It has been almost four years since the Yemeni civil war started, and peace talks are finally taking place in Sweden.
The talks come as Hodeidah, Yemen’s fourth-largest city, has witnessed sporadic fighting, even though both sides agreed to halt offensives.
“Yemen’s future is in the hands of those of us in this room,” UN special envoy Martin Griffiths said in his opening remarks last week. “The country’s institutions are at risk, the fragmentation of the country is an enormous concern, and we must act now before we [lose] control of the future of Yemen.”
‘An internal path’
Holding these talks is an achievement in itself. The special envoy has a difficult task in trying to build confidence and consensus between the warring sides. But will the talks lead to a resolution that ends the conflict?
Muhammad Al-Bakhiti, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, expressed doubt, telling MEE that the government in exile was not in control of the agenda: "The mechanisms adopted by the UN are wrong because it forces us to negotiate with a party that does not have the decision in its hand." Al-Bakhiti stressed that the government of President Abd Rabbou Mansour Hadi has vested interest in the continuation of the war.
In al-Bakhiti's view, there should be two parallel approaches to peace in Yemen. First by establishing a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue whose aim is to reach an agreement on forming a transitional authority that all parties agree on. This body will exercise its powers over all governorates, protect all citizens and represent Yemen in international venues.
The second approach is to begin talks with "the aggressing parties" - the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates - to reach an agreement on ending the war and lifting the siege.
Only when the active conflict ends can the warring parties sit at the negotiating table to discuss the country’s path forward
Saleh al-Humaidi, the undersecretary of the ministry of information in Hadi’s government, told MEE that he believed the talks were "heading towards ambiguity and further complication". Issues that have been dealt with at the talks, such as prisoners, the port and the airport, are not the most critical, he said, noting that one of the key issues should be getting the Houthis to surrender their weapons and implement UN resolution 2216.
Such pessimism suggests that both parties might not have gone voluntarily to these talks. Rather, it seems as though the major players (Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US) pushed them behind the scenes to attend.
One reason why fighting continues in Yemen is that the warring sides do not recognise each other’s legitimacy - yet, at the same time, the Saudi-led coalition continues to escalate the conflict.
Since the war began, the coalition has bombed hospitals, weddings, funerals and other non-military targets, resulting in many civilian casualties.
A Yemeni man checks the site of an air raid that hit a funeral reception north of Sanaa on 16 February 2017 (AFP)
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, more than 57,000 people - both civilians and combatants - have been killed in Yemen since the start of 2016. Data from the first nine months of the war could bring that total as high as 80,000, a researcher with the project told The Associated Press news agency. At the same time, diseases such as cholera have spread throughout the country.
Amid this backdrop, for peace talks to prevail, the fighting must first cease. A resolution cannot be agreed while fighting is still ongoing.
The Yemeni people have had enough, and they want this war to end once and for all. Only when the active conflict ends can the warring parties sit at the negotiating table to discuss the country’s path forward.
Is there an end in sight?
Arguably, this is not currently up to the warring parties. The major external players in the conflict have wrought havoc throughout Yemen; if they do not take a step back and leave the decision to Yemenis, it will be difficult to imagine the war ending anytime soon.
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History will not be kind to those who are pursuing their vested political agendas at the expense of the vast majority of Yemenis. If the US were to terminate its support for the Saudi-led coalition, this would mark a significant step towards ending Yemen’s catastrophe. As long as the coalition gets the support of its strongest Western ally, the conflict will continue escalating.
What is at stake is the future of Yemen and its people. They are the ones who should decide their own path forward. Their strength lies in their unity.
- Abdulaziz Kilani is the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb electronic newspaper.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Yemeni fighters gather in Sanaa to show support for the Houthis on 27 September (AFP)