Sunday, June 28, 2015

Houthi rebels in talks with opponents in Oman

Ismail Ahmed, the UN special envoy for Yemen has warned that Yemen is on the verge of famine with 31 million now in need of assistance versus 7 million just two years ago.
The continued struggle between forces of the Houthi rebels, together with forces loyal to former president Saleh, and groups loyal to the government in exile of President Mansour Hadi has exacerbated the situation. Hadi and his government have all fled to Saudi Arabia. There are also places in Yemen where Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula(AQAP), allied with local Sunni groups, is also fighting the Shia Houthis. Ahmed blamed all the parties in the conflict for the drastic humanitarian situation for failing to agree to a ceasefire. On Wednesday, ground fighting together with Saudi-led airstrikes killed almost 100 people.
The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September last year after UN-sponsored talks between the Hadi government and opposition members failed to create a government approved by the Houthis. Hadi resigned as president. He was under virtual house arrest in Sanaa but was able to flee to Aden, where his attempt to set up a government there failed and he was driven out. In March, a Saudi-led coalition began a bombing campaign and blockade to restore the Hadi government to power. So far it has only resulted in more carnage, with the Houthis losing little ground. Conditions in the south have led to a severe outbreak of dengue fever, adding one more misery to the conditions faced by Yemenis. The World Health Organization says that there have been more than 3,000 suspected cases of the disease since March 20, but some non-governmental organizations put the number at twice that.
A rare piece of good news was that a ship from Oman carrying 1,000 tons of food and three large generators had been allowed to dock in Hodeida a port held by the Houthi rebels. There have been problems delivering aid. When an Iranian aid plane attempted to land in Sanaa some time ago, the Saudis bombed the runway, making it impossible for aid planes from any source to land.
Ahmed showed some optimism about the future, even after recent failed peace talks in Geneva. He said that "both sides showed signs of constructive engagement and there is an emerging common ground upon which we can build to achieve an eventual cease-fire coupled with withdrawal of combatants." There are talksongoing between Houthi rebels and the southern separatist movement, one of the main opponents of the rebels in the south and the port of Aden. The southern separatists for now claim loyalty to the Hadi government according to news reports. However, they want a separate southern state in Yemen, or at the very least more autonomy. They were opponents of Hadi and particularly of his plan to divide Yemen into six regions. They believe there should be two main regions. On this issue they agree with the Houthis who also rejected Hadi's plan. The separatists may very well seek a cease fire and ultimately a political deal with the Houthis but this might not help Hadi's cause at all.
Oman has played a constructive mediator role throughout this conflict. It is the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council not to join the Saudi-led military campaign. This has left Oman in a unique position of being able to mediate between the two sides. It has already had talks with the Americans that may have helped free an American held by the Houthis. It also was able to arrange for passage of a UN plane carrying the Houthi delegation to Geneva. The plane had been stuck in Djibouti for almost 24 hours. Oman shares a border with Yemen. No doubt it is anxious not to have conflict on its border.
Another diplomatic initiative is taking place through Moscow as a delegation from the party of ex-president Saleh ,an ally of the Houthis, has gone to Moscow where they will meet with Russian officials. The Russians may be able to influence Iran, and through Iran the Houthis, to agree to a ceasefire. The UN is in a difficult position since it has passed a resolution that the Houthis withdraw from all their positions and lay down their arms. They have also banned arms shipments to the Houthis and imposed sanctions on two important Houthi leaders as well as on ex-president Saleh and his son. They are hardly able to pose as neutral negotiators. At the recent peace talks the Hadi government insisted that the talks were only about how to implement the UN resolutions which are in effect a surrender demand. It is not surprising the talks failed. Yet, many of the major powers involved want at least a ceasefire and may even want a political solution. Iran supports the Houthis. However, even they and the Houthis themselves do not think that the Houthis can rule alone. The aim had always been to have the Houthis not as the government but as having the power to agree to whatever government opponents, and their allies should propose. This could still happen eventually. In the meanwhile a cease fire is also quite possible. The southern separatists could very well see eye to eye about what a future government should look like.
An Iranian official told Al-Monitor: “Oman right now is leading a new initiative for a solution in Yemen,They are trying to come out with a solution that can make all sides content. It’s difficult, but any other options might lead to worse scenarios. The Saudis are trapped in the mud in Yemen. They have been bombing for three months without any serious change on the ground, and they’ll strike for another nine months without any results, while today Ansar Allah is on the borders with a minimum strength. What if it decided to go to the next step?”
Ansar Allah is the name of the Houthi rebel movement. If the Saudis are willing to accept a more independent Yemen that is less under control of the Saudis a peace deal might be possible. Another scenario could be two separate states as was the case before the north and south united. Hadi may ultimately be sacrificed by the very powers that support him. He does not seem to have much support in Yemen. The Houthis understood this when during the Geneva peace talks they said they had no interest in talking to Hadi or his delegation, only to Saudi Arabia.

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