As peace talks started in Switzerland on 15 December, there was uncertainty about whether a ceasefire that was due to come into effect in Yemen on the same day would prove durable. The warring parties have been pushed into negotiations by international pressure to deal with the escalating humanitarian problems, the high number of civilian casualties, and the spread of extremist groups like Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group (IS). It is likely that they will agree on a few practical steps to provide relief and exchange prisoners, but no profound solutions to the underlying conflict can currently be expected.
The ceasefire could be extended, if it lasts long enough, but the combatants are not yet ready for serious negotiations. The best hope is that these talks will provide a process that may eventually lead to a peace agreement, but this will require compromises that neither side is yet ready to concede. The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition has failed to take Ta’izz and the Huthis, along with their allies who are loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have failed to force the coalition to halt its offensive.
Preparations continue for an advance on Sana’a by coalition forces in Marib, with signs that Saudi-led efforts to win the support of key tribes are starting to pay off. The Huthis have launched bigger attacks across the border into Saudi Arabia, and are trying to do more to administer the areas of Yemen that they control. There are still relatively few coalition forces on the front lines, leaving the fighting to local groups and Yemenis trained in Saudi Arabia. The UAE appears to have deployed its ‘foreign legion’ – revealed by the death of several Latin Americans and others.
The assassination of the governor of Aden, Ja’afar Muhamad Sa’ad, on 5 December exposed the serious security problems in the south. This has led to the appointment of a tough resistance commander from Dhala as his replacement, who is also a leading figure in the southern independence movement ‘al-Hirak’. Abu Dhabi, which sees itself as being responsible for stabilising the south, seems to have influenced this decision. President Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi is back in Aden but his ineffectiveness and concern to protect his personal position have led to widespread criticism of his leadership and tensions in his relations with his deputy Khaled Bahah.
AQAP and IS are showing increasing boldness and ability to move freely in south and central Yemen where they exploit the security vacuum, poverty, and the availability of weapons to build their organisations and capacities. They will continue to expand as long as the coalition forces are fighting the Huthis and not these terrorists.
Relief agencies have issued stark warnings about the precariousness of the humanitarian situation, and Western governments and the media are reporting growing concerns about abuses of human rights by the coalition, which placed too much reliance on air power, and the Huthis, whose shelling has tended to be indiscriminate.