Failure of Yemen peace talks opens way to escalation

Failure of Yemen peace talks opens way to escalation

Houthi followers demonstrate to show rejection to an offer by the Saudi-led coalition to pay compensations for victims of an air strike in Saada, Yemen September 5, 2018. REUTERS

The collapse of UN efforts to organise peace talks between the Yemeni government and rebels is likely to lead to an escalation in the country's war, analysts say.

Long-awaited talks between the Saudi-backed government and Huthi rebels linked to Iran were set to start Thursday but failed to take place.

The Huthis, armed ribesmen from northern Yemen, refused to leave Sanaa to attend the talks, saying the UN had failed to guarantee the return of their delegation from Geneva to the Yemeni capital and to secure the evacuation of wounded rebels to Oman.

With hopes of political conciliation dashed, experts fear both the rebels and Saudi-backed troops will turn to more violence.

"We will almost certainly see a military escalation, as the initial failure of Geneva will deepen the Saudi-led coalition's conviction that only further losses on the battlefield will cause the Huthis to compromise," said Graham Griffith, senior analyst at the UAE-based consultancy Control Risks.

"However, the military campaign is likely to be hampered by the additional scrutiny the coalition is facing over its conduct in the war," he added.

The Saudi-led coalition has drawn heavy international criticism for the high civilian death toll from its more than three-year-old bombing campaign in Yemen.

Coalition commanders have admitted a small number of mistakes but accuse the rebels of routinely using civilians as human shields.

The head of the Huthi rebels, for his part, on Saturday issued a message of defiance.

"Our choice is steadfastness and resistance to aggression," said Abdulmalik al-Huthi. "We must move on all fronts to recruit for our defence." The Geneva talks were abandoned on Saturday as fresh fighting broke out on the ground.

Analysts say the failure to bring Yemeni representatives to the summit, which would have been the first since lengthy talks in Kuwait collapsed in 2016, will only raise mistrust between the government and rebels.

"The peace talks did not begin, and because there is no peace process to be considered that means there are fewer constraints in place for the behaviour of both sides on the ground," said security and defence analyst Aleksandar Mitreski.

"While there is mistrust between the actors, as much as there is in any conflict of this kind, I believe the failure of the peace process is due to the imbalance of power between the two sides," said Mitreski, researcher at the University of Sydney.

Yemen's government on Saturday accused UN envoy Martin Griffiths of defending the rebels.

Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani criticised Griffiths for "appeasing" the Huthis by refusing to lay blame for the failure of the talks squarely on their shoulders.

"The UN, unfortunately, does not have the capability to be the equaliser," said Mitreski. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, triggering what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Griffiths is UN's third Yemen envoy since 2014, when Huthis overran the capital and drove Hadi's government into exile. All previous attempts to resolve the conflict have failed.

The envoy said Saturday he would travel to Muscat and Sanaa in the coming days to lay the groundwork for future talks, but hinted he might initially engage in separate discussions with the two sides.

He said it was "too early to say when the next round of consultations will take place".

Complicating things further, fighting has flared again around the vital rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida, the entry point for some 70 percent of Yemen's imports including food and aid, after a temporary ceasefire was declared by the Saudi-led coalition in June.

Government forces on Friday launched another attempt to close in on Hodeida, which had been expected to be one of the main topics of discussion in Geneva.

"The next month or two may be critical for fighting over the control of Hodeida. The military operation... could continue since nothing in the political process has changed," said Mitreski.

"The only concern for the Saudi-led coalition remains to manage the reaction of the international community." 

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