EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes at Yemen's peace talks in Switzerland

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MEE's Nawal Al-Maghafi spent six days in Switzerland, watching Yemen's latest peace talks unfold - here's what she learned

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Nawal al-Maghafi, Video Editor
Sunday 27 December 2015 12:59 UTC
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BIEL, Switzerland - Sitting outside the city’s only shisha cafe on Wednesday afternoon, I watched as Houthi and General People's Congress (GPC) delegates to the Yemeni peace talks, a few tables away, drank tea, smoked shisha and bantered merrily, trading anecdotes about their day at the talks.

Moments later, as members of the Yemeni government delegation arrived, the boisterous chatter immediately descended into a tense and heavy silence, confirming what everyone already knew: things had not gone so well that day at the negotiating table.

Indeed, these had been a turbulent seven days. As fighting intensified on the ground, the initial “cautious optimism” of the talks - as one delegate had characterised it to me – gradually morphed into a resigned gloominess.

It was clear from the outset that the UN Security Council meeting, that took place this past week, had put a lot of pressure on the Yemeni government and their Saudi patrons to take this round of talks seriously.

A UN insider close to Security Council members told me that they were concerned that the Yemeni government and the Saudis were making no progress on the ground, with fighting in Taiz going on for months and neither side making substantial progress. As the humanitarian situation was growing more desperate by the day and new militias emerging, he told me, talk of a new Security Council resolution was already under way – talk that would put more pressure on the Saudis as the current resolution only speaks of the Houthis.

Under pressure

One key sign that the Yemeni government, and President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, in particular, was starting to succumb to mounting international pressure was their agreement to several Houthi demands ahead of the Biel talks.

Most notably, the Houthis had insisted, during earlier negotiations in Muscat, Oman, that they would not attend any further peace talks unless the Yemeni government agreed to a ceasefire first. Hadi’s announcement of a seven-day ceasefire, including a promise of a full cessation of hostilities if the Houthis abided by three “confidence-building points,” was interpreted by many as a significant and telling climb-down.

The UN envoy to the talks, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, spent many weeks in the lead-up to Biel shuttling between the various parties, determined to secure a substantial, but realistic agenda for the talks that everyone could agree upon. To this end, Ould Cheikh Ahmed met with dozens of key internal and regional actors, including ministers in Saudi and the UAE, Iranian officials, and the General Secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His tour even featured a visit to Hadi himself in Aden.

Unlike what had happened at the previous round of talks in Geneva, which had ended in miserable failure before the two sides even met, Ould Cheikh Ahmed created a clear framework for the Biel round, starting with a ceasefire that would provide a stable environment conducive to productive dialogue. This would be followed by the gradual implementation of a set of “confidence-building” measures, comprising three key steps: for both sides to respect the ceasefire, the release of all political prisoners held by the Houthis, including President Hadi’s brother (an army commander) and, finally, allowing humanitarian aid into Taiz with immediate effect.

From the start of the talks, however, the Houthis were adamant that they would not release any prisoners until the Saudi-led coalition announced a full cessation of hostilities, which they insist is something their counterparts in the government delegation could secure. As one of the Houthi delegates put it to me: “They keep saying: ‘This is not in our hands.’ Then why are we negotiating with them? We should be negotiating with the Saudis.”

On the other hand, on the very same day, the Houthis agreed to lift the siege on Taiz and to allow aid to enter in line with the third confidence-building measure. The UN envoy confirmed this at the Security Council, stating that 102 UN trucks carrying humanitarian aid, fuel and hospital resources had made it into Taiz.

The UN envoy had also been discussing with the Houthis a framework for the release of the high-profile political prisoners. One of the suggestions was to release two of the prisoners immediately and another two only when a complete cessation of hostilities had been observed. In the meantime, the UN envoy sought authorisation for the Red Cross to meet with the prisoners and check in on their well-being.

Surprise offensive

Growing hopes that some progress, however minimal, was being achieved, were dealt a severe blow by events taking place later that night in Yemen. Indeed, as delegates debated the UN envoy’s proposal on political prisoners, Yemeni government forces - trained by the Saudi-led coalition over the past three months - mounted a surprise offensive on the northern region, near Al Jawf, capturing swaths of territory. As news reached us back in Biel, I watched members of the Yemeni government celebrating in our hotel lobby.

Hours later, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Mareb published a Facebook post claiming the timing of the military offensive had been clearly deliberate and was intended to strengthen the government’s negotiating position. This interpretation has since been corroborated by several other sources in Mareb.

This wasn’t the first breach of the ceasefire. The Houthis had been engaged in heavy fighting at the Saudi border within hours of the ceasefire starting, while the Saudi-led coalition continued its advances in the north. After the offensive on Al Jawf, however, the notion that a ceasefire was still operational in Yemen became farcical.

Needless to say, the intensifying fighting on the ground proved greatly damaging for the peace talks. At my hotel later that evening, I was surprised to come out into the lobby to find dozens of Yemenis who had recently arrived, mostly pro-government journalists and political analysts. Clearly, the government had planned a diplomatic push to accompany its military offensive.

Biding time

The next morning, the delegation representing the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the GPC) did not turn up for the talks, spending hours – amid heated arguments and mounting tensions - with the UN envoy, whom they blamed for “tricking” them into a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, pro-government journalists and analysts were busy conducting back-to-back interviews with Arab media outlets, including Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and domestic Saudi channels. Indeed, several of them came up to me with "offers" to interview them. Of course, everyone seemed to read from the same pro-government script and trot out the same talking points – that the Houthis were creating "obstacles" and were refusing to attend the talks, and so on. Al-Arabiya went as far as to break the “news” that a member of the Houthi delegation had physically assaulted the UN envoy. 

