboard upon which global powers are playing. For Russia, having a piece on the board could be another way to shape the region's dynamics.