The compass of the Yemeni question has turned to the Omani capital, Muscat, where stakeholders in the Yemeni crisis and international mediators are trying to hammer out a formula that could pave the way to a final agreement on a comprehensive solution that could be eventually signed in Kuwait. Kuwait had hosted negotiations between the Yemeni factions that lasted three months without making significant progress in putting Yemen back on the track towards peace and ending the civil war that erupted in the summer of 2015.
UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has proposed a working plan that would start with efforts to generate a climate conducive to negotiations. The plan calls for a ceasefire along all fronts, including a cessation of all aerial assaults, between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh militias and arrangements to allow urgent humanitarian relief to reach war torn areas. The UN secretary general’s assistant for humanitarian affairs flew to Sanaa Sunday to promote this process.
An observer of the current diplomatic activity in Muscat told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone that the proposed 24-hour truce would require that Houthi militias halt cross-border missile fire into Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis halt their aerial bombardments of areas controlled by the forces of the Houthi militias and Yemeni military forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the framework of the negotiations, the source said that there is a basic consensus over what the agreement should contain, but there remain differences over scheduling and how to prioritise the political versus security tracks. If the parties’ positions on these questions can be bridged, it will be possible to draw up the articles of a final agreement that could be signed in Kuwait.
According to Mohamed Yahya Al-Saberi, a Yemeni political analyst, the dependable way out of the Yemeni crisis is to be found in the roadmap that was formulated in Kuwait. That roadmap suggests the possibility of implementing the security and political tracks simultaneously. Depending on the current conditions and climate, a committee of local military experts could be created to carry out the details under international supervision. “There is a neutral military sector that could undertake this role,” he said.
Muscat is an important stage in the current negotiating process. The Houthi-Saleh alliance has wanted the Omani capital to sponsor negotiations since the beginning of the crisis. But even if Geneva and Kuwait prevailed, Muscat served as a major venue for indirect talks and communications. Nevertheless, observers and analysts do not appear very optimistic on this current stage. Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi described recent developments as “a new chapter in the same farce.”
A source close to the Yemenigovernment in Riyadh told the Weekly that while the legitimate Yemeni government responded positively and the Saudi government volunteered to send a representative for this purpose, “it is still difficult to depend on a Houthi-Saleh commitment to any resolutions emerging from the Gulf capitals that wish to resolve the Yemeni crisis.” He added: “I personally believe that there is no real groundwork for an agreement because of the developments that are taking place in Sanaa and the obstacles they are creating in order to obstruct the path to a comprehensive settlement. Accordingly, the field is where the real agreements are made.”
Much water has passed beneath the bridge since negotiations stalled in Kuwait at the end of July and the Muscat track opened. As the negotiations in Kuwait floundered, the Houthi-Saleh alliance announced the creation of a joint political council which, in turn, led to the recent formation of a government headed by the former governor of Aden, Abdel-Aziz Ben Habtoor. In tandem with these political steps, the Houthis reinforced their siege on Taiz and simultaneously escalated their cross-border missile attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, just last week, Houthi forces bombarded a UAE ship off the coast of Mocha in the Red Sea. Claiming that the ship — an HSV-2 Swift developed by the US navy — was carrying humanitarian relief, the Saudi-led coalition intensified its aerial assaults against the front in Nahem, the military academy in the Rodha region in northern Sanaa, and the coastal area which is expected to see an intensification of security measures now that the Houthis have begun to target maritime traffic.
On this subject, Al-Majidi said, “The coastal strip has been unsafe ever since the Houthis seized control and began to move against Mocha, Midi and Taiz. A rapid intervention is needed to change that situation in the field so as to regain control on land, sea and air.”
The US State Department issued a statement cautioning the Houthi movement against targeting vessels in the Red Sea, which is an international commercial waterway. Other Yemeni sources fear that the Houthi threat could inspire other militias, whether those working with the insurgents or Al-Qaeda affiliated militias, to undertake similar actions threatening the security of the Red Sea.
Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Saberi said: “It is likely that this development regarding the firing of a missile occurred at the suggestion of a foreign power. The parties communicate with parties in the Gulf. For example, Ahmed Ali Saleh is in the UAE and a Saleh delegation was in Amman. Therefore, some parties want to transform the situation from one level to another one, closer to the Syrian situation, so as to promote greater international intervention and further complicate the conflict. What is needed, therefore, is a breakthrough that deals with the regional dilemma of the Yemeni conflict, which is connected with other regional conflicts.”
Apart from such developments there are other factors that will affect the Muscat stage. One is the initiative that Secretary of State Kerry presented in Riyadh some weeks ago in a new and, in the opinion of some, unconvincing US intervention in the Yemeni question. Some observers have added that parts of the Kerry initiative are vague, such as the idea of having militia forces handover weapons to a third neutral party.
Another possibly complicating factor is the Russian involvement that has come to light recently and that is apparently geared to enhancing the Houthi-Saleh position. According to sources in Sanaa, former president Saleh met with the Russian chargéd’affairs in the Yemeni capital on the eve of the anticipated talks in Muscat. Such reports support the contention that the Russian-US rivalry fever has spread from Syria to Yemen, which also implies bilateral actions worked out in secret between Moscow and Washington.
Riyadh, for its part, insists that any forthcoming agreement must not allow the Houthi movement to remain as a militia, as stated by the Saudi-led coalition spokesman General Asiri. The Saudi stipulation may prove yet another challenge to the process.