17.12.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Facade of Yemen Talks


Despite all the positivity that one can extract from the first ever face-to-face bi-lateral talks between Yemen’s warring parties, the ceasefire agreements reached, and the reported ‘progress’ on peace and prison swap made, there is little hope that peace would eventually triumph. While this may sound ‘pessimistic’, there are multiple reasons for this, and the most important reason for this is that the critical issues remain unresolved and the warring parties continue to have massively divergent views on resolving those issues. On top of it is also the fact that the US war machine is going to continue to support (by selling weapons) the Saudia led coalition in Yemen, which means that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t really be worried about bringing a quick or a negotiated end to the war, although engaging in talks would allow it to demonstrate its ‘commitment’ to peace in the region.

Two developments indicate very strongly that peace has very little change in these talks. First, the US has reaffirmed its continued support to Saudia. Second, the US had also made it clear that war wouldn’t really end unless the ‘Iranian threat’ from Yemen is completely rooted out. In this context, the ceasefire or prisoner swap agreement stand little to no chance of bringing peace.

As such, while Saudi Arabia and the US have been unable to push back Iran from Syria, they seem determined to outmanoeuvre it in Yemen; hence, the high improbability of achieving peace in Yemen. It appears that both the Khashoggi murder and the indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians haven’t really moved the US administration towards really ending their support for Saudia’s war.

“Obviously there are pressures in our system … to either withdraw from the conflict or discontinue our support of the coalition, which we are strongly opposed to on the administration side,” Timothy Lenderking, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf affairs, said at a security forum in the United Arab Emirates. But he also made it clear that peace in Yemen wouldn’t be possible unless the “Iranian-backed threat to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and vital international economic quarters” is completely rooted out.

And, there is no gainsaying that the US or its key-regional ally, Saudi Arabia, are in any mood of down-sizing the so-called ‘Iranian threat.’ On the contrary, they are projecting this threat in a way that makes Iran a big super-power, bent upon going all out against its rival states in the Middle East, and “exploit”, in the words of Saudi Arabia’s state newspaper, Al Arabiya, “any weakness in Saudi Arabia and its relations with Washington, in order to step up its interference in the affairs of Arab states, increase tensions to spread its influence, and possibly even [use] radical terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

To prevent this self-projected scenario and absolute Iranian domination in their backyard, Saudi Arabia and Yemeni officials continue to press for reinstating the Hadi government in Yemen. This, according to the demands presented by the Yemeni negotiators, can be possible only when the Houthis, who, according to one Yemeni official, have “hijacked” Yemen, actually give-in and hand over their weapons, something that truly amounts to unconditionally accepting Saudi dictation and regional hegemony. The support for Hadi was reaffirmed by the Saudi backed Yemeni officials when they were faced with a Houthi proposal about establishing a transitional government. The proposal has obviously been rejected by the Yemeni negotiators.

Selling old wine in the new bottle

The Yemeni officials’ response re-affirmed that they continue to see the Houthis as the only problem Yemen is facing and that they will have to accept the demands being put to them in order for the conflict to end. These demands, in simplest terms, is a verbal presentation of the core Saudi objectives that they have been striking to achieve thorough military means ever since they invaded Yemen back in 2015. In other words, there hasn’t been any qualitative change in Saudia’s position vis-à-vis Yemen. And, by implying to engage in peace talks, the Saudis are only pressing for an outright acceptance of their strategic objectives; hence, the likelihood of continuation of hostilities.

On the contrary, the Houthis have, as could be expected, refused to abide by UN Resolution 2216, which stipulates their withdrawal from areas they had brought in their control in 2014 and hand over heavy weapons to the government. Accordingly, they have also rejected the outcomes of the GCC Initiative as it stipulated Hadi to ascend to the presidency in 2012. It means that the core demands of Yemeni officials and Saudi Arabia have been outrightly rejected, which means that agreements on less contentious issues have little potential to resolve the conflict.

With thus deciding to continue Saudi Arabia’s military support and with thus putting on the table such unrealistic demands, both the US and Saudia have actually sabotaged the UN-backed peace talks, and laid bare before us the façade that this whole episode actually is.

In fact, this is hardly the first time that the words and actions of the Western countries and their allies have failed to match Yemen war’s ground realities. For instance, it was only in last month when the Saudi backed coalition considerably escalated their attacks on Yemen when the US and Britain, two of Saudi Arabia’s chief suppliers of weapons, had asked for a ‘ceasefire.’ Obviously, the Saudis didn’t face any backlash back then and both the US and UK continue to support the Saudis in their war in Yemen both militarily (by providing weapons) and diplomatically (by sabotaging talks through unrealistic demands). The same is likely to continue to happen with regard to Saudia’s insistence on reinstating the Hadi government and forcing the Houthis into submission. Peace, with these demands on the table, stands little chance then.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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