It appears that the main gain, so far, in the Yemen peace talks in Sweden is that the two sides have returned to the negotiating table after a two-year hiatus.
Although the talks have not halted the machinery of war on many fronts, there is progress on the question of prisoner exchanges. On the other hand, the windows of opportunity for unravelling the Hodeida complex seem to be closing due to the Houthis refusal to return control over the port to the legitimate government and, more recently, their refusal to hand it over to a third party under UN supervision.
Similarly, the Houthis refuse to hand back Sanaa airport to the legitimate government in exchange for an end to the Saudi air blockade so that it could reopen to international flights.
During the talks, they rejected a compromise solution proposed by the Yemeni government to reopen the facility as a domestic airport, temporarily, with a connection to the international terminal in Aden.
As a result of such impasses, mediators are unable to focus on the central solutions to the Yemeni crisis, namely an armistice agreement and the creation of a consensus government, and are therefore working on budging the parties on a number of other issues.
The “consultations” that opened last Thursday, 6 December, have six issues on the agenda: prisoners, the battle over Hodeida, the Yemeni Central Bank, the blockade of Taiz, humanitarian relief and Sanaa airport.
The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths proposed the broad outlines for a roadmap. However, in a press conference, he indicated that it would be difficult to secure guarantees to ensure the implementation of any agreed-upon formula for a settlement.
According to leaks cited in news reports from Sweden, the UN envoy attempted to overcome the impasse, which brought talks to a halt in Kuwait two years ago, over whether the security track should take priority over the political track, or vice versa.
proposed a package containing an equal measure of security and political arrangements. They included a comprehensive and simultaneous ceasefire followed by the implementation of a schedule for the gradual withdrawal of Houthi forces overseen by a military commission.
No details were given regarding how that commission would be formed, which had been a sticking point in previous negotiations.
According to a Yemeni source, although there are military leaders who kept aloof from the political biases that have divided the army since the outset of the crisis, the problem was how to select them and whether they would be accepted by all parties.
Griffiths also proposed beginning a new interim phase that would culminate in a referendum on a new constitution and general elections.
The internationally recognised Yemeni government insists on retaining the three previously agreed on frames-of-reference as a basis for any interim phase, namely UN Security Council Resolution 2216 which recognises the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the outputs of the National Dialogue and the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.
The Houthis call for a coalition government formed by Yemen’s political parties and they reject certain mechanisms in the GCC initiative and want to reopen talks on them.
The question of Hodeida continues to defy a breakthrough. The government wants to regain the outward appearances of control over the strategic city and port and to eliminate the manifestations of the Houthi coup.
The Houthis fear they will not receive sufficient guarantees or anything substantial in return for sacrificing these crucial assets. The UN envoy has described Hodeida as the “centre of gravity” in the war and talks over the port city as “very difficult”.
According to a UN report, a proposal for Hodeida that mediators hope to flesh out in the talks in Sweden calls for a ceasefire and the simultaneous withdrawal of the warring forces, the creation of an independent military and security committee in collaboration with the UN, joint administration of the port under UN supervision and the creation of a local police force to maintain security in the city.
In a surprise development, Ahmed Ghaleb, a member of the Yemeni government delegation in Sweden, revealed the start of another set of talks on the economic track.
Taking place in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in tandem with talks in Sweden, the new talks were attended by representatives from the World Bank and IMF and focused on reuniting the economic and financial institutions in Yemen.
In remarks to the press from Sweden, Ghaleb said, “we are waiting for the results from the talks in Amman to progress further so that we can progress. We have received a promise from the office of the UN envoy that a paper will be prepared for study and discussion on the subject of the economy.”
He said that the Houthis want to reunite the Yemeni Central Bank in order to pay civil servants’ salaries but that such matters did not fall under the responsibilities of the bank but rather under the responsibilities of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Civil Service.
He also noted that the political track was currently overshadowing the economic one.
Back in Yemen, as talks opened in Sweden, fighting escalated along the various fronts. Yemeni National Army Spokesman Brigadier General Abdu Majalli accused the Houthis of initiating the escalation “on a number of combat fronts and in residential quarters in Hodeida” with the purpose of undermining the talks in Sweden.
He said the Houthi militias, using diverse weapons, attacked fronts that the army controlled, such as Nahm, Baqem, Damat, Hodeida and Al-Dalie, and that they were amassing heavy equipment, including artillery and tanks, along the major fronts.
He added that the Houthis had intensified such activities in Hodeida in an attempt to reinforce their front in that city following a recent breach. This, he said, was a sign that the Houthis were not serious about making progress in the talks.
The question of Taiz has emerged in Sweden as a new stumbling block. The question of the blockade of this centrally located city and the consequent humanitarian hardships has been overlooked in previous rounds of ceasefire talks, according to Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, a resident of Taiz, in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “It is as though there is an agreement among all parties to ignore this city as a flashpoint in the war,” he said. After learning that the subject has been put on the negotiating agenda in Sweden, the Mayor of Taiz Amin Mahmoud said, “ending the blockade of Taiz will be a true test of the Houthi militias’ desire for peace.”
As warfare continues in Yemen and negotiating processes abroad stumble, and probably lead to more delays, the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people worsens.
On Monday, the UN issued a new appeal to come to their aid, calling on the international community and donor organisations to collect at least $4 billion in order to meet the urgent needs of the Yemeni people next year.
UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock announced that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres planned to hold an international conference of donor nations in Geneva on 26 February in order to secure pledges for the fundraising drive.
Speaking at a press conference at the UN headquarters, the humanitarian relief official warned that the humanitarian and food-supply situation in Yemen was getting worse and that funds were desperately needed in order to remedy that situation.
He added that UN relief efforts next year hoped to bring food relief to 15 million Yemenis among whom are 10 million in urgent need of food. Ongoing warfare remains the major impediment to relief agencies’ efforts to reach their intended recipients.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen: Low progress in Sweden talks