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Fragile truce on path to talks in Yemen

Scheduled negotiations between Yemen’s warring parties depend on upholding the ceasefire, which in turn depends on perceptions of the agenda and power balance in negotiations

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 14 Apr 2016
A Yemeni fighter loyal to the country's exiled president salutes on top of a tank at a checkpoint on a road in the southwestern city of Taez on April 11, 2016. Loyalists and Iran-backed rebel fighters have clashed on several fronts in Yemen, officials said, the second day of a UN-brokered ceasefire the insurgents have warned is in jeopardy. (Photo: AFP)
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Eight days separate the beginning of a ceasefire and the anticipated start of negotiations on 18 April between the warring Yemeni parties. The two are mutually dependent.

The ceasefire needs to hold reasonably well in order for the negotiations to take place. At the same time, breaches in the fragile ceasefire and the accompanying mutual recriminations reflect the ongoing tug-of-war over the agenda of the talks to take place in Kuwait next week.

As UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ould Cheikh Ahmed indicated, the parties are wrangling over interpretations of five points related to UN Resolution 2216 which Mohammed Ali Marem, director of the office of Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, summed up as: the ceasefire, withdrawal and the surrender of weapons, restoration of legitimacy to government, creating the climate for the return of the representatives of the political forces to complete arrangements and preparations for the interim phase, and the question of POWs and abducted persons.

The joint political bureau of the Houthi movement and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued a statement, a copy of which has been made available to Al-Ahram Weekly, stating that they are fully committed to the ceasefire in accordance with the discussions that took place with the UN.

The ceasefire calls for a halt to all combat activities and military movements by land, sea and air, across the entirety of Yemeni territory, airspace and borders. The document was signed by both parties.

Ahmed Rafiq, who is close to the Houthi-Saleh political bureau, told the Weekly that the members of the front of the former president have agreed to head to Kuwait and demonstrate their serious determination to pursue the negotiations.

However, first, the ceasefire needs to hold. “Saudi aircraft are still circling in the air and this raises concerns regarding the durability of the ceasefire,” he said.

On the other hand, speaking from Taiz, editor-in-chief of Al-Shahed newspaper Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi told the Weekly that it was not true that the Houthi militia was abiding by the ceasefire.

They are in the process of a redeployment that includes regaining control over positions they recently lost, which is in violation of the terms of the UN resolution on this issue, he said, adding that the Houthis in Taiz are receiving reinforcements from Ibb and Dhammar. He claims that the Houthis are “doing the same thing” in Sirrah, in Mareb, and in Nehem north of Sanaa. “An unprecedented military convoy has left the capital in the direction of Nehem,” he said.

Local Yemeni news reports relate that areas such as Midi are still within Houthi firing range.

The command of the Saudi-led coalition announced that it would respond to the breaches.

Coalition command spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri said that command headquarters had received a request from President Hadi to manage the truce in a manner that would pave the way for the meeting in Kuwait, but that the coalition, simultaneously, reserves the right to respond to any breaches.

Asiri added that it has been agreed to send in humanitarian relief to six Yemeni provinces during the truce.

He also said that the Yemeni government would head for talks in Kuwait regardless of the circumstances, stressing that that government is committed to UN resolutions regarding the ceasefire.

Although the understandings the Houthis reached with the Saudis in talks that took place in Abha and Riyadh over the past month were expected to reduce many of the obstacles in the path to Kuwait, some sources have suggested that Saleh is making certain “moves” because he has been excluded from those talks, which galls him because he sees himself as the main player.

Rafiq, in his interview with the Weekly, curtly dismissed this notion. “They’re imagining things. President Saleh is still the strongest party in the equation up to now.”

Al-Majidi countered, “Saudi Arabia holds the cards. The nature of the understandings it reached with [the Houthis] is what will prevail.”

As for Saleh’s role, and whether he is coordinating with the Houthis or whether the Saudi-Houthi understanding will encourage a sidelining of Saleh, he said: “These are questions that I believe will settle that important debate concerning the relationship between the Houthis and Saleh which, in the context of the Kuwait dialogue, is undoubtedly different from [what it was] in Geneva.”

Mohammed Abdel Salam Al-Houthi has spoken of a “graduated” ceasefire. According to another source close to the Houthi movement, the statement signed jointly by the Houthis and Saleh affirms Houthi commitment to the ceasefire.

It also includes a list of names of local delegates responsible for monitoring the combat fronts. He stressed that the purpose of the Houthis’ troop movements is not to redeploy with the idea of escalating but on the contrary to prepare the ground for talks.

The source added: “The draft document that was circulated in the committee charged with coordinating the truce and forming local monitoring committees in six governorates along the demarcation lines is what stirred those doubts. However, ultimately there will be commitment.”

Al-Majidi rejects the argument. “We could accept such talk if we were talking about movements to relinquish positions. But when we speak of targeting the 35th Artillery Brigade and other locations the context is different. In the end, the Houthis want to exploit the situation to improve their position in the negotiations in Kuwait. They will go to Kuwait, for sure, in order to see what they will obtain. We can say that what is happening is not commitment to the ceasefire but a tactic on the part of the Houthi movement ¾no more, no less.”

The agenda that unfolds in Kuwait will answer many of the foregoing questions. Will the articles of UN Resolution 2216 be set aside, signalling that the parties accept them as stated, or will some participants insist on opening them to negotiation? Meanwhile, the coming days will tell us whether or not the talks in Kuwait will go ahead as scheduled.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.

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