Yemen foes head to peace talks as ‘ugly war’ rages

2018-09-05T01:31:55+05:00 René Slama

Yemen’s warring parties meet in Geneva Thursday for a new round of peace talks with little hope of a breakthrough in an “ugly war” between the Saudi-backed government and rebels linked to Iran.

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They are the first public meetings between the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Yemen’s powerful Huthi rebels since 2016, when 108 days of negotiations in Kuwait failed to broker a power-sharing deal. But the chance of face-to-face sitdowns between Hadi’s delegation and the rebels in Geneva are slim to none, Yemeni foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani told AFP.

And while the two sides are backed by rival regional powers, their respective patrons will not be present in Geneva.

The talks, overseen by United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths, are aimed at charting a path towards reviving formal UN-backed negotiations. They will likely focus on a prisoner exchange deal and the fate of embattled Hodeida, the rebel-held port city at the frontline of the war.

Hanging in the balance is the fate of 22 million civilians, in a country where famine looms and a cholera epidemic is threatening a comeback.

Low bar

“This war has been and remains an ugly war,” said UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash, whose country is the senior partner in the Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi’s government.

“We have seen civilians shot at, bombed, killed and unfortunately... this is part of any confrontation.”

Last month alone saw 66 children killed in air raids believed to have been conducted by the Saudi-led coalition. Both camps have been accused by the UN and rights groups of failing to protect civilians.

Last month, UN-backed experts said all the warring parties have committed a “substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law”, many potentially amounting to war crimes.

Diplomats and Yemeni officials have set a low bar for the Geneva meetings, the first attempt by Griffiths to bring the warring parties together. One US diplomat described them as “low key” with “low expectations”.

They “are really not intended to be talks or negotiations but consultations that demonstrate the capability of the UN to bring the sides together,” along with “confidence building measures”, the diplomat said.

Eye on Hodeida

All previous attempts to resolve the Yemen war have failed. Griffiths is the UN’s third Yemen envoy since 2014, when the Huthis overran the capital Sanaa and drove Hadi’s government into exile.

Hailing from the Muslim Zaidi minority, the Huthis had complained of marginalisation in Yemen long before the conflict erupted in 2014.

Riyadh and its allies joined the government’s fight against the rebels in 2015, but the Huthis have clung to northern and western Yemen. They regularly fire missiles at Saudi Arabia, which accuses its arch-rival Iran of providing the munitions.

In June, the UAE launched a major offensive to retake rebel-held Hodeida, the Red Sea city home to the country’s most valuable port.

Faced with escalating international criticism, the pro-government military alliance hit the brakes before reaching the densely-populated city. But UAE minister Gargash has said that “in order to shorten the war, pressure should be continued on Hodeida.”

“We are not willing to accept that there will be a strategic shift towards Iran’s favour by accepting also the Huthis’ domination of Yemen,” he said.

The Huthis have reportedly offered to let the UN supervise the port, but the government and its allies have refused anything short of a full rebel withdrawal from both city and port.

Arms sales

UN Security Council Resolution 2216 recognises Hadi as the president of Yemen, calling on the Huthis to withdraw from the capital and elsewhere and to hand in heavy weapons. The UN has also blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for the killing and maiming of children.

The Saudi-led coalition has admitted to “mistakes” in an August 9 strike on a crowded marketplace in rebel-held Yemen that killed 51 people, according to the Red Cross.

International rights groups have frequently criticised the inaction of Washington, London and Paris against Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally and key arms customer for all three.

At least 6,660 civilians have been killed and 10,563 injured in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition joined the conflict in March 2015, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UN says the actual figure may be much higher.–AFP

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