Meanwhile, the UK, US and EU ambassadors to Yemen, who were also staying at the hotel, desperately tried to rein in the media circus, fearing the government’s manoeuvre might irretrievably ruin any real prospects for peace.

It seemed obvious to me that the whole episode was, in essence, a theatrical gesture orchestrated by the government to show its allies, who had been laying the pressure on, that it was taking the talks seriously while its rivals were not. Worse, the no-show by the Houthi delegation was then portrayed as proof of bad faith, even though it was the direct and presumably intended result of a deliberate escalation on the ground by the Hadi government and its Saudi patrons. 

For their part, the Houthi delegation initially tried to maintain a media black-out. However, after reports across the Gulf media alleged that they had quit the talks, they were eventually forced to relent, holding a makeshift press conference at the hotel entrance to deny the allegations.

That evening, I met with the GPC/Houthi delegation at the cafe. The laughter and smiles I had witnessed a day earlier had disappeared, replaced with forlorn, listless expressions. The mood invoked a military operations room. Calls were made to Yemen to find out the latest news. It seemed clear that the decision not to attend that day’s talks was taken in order to buy some time for a possible military counter-push on the ground.

Watching this unfold in real time was surreal. Both sides were playing a political game, pushing for an elusive victory while Yemeni civilians were caught in the middle, paying the ultimate price.

Into the night

The next day both parties were present, and the UN envoy split the delegations into sub-committees to discuss a framework for future talks. It was apparent that events on the ground had already sealed the failure of this round of talks. Nevertheless, the UN envoy seemed determined not to leave Switzerland empty handed and to keep both parties in the room until he obtained the necessary concessions for future progress. On the final day, with time was running out, discussions lasted well into the night.

At a press conference the next day, the UN envoy announced that the parties had agreed to develop a package of confidence-building measures, including a mechanism for the release of prisoners, which would include the release of all detainees and prisoners once a permanent ceasefire was in place. This was greeted with extreme surprise by most of the media representatives in the room. After all, this had been what the Houthi delegation had been asking for all along.

The scepticism proved justified when, hours later, Abdulmalik Al-Mikhlafi, the Yemeni deputy prime minister and head of the government’s delegation, held his own press conference. Asked about the UN special envoy's statement, he responded: “The UN envoy made a mistake and has promised to amend it,” effectively dashing any hopes that meaningful progress had been achieved. Mikhlafi went on to announce that President Hadi had agreed to the renewal of the seven-day ceasefire, a rather absurd statement considering how ineffective the previous seven-day ceasefire had been.

Amid the general sense of gloom, one positive outcome of the talks has been the creation of a Coordination and De-escalation Committee, which consists of military advisers from both sides, facilitated by the UN. The committee is expected to be based in the region and would oversee the ceasefire’s implementation and terms, hopefully bolstering its durability. Furthermore, the parties agreed on a date – 14 January, 2016 - for the next round of talks.

Several days later, at the UN Security Council’s first open session on Yemen held this past Tuesday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, produced a set of highly troubling figures with regards to the human cost of the conflict. Since late March, when Riyadh's coalition began bombing Yemen, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed and 5,300 injured.

"I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure - in particular hospitals and schools - by all parties in the conflict," Hussein said, adding that "a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition forces”.

Aside from their disappointing results, the most disheartening realisation about the Biel round is that, despite the catastrophic human cost of the conflict so far, the talks would not have taken place at all had it not been for the persistence of the UN envoy, and, more crucially, the intense international pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government to take them seriously.

Removed from reality?

After six days in Biel, one key fact that has stuck with me is that very few delegates had phone numbers with a Yemeni country code. Indeed, it now seems clear that all the delegates from the government’s side and the majority from the Houthis side are not currently based in Yemen and very few had even been to the country since the war began.

I cannot help but wonder whether the talks would have been a great deal swifter and more productive had any of the delegates been forced to endure the daily realities of their fellow citizens struggling to find clean water for drinking or washing amid a devastated urban infrastructure; not being able to drive, or watch TV or vacuum because there is no fuel or electricity; or quite simply spending a sleepless night because of the relentless airstrikes and shelling - all of which have been the daily experience of millions of Yemenis for the last nine months.

If the delegates in Biel knew they had to return to a daily reality of watching bodies pulled from underneath the rubble in Taiz or seeing body parts strewn across the site of a water-plant hit by an airstrike in Hajjah or attending a wedding party only to see it turn into a funeral, would it change the outcome of these talks?

Sadly, the plight of their own citizens, however great, does not seem to have been enough of an incentive for warring parties to put the national interest ahead of the partisan struggle for power. Until and unless that happens, the prospects for a lasting solution to the conflict, and an end to the suffering of the Yemeni people, remains distant.

- Nawal Al-Maghafi is a Yemeni/British journalist and filmmaker. She has had her work featured at Channel 4, BBC Newsnight, BBC World and BBC Arabic, amongst others.

Image: The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: UN Special Envoy on the Yemen crisis Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attending the opening of Yemen peace talks on December 15, 2015 in Magglingen, Northen Switzerland (AFP PHOTO/UN PHOTOS/JEAN-MARC FERRE)