The UN’s special envoy to Yemen has called for direct talks. But with Tehran upping its tug-of-war with Washington, it doesn’t appear likely that a comprehensive settlement is near, writes Ahmed Eleiba
The forthcoming Geneva meeting will be the first to bring together the warring parties since the collapse of the last round of negotiations in Kuwait two years ago. In the interval, there have been major qualitative developments. Perhaps the most salient was the breakup of the alliance between the Houthis and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and, following his assassination, the transformation of that albeit tense alliance into another of the subsidiary conflicts in the Yemeni theatre. It is noteworthy, in this context, that Griffiths mentioned that he had extended invitations to the Houthi Ansar Allah Movement and the internationally recognised government, but he made no mention of the portion of the General People’s Congress (GPC) that remains loyal to the Saleh family.
Statements issued by officials from both sides that have been invited to Geneva indicate that they plan to attend. Houthi officials have said that they would go to Geneva without preconditions regarding the agenda for talks there, whether with regard to the battle on the west coast in which the Arab coalition aims to wrest the port of Hodeida from Houthi control or with regard to the frames of reference of the settlement process, namely UN Security Council Resolution 2216, the Gulf Initiative and the outputs of the Yemeni National Dialogue. On the other hand, the movement has refused to hand over missiles and other heavy weaponry in advance of talks, insisting that the interim political process must be set into motion first. In its understanding of this process, the two sides — the Houthis and the legitimate government — would have equal status until general elections are held.
If the Yemeni government accepted the invitation, it did not do so with great enthusiasm. The government still prefers the “military solution” judging by its reactions to the invitation and previous stances in light of the shrinking scope of manoeuvrability for Houthi forces outside Sanaa and the progress pro-government forces have been making on the central and coastal fronts. Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani, speaking to the press from the UAE recently, insisted that the Houthis must withdraw from the western coast entirely, including Hodeida port and city, in the framework of the “Hodeida initiative” launched by the Yemeni government as a first step toward the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2216. He charged that while the Yemeni government was working for peace, the Houthis were working to buy time.
According to Yemeni sources, the government’s lack of optimism stems from its desire to regain control over Hodeida before returning to the negotiating table. Griffiths has been working in a different direction, which is to persuade the Houthis to surrender the port city, not to the government, but rather to a UN-led administration. Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, in a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, adds: “The problem now is that the government believes that Griffiths is handing the Houthis more cards and that he is treating both sides as equals. It also looks like pressure is being exerted by Western powers on the coalition with regard to the military campaign on the coast. Among those applying pressure are allies of the coalition countries, such as the US.”
In the opinion of Yassin Said Noaman, a prominent Yemeni politician and diplomat, the Houthis acted as expected with regard to the UN envoy’s Hodeida initiative: the pledges they made to him were solely in order to buy time in the hope that mounting international pressure forced the coalition’s military campaign to a halt.
“It is sufficient to realise that during the time in which the government and the pro-legitimacy coalition suspended military operations in the Hodeida governorate, in response to the UN envoy’s request to allow him to continue his talks aimed at securing the Houthis’ peaceful withdrawal from the governorate in order to spare further destruction, the Houthis continued to plant mines, booby-trap the port and the sea, attack and infiltrate to bomb and recapture the positions from which they had been driven out. They have also been firing missiles at residential areas and at oil tankers in international shipping lanes, and they boast they brought down a drone by accident, launching boisterous media campaigns that are rivalled only by the bluster and bombast of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who continues to declare openly that the Red Sea is no longer safe.”
Noaman believes that a political settlement that would provide for a power-sharing arrangement with the Houthi “project” would be a grave mistake. “Yemen would remain a hotbed of warfare, polarisation and instability. That type of settlement would bring degradation to the nation-state project and to the Arab character, as a whole, in the region.”
Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, president of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, offered to halt Houthi military operations in the Red Sea for a renewable two-week period if the pro-government and coalition forces responded in kind. Instead, the coalition resumed its military operation in Hodeida, signalling that the time it had given Griffiths to work something out with the Houthis had lapsed.
The Houthis reciprocated, resuming missile fire into Saudi Arabia. On Monday, they announced that they had fired a Badr-1 ballistic missile at Al-Wajeb Military Camp in Najran. Arab Spokesman Turki Al-Maliki announced that Saudi air defences had intercepted the missile. Houthi officials claim that, last month, their forces fired 18 missiles into Saudi Arabia of which 14 were ballistic missiles.
Yemeni military experts maintain that the Houthis are generating a climate that inhibits opportunities for a settlement. Against this backdrop, military analyst Jamil Al-Maamari believes that the Yemeni government is currently bent on liberating Hodeida before entering into any new negotiations. Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi fears that the human costs of such a battle would be enormous in view of the large amounts of mines and explosives that the Houthis planted during the recent interval. He therefore believes that the coalition will confine itself to liberating just the port area, but even then, the coalition would encounter not just Houthi resistance but also international pressures rallied by Griffiths.
In light of the foregoing, while the warring parties may gather in Geneva as a way to demonstrate that they are responding to UN efforts, it is difficult to imagine that protocols and formalities will give way to serious and productive talks, given the current complexities.
This is all the more so in view of the regional/international dimensions of the complexities and, above all, Iran’s escalation in its utilisation of the Yemeni crisis in its tug-of-war with Washington and the US’ regional allies. This Iranian strategy was most dramatically evidenced by Houthi missile fire targeting navigation in the Red Sea.