ISIS militants have been doing their best to take advantage of the turmoil spread in Yemen, tentatively bringing closer Saudi-backed forces and Iran-allied Houthis at peace talks in Yemen’s civil war, but a deal seems unlikely in time to avert collapse into armed, feuding statelets.
Brutal conflict along Yemen’s northern border between Saudi Arabia and Iran-allied Ansurallah, a Shi’ite Muslim revival movement also called the Houthis, defied two previous attempts to seal a peace. But hope rekindled for a third round of talks after agreeing on a truce this year and prisoner exchanges.
ISIS, being a common threat to both sides is galvanizing efforts. The terrorist organization appears to be behind a dizzying uptick in suicide attacks and al Qaeda fighters continue to hold sway over broad swathes of the country that neighbors Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Thursday the kingdom sought to prioritize fighting militants in Yemen over its desultory arm-wrestle with entrenched Houthi insurgents.
“Whether we agree or disagree with them, the Houthis are part of the social fabric of Yemen … The Houthis are our neighbors. Al Qaeda and Daesh are terrorist entities that must be confronted in Yemen and everywhere else,” Jubeir tweeted, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The Yemeni conflict which erupted over a year ago has killed at least 6,200 people – half of them civilians – and sent nearly three million people fleeing for safety. After all the attempts to a reach peaceful solution, the conflict remains largely stalemated and hostilities continue.
If the parties seize the opportunity, an unlikely new status quo may reign by which Houthis and Saudis work together for peace.
“This could mean a massive re-ordering of Yemen’s political structure, and the conflict so far has already produced some strange bedfellows,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The Houthis ousted the internationally recognized government in 2014 in what it hailed as a revolution but which Sunni Gulf Arab countries decried as a coup benefiting Shi’ite rival Iran.
Pounding the Houthis and their allies in Yemen’s army with air strikes beginning on March of 2015, a Saudi-led alliance soon deployed ground troops and rolled back their enemies toward Sanaa, held by the Houthis.
Of the countries where pro-democracy “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011 ultimately led to outright combat, Yemen’s United Nations-sponsored peace process arguably shows the most promise.
Unlike with Libya and Syria, representatives of Yemen’s warring sides meet daily in Kuwait and argue over how to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions and share power. However, implementing these talks on ground remains a distant dream.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi accused the Houthis of resisting a U.N. Security Council Resolution from last April to disarm and vacate main cities.
“There is a wide gap in the debate, we are discussing the return of the state … they are thinking only of power and demanding a consensual government,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
A diplomatic source in Kuwait said that through the fog of rhetoric, a general outline of a resolution has been reached.
“There is an agreement on the withdrawal from the cities and the (Houthi) handover of weapons, forming a government of all parties and preparing for new elections. The dispute now only centers around where to begin,” the source said.
All parties will be aware the danger of a collapse into feuding statelets is growing. The Houthis are deepening control over what remains of the shattered state it seized with the capital in 2014.
Footage of the graduation ceremony of an elite police unit last week showed recruits with right arms upraised in an erect salute, barking allegiance not just to Yemen but to Imam Ali and the slain founder of the Houthi movement – a move critics say proves their partisan agenda for the country.
The tranquility amid the gardens and burbling fountains of the Kuwaiti emir’s palace hosting the talks have not impressed residents of Yemen’s bombed-out cities, who despair whether armed groups can ever be reined in.
“All the military movements on the ground suggest the war will resume,” said Fuad al-Ramada, a 50-year old bureaucrat in the capital Sanaa.