Yemen Peace Talks Indefinitely Postponed: An Ominous Sign?

A UN official has announced the Yemen peace talks, that had been set to start tomorrow in Geneva, have been postponed indefinitely. This is bad news for the millions of Yemenis currently in the grip of an escalating humanitarian crisis. Before the conflict began, Yemen had imported 90% of its food. With Saudi warships maintaining a rigorous monitoring process around the country’s sea borders, in order to prevent any Iranian arms reaching the Houthi forces, food shortages have worsened dramatically. The intense fighting and the continued airstrikes have also led to a further breakdown in supply chains and severe damage to infrastructure, thus hindering the distribution of any humanitarian aid that does enter the country. On top of that, Oxfam reports that almost two-thirds of the population now do not have access to clean water.

Clearly the civil war is having disastrous effects on the impoverished population of Yemen. Yet, the indefinite postponement of the peace talks indicates that things may still get much worse. Before any talks even take place, the demands of President Hadi’s exiled government already include Houthi forces pulling out of all towns and cities taken in recent months, reforming as a political group only and recognising Hadi’s authority. The peace talks had been described by Houthi leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, as the only solution to the conflict and the Houthis had said that they would participate. So it appears that the exiled government’s demands are currently one of the stumbling blocks preventing any talks – along with the scale of the conflict itself. This perhaps suggests that, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies, President Hadi may now not be so inclined for peace talks without preconditions. He may feel that his position is in the ascendency and that he can make such demands. The destruction caused by Saudi airstrikes, however, will only serve to strengthen popular feeling against him.

On the battlefield, no force is clearly dominating the conflict. The Houthis did suffer a first real setback over the weekend, as militiamen allied to Hadi’s government helped retake parts of Dhalea but in the city of Taiz, the Houthis have pushed back opposition forces amid heavy fighting. And all the time, the devastating Saudi airstrikes continue to hit Sanaa and other Houthi positions. The potential peace talks have had no affect on the conflict; likewise, neither has last week’s five-day ceasefire. If anything, it is intensifying. Given that the Houthis have been involved in six rounds of conflict with the Yemeni government since 2000, it seems unlikely that they will simply put down their weapons and go home. As Abdul-Malek al-Houthi has said, peace talks are probably the only solution to the conflict.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement, however, will make any even discussion of peace difficult. Its intervention has been seen at home as decisive and strong and will therefore require results in order to maintain this impression – the desired result being the reinstatement of President Hadi. This need for a conclusive result could see Saudi Arabia embroiled in a long and difficult conflict. As with civil wars in Libya and Syria, the absence of central power allows extremist groups to thrive and it is no surprise that al-Qaeda’s influence in the south of Yemen continues to grow. It looks, therefore, like there is no foreseeable let-up in the fighting, even as the humanitarian crisis deepens.

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