Yemen peace talks to begin amid on-going violence

Yemen peace talks to begin amid on-going violence
As heavy fighting continues in Yemen and extremist groups expand their territories, peace talks between the government and Houthi forces are hoped to bring some stability back to the country.
4 min read
13 December, 2015
Cities such as Taiz have been heavily damaged in fighting [Anadolu]

Yemeni government and rebel representatives will meet in Switzerland on Tuesday for UN-brokered peace talks.

It is hoped that the negotiations will lead to a ceasefire, aimed at ending a deadly conflict that is rapidly being exploited by extremist groups in Yemen.

More than a year after Iran-backed Houthi rebels swept into Yemen's capital Sanaa in the first sparks of civil war, no faction has emerged victorious.

Arab states which intervened militarily in March to back President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government have found themselves drawn further into a quagmire in the deeply tribal country, home to what the US considers to be al-Qaeda's deadliest branch, experts say.

Hopes are high that a renewable seven-day ceasefire could begin on the eve of the talks which will be open-ended and held at an undisclosed location.

A truce is much needed in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest nation where an estimated 80 percent of the population of 26 million needs aid.

The United Nations says more than 5,800 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians, and more than 27,000 wounded since March.

Medical and military sources said on Sunday that at least 44 people have been killed in Saudi-led coalition air raids and fighting between loyalists and rebels ahead of the possible truce.

Previous UN efforts have failed to narrow differences, and past ceasefires have failed to hold.

But this time "there is a real chance for a breakthrough", said Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who believes "there will be concessions from both sides".

"Gulf Arab states have reached a point where they are convinced it is about time a peaceful solution should be given a better chance" to succeed, he told AFP.

Spiralling costs

The option of a political solution was highlighted Thursday in Riyadh during the annual summit of the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states. 

Their military involvement in Yemen is starting to weigh on their budgets, already hit by the fall in oil prices.

Yemen's conflict has pitted local forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of Hadi's government against the Houthis and renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis and Saleh hail from the Zaidi-Shia community, which makes up 30 percent of Yemen's mostly Sunni population but is the majority in the northern highlands, including Sanaa province.

Oman, the only GCC country not in the coalition, has managed to "convince" rival regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia to "stop" their proxy war in Yemen, according to London-based analyst Abdelwahab Badrakhan.

The sultanate enjoys good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran.

The warring sides have agreed to sit at the same table despite mutual mistrust, mainly over UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which calls for rebels to withdraw from key cities and surrender their weapons.

The resolution is a mainstay of the position of the government and its Gulf backers.

"It is difficult to see the Huthis implement this resolution as this would signal an acknowledgement of their defeat," said Badrakhan.

According to UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, talks will focus on four main areas, including the terms of a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups from areas they control.

Fighting stalemate

In 2014, the Houthis advanced from their northern strongholds before occupying government buildings in Sanaa in September that year and forcing Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia months later.

In mid-November this year, Hadi returned to second city Aden which he declared the provisional capital.

Under cover of coalition warplanes and backed by Arab soldiers and heavy weaponry, the Popular Resistance forces - an alliance of southern separatists, local tribesmen and loyalist troops - have recaptured four southern provinces and Aden since July.

But they have failed to advance any further as rebel attacks on the south continue and extremist groups gain ground.

Attempts by pro-Hadi forces to retake the strategic province of Taiz have also failed as fighting rages with little or no change on the ground.

The government's proposal for a truce followed last week's killing of the governor of Aden in a blast claimed by the Islamic State group.

In October, IS claimed a series of deadly attacks in Aden.

"Alarmed by the growing jihadist threat in territories under its control following the attacks in Aden, the government has no choice but to soften its position and act positively," said Badrakhan.

Abdulla agrees that IS and al-Qaeda, already well established in Yemen's south, are "a common enemy that puts pressure on both sides of the Yemeni conflict, as well as Gulf countries".

"Nobody wants to see Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) settle in Yemen and create a base as dangerous as that it has established in Syria," he said.