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UN: Yemen peace talks 'challenging', dim hope of breakthrough

UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric tells MEE talks are an 'important step', but has low expectations for their outcome
Yemeni children inspect the rubble following an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on 31 May north of Sanaa (AFP)
UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations has described as “Herculean” its efforts to get Yemen’s rival factions to peace talks next week amid fears that negotiations will lead nowhere and civilians will bear the brunt of an ongoing conflict.
 
On Friday, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said it had been “challenging” to get envoys from the exiled government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to meet Shia Houthi rebels in Geneva for the first serious peace talks in the protracted conflict on Monday.
 
He praised an “important step as the parties embark on the road towards a settlement” but set low expectations for discussions, which will begin with delegates sitting at different tables as they stake out their negotiating positions.
 
“They will start with what we call proximity discussions but we would hope to get them around the same table,” Dujarric told Middle East Eye.
 
Talks in the Swiss city take place against a backdrop of deadlocked conflict, with the Houthi advance stalled and a Saudi-led airstrike campaign showing only limited capacity to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi’s rule.
 
The Houthis wrested control of Yemen’s government in February, forcing Hadi to flee to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Hadi backs a Saudi-led air offensive that began in late March, which aims to oust the Houthis amid suspicions that they are proxies for Iran.
 
Hadi has said there will be “no negotiations” with rebels and that talks in Geneva should focus on enforcing a UN Security Council resolution from April that demanded the Houthis withdraw from parts of the country they had seized.
 
Houthi leaders are not likely to pull back. They say they will participate in talks but without any preconditions. The UN calls for a pause in fighting to assist the 80 percent of the population – more than 21 million people – who need food, water and other help.
 
The number of people needing aid has grown by 5 million this past week as an air and sea blockade has cut off supplies of food and the fuel needed to power water pumps. Some one million people have fled their homes.
 
Despite 11 weeks of airstrikes from the Arab coalition, Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh control large parts of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa and much of the port city of Aden.
 
The Houthis say they reject Yemen’s corrupt government, Islamists and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They deny any military or financial links to Iran, which likewise says it provides only diplomatic support.
 
According to analyst Sigurd Neubauer, a potential “game-changer” in the conflict is a shift by the US, which met Houthis in Oman at the end of last month despite supporting the Saudis in their fight against the rebels.
 
“Faced with an expansion of AQAP, a growing humanitarian toll and the limited successes of Saudi’s anti-Houthi air campaign, the US has started talking to the Houthis and is pushing more heavily for a negotiated peace, while remaining committed to Saudi security,” Neubauer told MEE.
 
“Talks in Geneva could pave the way for a negotiated solution to the war, as the US remains determined to back Saudi and mitigate security threats in the Gulf, including those perceived to come from Iran. US-Saudi relations could benefit from this.”
 
Talks were brokered by the UN’s envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. They are the most serious peace effort since the Houthis, adherents of Zaidi Shia Islam, took control of government this year after initially storming Sanaa in September.
 
For Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and advisor to the White House, last week’s Houthi Scud missile attack on Saudi soil shows that the rebels have a stomach for more fighting, while recently crowned Saudi King Salman also shows grit.
 
“Houthi attacks suggest they are not intimidated by the Saudis. They have already succeeded in gaining direct contact with US diplomats, who met Houthi envoys in Oman,” he told MEE. “Salman has shown a remarkable propensity to take risks, but his war is not producing the decisive victory it promised. 
 
“It remains unclear how many more risks he will be prepared to take.”
 
The Saudi coalition and the Houthis agreed to a five-day humanitarian truce last month, but aid groups said the window was too short to deliver enough fuel, food and medicine to the Arab world’s poorest nation, which relies heavily on imports.
 
Belkis Wille, a Yemen-based researcher for the pressure group Human Rights Watch, called for urgently needed supplies “so that Yemen’s hospital lights don’t all go out” and warned that schools have been shuttered across the country while fighting continues.
 
“When peace negotiators meet in Geneva, they should consider the children who are kept out of their classrooms. The laws of war obligate all parties to a conflict to take special care to minimise harm to civilians and civilian structures, including children and schools,” she told MEE.
 
Meanwhile, UN heritage body UNESCO condemned destruction in “one of the world’s oldest jewels” of Islamic culture in Sanaa’s Old City, a UN World Heritage site, which was damaged by an apparent airstrike on Friday that killed five people, medics and residents said.
 
UNESCO head Irina Bokova said she was “profoundly distressed” by a bomb attack that destroyed three houses. “This heritage bears the soul of the Yemeni people, it is a symbol of a millennial history of knowledge and it belongs to all humankind,” she said in a statement.