Political Analysis

Who and what is missing from the Yemen peace process?

Written by NY Staff

Peace talks to end Yemen’s war haven’t officially failed, but they’re not going terribly well either.

After months of stagnation in UN-sponsored indirect negotiations in Kuwait, the Houthi rebels and their chief backer, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced last week that they and their allies had formed a 10-member “supreme council” to run the country.

Predictably, this went down badly.

The UN knocked the move as unilateral – a spokesman said it was “not in line with the peace process and endangers the substantial progress made during the Kuwait talks”.

A few days later, the internationally-recognised but deposed president of Yemen, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his government-in-exile said they were on board with a UN proposal, safe in the knowledge that their foes are probably not going to agree to it.

At the moment, the Houthis – who control the capital Sana’a and much of the rest of Yemen – are being asked to give up their weapons and withdraw from major cities before the talks go forward. This is, at best, highly unlikely. Hence, there is little optimism.

On the ground, the fighting continues, the death toll rises (it’s at more than 6,500), and UNICEF recently said that at least 370,000 children in the country are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

It’s natural that after 16 months of devastating conflict and amid an ever-deepening humanitarian disaster, a fair bit of attention should be focused on the talks.

But here’s the rub: experts say the two sides at the negotiating table don’t really command the support of many of those battling it out on the ground, nor are the needs of the populace being addressed.

Worryingly, some of those fighting agree, meaning that even if an unlikely accord is struck, it probably wouldn’t end the conflict.

“It’s the same usual suspects [at the talks] and they are going to end up with the same problems,” Sana’a based political analyst Hisham al-Obeisy told IRIN.

“A lot of people are very sceptical about the talks, and locally everybody is looking them as a joke… [no matter the outcome] it’s not going to affect much on the ground.”

The Southern Resistance

The gnawing complexity of Yemen’s conflict is one reason it is so often ignored, or at least simplified into the tidier narrative of a proxy war between regional powers.

It’s true that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have dogs in the fight – a Saudi-led coalition backs Hadi and has been bombing Yemen since March of last year. And Iran has given assistance to the Houthis – although the extent of this assistance is unclear.

But some of the most important groups involved in the conflict aren’t on either side and have grievances that date back to the 2011 uprising that led to Saleh’s ouster, or even decades before that.

Take the Southern Movement, which has its origins in protests against the economic and political marginalisation of the provinces that made up the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which united with the north in 1990. Saleh reacted to demonstrations in the 1990s with a bloody crackdown that ignited calls for secession.

When the Houthis took over Sana’a in February 2015, Hadi scarpered to his southern stronghold of Aden. Initially, the Southern Movement, which became known as the Southern Resistance, loosely allied itself with Hadi and the Saudis, helping to repel attacks on the city by Houthis and Saleh loyalists.

These days, the southerners (themselves made up of disparate local groupings) have no representation in Kuwait, they’re no friend of Hadi’s – he is reportedly persona non grata in Aden – and their leaders say their concerns are not being addressed at the talks.

The situation in Aden, meanwhile, has disintegrated into factional fighting between southern groups, Islamists – including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – and other local militants.

Abu al-Matari, a leader of the Southern Resistance, told IRIN that his group is now fighting “for the independence of the south”.

Secession isn’t on the table in Kuwait, and al-Matari said his fighters would continue to battle the Houthis “even if the outcome of the talks is that we should let them enter the south”.

Distrust in Taiz

Residents of Taiz – both the larger province and the city under siege and in urgent need of aid – have, again, their own axes to grind and feel removed from the discussions in distant Kuwait.

Taiz is in the centre of the country not the south, but many there also reject Saleh and regard the Houthis – a Shiite religious movement from the north – as outsiders, even if they once agreed on key issues.

Moa’ath al-Akhali, a leader of a fighting force known as the Popular Resistance in Taiz, explained that although he had marched “shoulder to shoulder with the Houthis” in 2011, his feelings had now changed.

“I am a graduate of college and I couldn’t find a job,” he told IRIN. “Our [2011] revolution was peaceful.”

Al-Akhali wants to see Yemen split into six federal regions, a suggestion mooted in the National Dialogue Conference that followed the post-2011 transition, when Saleh made way for Hadi’s troubled four-year rule.

He believes the peace talks are irrelevant.

“I want to tell the negotiating sides that they should not lose time in meaningless talks as we will not accept any solution that does not liberate al-Ganad,” al-Akhali said, referring to one of the six proposed federal regions, the one that would include Taiz and Ibb.

What about women?

It’s not only those doing the actual fighting who feel their concerns are being ignored.

Farea al-Muslimi of the Carnegie Middle East Center pointed out that the post-2011 national dialogue did have space for women, civil society, and young people, but “it was rushed” and ultimately ended up “legitimising the larger deals” made by the elites.

Now, al-Muslimi said, many of the same people who Yemenis see as having caused the war are sitting down to solve it, including Saleh and Hadi.

There has been some effort to integrate women into the talks this time and Wameedh Shakir, director of gender studies at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, was part of a delegation of seven Yemeni women who travelled to Kuwait in May.

She and the others argued for increasing women’s participation in the elite negotiations and in any local deals, as well as for support for the economic empowerment of women and young people.

But she told IRIN by email that no women appeared to be involved in the actual negotiations (although UN Women does have a role), and that the men who were didn’t appear to be ready to take the women’s concerns on board.

Instead, she hopes they’ll be heard “in the next phase, when [the] political process resumes, when [there are] transitional structures, [a] constitution, and political dialogue takes place”.

Other key players have also been omitted.

Nadwa al-Dawsari, an expert on the Yemen conflict and a senior fellow on the Project on Middle East Democracy, said that governors who command regional support as well as tribal leaders and other locals with influence have to be part of the process if it’s to work properly.

“Just like the 2011 transition deal, this is another set of talks that relies on elite compromise,” she told IRIN. “And that got us here in the first place.”

Carnegie’s al-Muslimi is quick to add that any peace would almost certainly be better than none.

But, he cautioned, “you will end up having the problems of the one percent solved between each other. You are not going to solve the problems of [ordinary] Yemenis.”