Imagine a navigation system in which you enter the following destination: ‘Peace for Yemen’. It would lead you to the Bayan Palace in Kuwait, where peace talks have been underway since 21 April 2016. But it would also give you alternative routes to Riyadh, the EU, the US, Tehran and last but not least, to countless stakeholders in Yemen. Basically, the system would go berserk.
The conflict in Yemen, now in its second year, is not a struggle between two sides. There are no easily distinguishable good guys and bad guys. There is not one big war; there are many small wars between different groups with different agendas, with different regional and international backers. There is not one ceasefire that needs to hold, there are many ceasefires.
This is the reality that the Houthi/Saleh alliance and the Hadi government – the only official negotiating parties, with the UN as broker – are facing. Assuming they know what they want to get out of these negotiations (which is not at all certain), they cannot simply proceed; there are numerous players outside the palace, buzzing in their ears.
This applies most notably to the government headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. It cannot make any concessions to the alliance of Houthi rebels and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (hereafter referred to collectively as the Houthis) without the approval of the Saudi-led coalition that responded to Hadi’s request to intervene and launch airstrikes on Houthi targets after rebel forces closed in on the president’s southern stronghold of Aden in March 2015.
Saudi Arabia’s buzzing should come as little surprise, given its involvement in the conflict. Yet surprise or not, it will evidently complicate matters if the parties at the negotiating table are not the only decision makers.
The Houthis do not have a similar regional prompter. Shia-ruled Iran’s support for them has never been as clear or strong as that of the Sunni-ruled Saudis for Hadi, whatever Riyadh may tell the world about Tehran’s sponsorship of the Houthis. However, they do not have unlimited room to maneuver either. They do not operate in a vacuum but in a country where loyalties are highly divided and where survival has become a daily struggle.
That, it seems, is the horse the UN is betting on when it comes to convincing the Houthis to stay at the negotiating table, from which both parties have already walked away several times. The reasoning: when people are starving, the Houthis are affected too.
It remains to be seen whether this strategy will actually work. As one of the 20 or so ambassadors to Yemen, who have gathered in Kuwait to throw their weight behind the peace process, said: “The Houthis do not seem to be very impressed by this. They are used to hardship.”
That is at least a realistic observation. Less realistic seems to be the idea that is currently circulating among the diplomatic corps, of a roadmap to elections, with a transitional period led by a consensus government under Hadi. The Hadi part makes the plan particularly tricky, and possibly ill-fated.
From a diplomatic point of view, the idea is understandable. Western and Gulf Cooperation Council governments have always maintained that Hadi is Yemen’s legitimate leader. Although this legitimacy is debatable, that does not seem to bother the diplomatic community much. It will, however, bother the Houthis, who will want Hadi out before agreeing to anything. They are not the only ones; most Yemenis have little or no confidence in Hadi’s leadership.
Across the negotiating table will be concerns about another politician: Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Hadi side will want to ensure that if elections are held, Saleh – or one of his relatives – will not participate. Why? Because he may win, having gained increasing support among Yemenis for his anti-Saudi stance.
And these are just a handful of the issues. Among the many others are the economy, security, restoration funds, and the inclusion of all factions and groups in Yemen that have felt excluded from previous reconciliation attempts. It is hardly a matter of first things first; all have priority.
Then there is the rise of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State. So far, they are the conflict’s big winners, restoring some sort of governance and basic services in war-torn areas in the south, not unlike the Houthis did in the north in September 2014. And as the Houthis did then, these groups are also gaining popular support.
Despite all the obstacles, the diplomats in Kuwait are cautiously optimistic. They point to the fact that both parties are still at the negotiating table which, in their opinion, means they want a solution. They are equally positive about the ceasefire, which is holding for the most part. They emphasise that it is now or never, at the same time calling for a sustainable deal, with little room for ambiguities that could cause problems in the future.
That means, once a framework agreement is reached, hundreds of pages of detailed text will need to be drafted, with each word potentially opening a new round of negotiations. Securing a deal amid this plethora of parties, interests and personalities will be nothing short of a miracle.
It is a miracle that many Yemenis on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula no longer believe in. As one of them put it: “Whatever deal they cobble together with the selected parties, too much blood has been spilled and too many people will seek vengeance. And for blood, justice will always find a way in Yemen.”
A helpful attitude for the negotiators in Kuwait? No. An understandable one? Yes.