Southern secessionists and loyalists of late president Saleh seek place at table as UN envoy prepares to unveil peace plan
Peace in Yemen needs more than two parties
A peace plan for Yemen will begin with the internationally-recognised government sitting down for talks with the Houthi rebels, but its success can be ensured only by involving all parties in the war-weary country.
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the Security Council last week he would present a peace plan before June 15.
Providing a framework for peace negotiations will deliver on a pledge Mr Griffiths made to the council in his first briefing in April, two months after he was took over from his largely ineffective predecessor, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. He had outlined “good and bad news”, saying “a political solution to end this war is indeed available” but that military escalation could “in a single stroke take peace off the table”.
Details of the upcoming talks are not known, but Mr Griffiths will have to bring two increasingly bellicose sides to an agreement and maintain peace in a political landscape that the late long-serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
The most important thing, according to Ahmed Harmal, a political analyst in Yemen, is that both sides reach an agreement to stop the fighting.
"The UN is going to bring the Houthis and the Yemeni legitimate government to one table because the international community sees the war has driven the country to the brink,” he told The National.
Southern Transitional Council
Mr Harmal said the talks must include the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist body whose fighters are battling the Houthis alongside government forces.
"The political process comes after, in which the Southern Transitional Council is going to play a big role, as Martin Griffiths promised in his meeting with the STC leaders," he said.
STC supporters have held rallies in Aden calling for their leader, Maj Gen Aidarous Al Zubaidi, to form an independent group to represent them at the peace talks.
Mr Al Zubaidi was appointed governor of Aden in December 2015 but was sacked by President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi in April 2017. Prior to that he led the Southern Resistance group seeking a separate state in south Yemen, which was united with the north in 1990.
Sacking Mr Al Zubaidi created tension between secessionists and the government, which is now based in Aden.
Mr Al Zubaidi has yet to say whether his group wants to be represented independently of Mr Hadi’s government at the peace talks. Although tensions between the two sides have eased since clashes in Aden earlier this year, the STC is likely to create its own negotiating team.
"Mr Griffiths promised that we are going to take part in the coming negotiations. However, Hadi's government is trying so hard to hinder our participation as a representative for the southern Yemenis in the negotiations," a member of the STC political department, Adeeb Al Sayed, told The National.
The Saudi-led Arab Coalition that is fighting on behalf of the government faces the challenge of ensuring that all sides stay united against the Iran-backed rebels.
General People’s Congress
The negotiations will also have to include the General People’s Congress (GPC), the political party created by Saleh during his 33-year rule.
Saleh was removed from office after protests in 2012 but he entered a marriage of convenience with the Houthis after the rebels seized the capital in September 2014. His loyalists worked alongside the Iran-backed rebels until late last year when violence erupted between the two sides.
The clashes in Sanaa led to Saleh being killed by his former allies, and to skirmishes breaking out in areas around the capital. Since then, tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists have defected to the government side.
The GPC has now split, with one faction headed by the late president’s son, Maj Gen Ahmed Ali Saleh, still maintaining a loose alliance with the Houthis and the other, based in Aden, supporting Mr Hadi.
Mr Griffiths has held several meetings with GPC leaders from both factions in Sanaa, Oman and in Abu Dhabi. He has relied on them as a mediating force between the government and rebels and is encouraging them to play a role in the peace process.
"The UN envoy stressed the importance of the role supposed to be played by the GPC party in the peace process and its significant participation in the coming negotiations," Sultan Al Barakani, a senior GPC official, said on Twitter last month.
The GPC plans to form its own team for the upcoming negotiations, unlike in previous peace talks in Geneva and Kuwait where Saleh’s group was represented by the Houthis.
“The situation after killing the president has changed. Our party is going to participate as an independent team, however the Houthis will try to push the [GPC] leaders in Sanaa,” Kamel Al Khoudani, a GPC leader in Taez, told The National.
Mr Al Khoudani said Saleh loyalists in Sanaa were likely to interfere in the GPC’s ability to represent itself in the talks by portraying the members outside the capital as unrepresentative of the so-called "true members" who remain aligned to the Houthis.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said in March that the rebels were ready to hold peace talks.
"We are not afraid of anybody, and we are ready to go to the ends of the earth for the negotiations to make peace for our homeland and to stop the devastation and the bloodshed," he said.
Since then, however, the rebels have suffered severe losses of personnel and territory. Earlier this year, the Arab coalition killed Salah Al Sammad, the second in command and the most senior Houthi official still in Yemen.
It is difficult to assess how the Houthi stance on negotiations has been affected by these reversals.
Yet the best chance for reaching a political solution in Yemen remains for both sides to stop fighting, Mr Griffiths has said.