Commentary

A Window of Opportunity for Peace in Yemen?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Two recent developments have changed the dynamic of the ongoing conflict in Yemen. First, the Houthi rebels agreed to negotiate with the government to reach a peaceful end to the violence. The negotiations have been taking place for almost two weeks now, though progress has been slow. Second, Arab troops led by Saudi Arabia and its allies have scored, by their account, an important victory against al-Qaeda forces in the Yemeni city of Al Mukalla. There is hope that Yemen may now benefit from a window of opportunity for returning to a modicum of stability. But the Saudis and others in the region hope that the developments will also reverse Iranian encroachment in their neighborhood.

Reports of the killing of 800 Al Qaeda fighters in the city of Al Mukalla have been touted by various dailies, including this Khaleej Times editorial, to underscore the determination of the Arab countries to push back against the threat of terrorism in the region and the importance of stabilizing Yemen: “When the Arab coalition led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia entered Al Mukalla and drove out Al Qaeda terrorists, (800 militants were also killed) they were sending out a message that no brand of terrorism would be tolerated in Yemen..... Recent military gains in Yemen have enabled the Hadi government to start work from Aden, but the challenge is to provide aid to the suffering in affected regions of the country, which has seen nothing but benumbing violence over decades. For enduring peace, terror groups of every hue must be wiped out. Infrastructure must be rebuilt from scratch and Yemenis have a right to enjoy the fruits of prosperity long denied to them by seekers of hate....Now, the Arab coalition have a firm footing in the area - they are positioned to fight militancy on all fronts. It shows determination and resolve to get the job done. More importantly, it is a display of Arab military might. Terror groups have no place to hide in Yemen.”

Some observers have used the military success to burnish the credentials of their respective countries in the war against terrorists. For example, a recent Gulf Today editorial praises the government of the UAE for having played “a gracious role in Operation Restoring Hope with a view to rebuild and develop Yemen, and help brothers in Yemen to restore their normal lives and to build schools, hospitals and entire infrastructure. What gives increased hope of peace returning fast to Yemen is the pledge by coalition countries participating in the operation to continue the policy of chasing terrorist organizations out of all Yemeni cities, defeating them and depriving them of a safe haven until the return of security and stability in the region.”

Similarly, the Gulf News editorial team suggests that the battle for Al Mukalla proves the importance of the Saudi-led intervention for a peaceful Yemen, while warning against rejoicing too soon and abandoning Yemen without strengthening it against future threats: “With Al Houthi rebels now finally willing to talk peace, the Saudi-led international coalition that intervened militarily in Yemen to restore the government...can now focus on eradicating those terrorist elements from its strongholds....Regaining Al Mukalla sends a clear message to Al Qaida and others that there is no place in Yemen, or indeed anywhere else in this region, for those who terrorize, plot, murder, extort and scheme to spread lawlessness and hatred....The liberation of Al Mukalla is a good days’ work, but there are other challenges now. Those will be met and the people of Yemen will never be abandoned.”

The National’s editorial turns its attention to the ongoing negotiations which are taking place in Kuwait between the Houthi rebels and Yemen’s government, pointing out that the success against Al Qaeda provides much needed breathing space for both parties: “The retaking of Mukalla is a serious blow to Aqap [al-Qaeda] and represents an important victory for the coalition in Yemen. By denying militants a gathering place, the coalition is ensuring that the group cannot gather, train or plot attacks. Aqap is now on the run once again. This latest move, coupled with the diplomatic track currently under way in Kuwait, shows the importance of both words and actions....As important as it is to pursue a diplomatic track in Kuwait with the Houthis, it is also important to act against Aqap. There can be no negotiation with terror groups – and the Middle East has seen with ISIL how quickly a small group can spread, gain territory and launch attacks. Neither the Yemenis nor the UAE can allow that to happen.”

There are those who argue also that success on the battlefield will strengthen the hand of the Yemeni government in negotiating a peace deal with the Houthis and in particular in diminishing Iran’s role in the region: “The rebels in Yemen have realised that there's no way out of the mess they have created in the country than to talk to the Gulf and Arab coalition, who are making gains militarily. The south of the country is firmly with the Arab forces, and there is pressure on the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Al Saleh to give peace a chance by sitting across the table. There is an opportunity to find a negotiated settlement in Kuwait, and the Houthi delegation should see the writing on the wall....The GCC coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had enough of Iranian meddling in the region through their proxies. Yemen was the last straw and the campaign to oust Tehran's proxy from Yemen has lasted 13 months....Playing truant like they did in the past will not help, nor will it be tolerated. Yemen needs a new and better deal, for its people who have suffered many travails. This is a chance to wipe away their tears and help them rebuild their lives.”

Whether the negotiations are likely to be successful in securing that peace or not is anybody’s guess. The National Yemen’s reporter Fakhri Al-Arashi has been following the negotiations closely and only recently has begun expressing some hope that in fact they may be finally paying off: “The UN special envoy to Yemen said Tuesday that warring parties have agreed to a framework for talks that will open the way for extensive negotiations to end the conflict. The announcement came after Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, whose country is hosting the talks, met with the two delegations separately and urged them to reach a peaceful solution. It also came a day after the UN Security Council urged all sides in the negotiations to be constructive.”


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