Yemen’s Peace Process Is Doomed

The country's warring factions can't even agree to sit around a table together, even as political chaos and a humanitarian disaster threaten to engulf them.


GENEVA — I’ve met my fair share of Houthis and I have been to more than my fair share of formulaic press conferences. So when I was told that representatives of the Houthis, a northern Yemeni rebel group here for U.N.-brokered peace talks, were scheduled to give a presser at the Swiss Press Club, I quickly decided that I had better ways to fill my time.

It was a decision I soon regretted. As I left the U.N. headquarters, I glanced at my Twitter account to see a flurry of updates. A Yemeni woman, apparently a freelance journalist, had lobbed a shoe at a member of the Houthi delegation as he delivered a speech, sparking a fight between Houthi friends and foes in attendance at the meeting. As embarrassing as it was for my Yemeni friends covering the talks, I couldn’t hide my disappointment that I had missed a melee that seemed more like something from the Ricki Lake show rather than a U.N. peace process.

It was, sadly, a fitting climax for the “Geneva consultations,” a hotly anticipated, thrice-delayed series of meetings between diplomats and representatives of some of the key factions in Yemen’s crisis. The Geneva consultations were touted as a first step in brokering a compromise between the factions loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthis, along with supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who are fighting alongside the rebels) — seemingly the only way to de-escalate a conflict that has plunged already impoverished Yemen into a deepening humanitarian disaster.

However, the sides failed even to meet at the same table during their time in Geneva. Both delegations have now departed the city and, while most agree that a new round of talks is a foregone conclusion, there’s little indication of when they will happen or what form they will take.

The underpinnings of Yemen’s war arguably date back years. But the current conflict was sparked by Hadi’s flight from Yemen following the Houthis’ takeover of the bulk of the country, in addition to their provocative use of the Yemeni air force to strike Hadi’s Aden home and their decision to launch military exercises just south of the border with Saudi Arabia. It was given a new regional dimension by the decision of a number of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, to carry out airstrikes against Houthi-linked targets in the country while imposing an air and sea blockade. The bombing campaign, the fighting on the ground, and the blockade have amounted to a perfect storm that has left the country spiraling toward anarchy.

Furious diplomatic efforts in the months since the start of the conflict have failed to slow the pace of disintegration. The Houthis, buoyed by allied military and tribal forces, have actually gained ground since the airstrikes began. Hadi’s government has dug in its heels as well, openly backing the strikes while demanding to be recognized as Yemen’s sole legitimate political force despite its exile in Riyadh — and the lack of support that Hadi and his inner circle command on the ground.

In truth, the failure of the U.N.-brokered talks was unsurprising. Neither side arrived in Geneva fully prepared, and both still seem to believe they were winning the war, making compromise unlikely. The Hadi delegation, benefiting from the backing of the Gulf states and international recognition, openly declared that its aim was to demand the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which demands that the Houthis withdraw from all land they’ve seized and recognize Hadi as president. For the Houthis and their allies, such demands are a non-starter: They remain the most powerful force in Yemen, particularly as Hadi and his Yemeni allies have only tepid support from anti-Houthi factions, many of which reject his legitimacy as president.

The back-and-forth was far from new. But the setting was.

“This is the story,” remarked a friend reporting on the consultations. “The Houthis: from Saada to Geneva.”

As the press pack’s general Beatlemania-esque reception of the Houthis suggested, he was spot on. The rebel group’s ascendance to the world stage was rarely as clear as when major media outlets swarmed around the Houthi delegation’s members during their public appearances. Once targets of one of the 21st century’s least covered conflicts — the war waged against them by Yemeni forces under the control of Saleh, their current ally, between 2004 and 2010 — they were now the main act in a veritable media circus.

For the international media, the talks provided a short-lived spectacle. For Yemeni friends and colleagues, however, their collapse will be more difficult to brush off. One friend, a Yemeni based in London, told me how his family members in the central city of Taiz — where the Houthis have been fighting against their local rivals in recent months — shared a single can of tuna for their first dinner of the holy month of Ramadan.

“They tried to mix in water to make it go farther,” he said, the resignation in his voice speaking volumes.

While Houthi delegates cracked jokes about the similarities between Geneva and their native Saada — both places of rugged mountains and vineyards — the discordance between placid, wealthy, and liberal Switzerland and impoverished, conservative Yemen at times was difficult to digest. The surroundings belied the disaster befalling the delegates’ home country. But even during the most quotidian of moments, reminders slipped through.

On June 17, I grabbed lunch at a mall near the Geneva airport with two Yemeni figures representing the Houthis and Saleh’s party. The war could not have seemed farther away: I felt as if I were in a dream, as figures from one part of my life were dropped into an atmosphere straight out of another.

The Houthi delegate, however, saw something different. As we waited for food, his eyes fixed on a man with a broken leg and crutches making his way through the food court.

“Was there a war here too?” he asked, the veil of bravura dropping from his face.

I wanted to explain to him Switzerland’s past, its now nearly forgotten history of religious conflict, and its policy of permanent neutrality, but I found myself unable to speak, simultaneously overwhelmed with sorrow for the lingering effects of previous conflicts and fear over what will be spawned in the years to come by the current war.

“No,” I responded.

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. He was based in Sanaa, Yemen between 2011 and 2014. @adammbaron.

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