Yemen’s warring factions will meet for UN-sponsored talks in Geneva from Sunday in their first bid to break a deadlock after more than two months of Saudi-led air strikes.
Fourteen Yemeni representatives — seven from each side of the conflict pitting Iran-backed rebels against the internationally recognised government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and its allies — will take part in the talks in the Swiss city, expected to last two to three days.
Despite a fierce campaign of air strikes that has dealt heavy losses to the rebels, the Saudi-led coalition of mainly Arab nations has failed to alter the balance of power in Yemen or meet its goal of restoring the rule of the exiled Hadi.
And while the Shiite Huthi rebels have managed to hold on to territory they had seized, including the capital Sanaa, they have failed to expand their control across the entire country.
Analysts say that by agreeing to the talks, both sides have shown they are now looking for a way out.
“The war in Yemen, which is a civil war, has reached a deadlock,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, adding that he believed both sides were ready to “make concessions and achieve a result”.
Saudi Arabia launched the air war on March 26, as the rebels and their allies among forces loyal to ex-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh advanced on Hadi’s southern refuge in the city of Aden.
Hadi had fled house arrest in the capital, which the rebels seized unopposed in September, and was rushed to safety in Saudi Arabia as the Huthis closed in on Aden.
Analysts say the Saudi intervention was aimed at preventing the Sunni-dominated kingdom’s regional rival, Shiite power Iran, from gaining a foothold on its southern border.
– ‘Catastrophic’ situation –
The international community has backed Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate ruler and a UN resolution has demanded the rebels withdraw from the territory they have seized.
Hadi’s government, which will be represented in Geneva by Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin, insists the talks are merely “consultative” and aimed at implementing the UN resolution.
Huthi officials and members of Saleh’s party will represent rebel forces at the talks.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who will attend the opening session on Sunday, has urged all sides to head to Geneva without preconditions.
He said the talks were aimed at securing a ceasefire, agreeing on a withdrawal plan for the Huthis and stepping up humanitarian aid deliveries.
The United Nations has described the humanitarian situation in Yemen as “catastrophic”, saying that more than 2,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in fighting and raids since March.
More than half a million people have been forced from their homes and 80 percent of the already impoverished country’s population is in need of urgent aid.
A five-day ceasefire last month allowed aid agencies to reach civilians caught in the fighting but UN efforts to prolong the truce failed.
Sharqieh said that Saudi Arabia, which has shied away from talk of sending ground troops, was looking for a way to resolve the impasse.
“Two-and-a-half months after the start of the air campaign, the Saudis’ failures to make additional gains and their inability to wage a ground operation means that, for them, the war has approached its end,” he said.
The Huthis meanwhile have failed “to obtain the kind of support from Iran that would shift the equation” so are also looking for a way out, he said.
International powers are keen for a resolution to the conflict, fearing the growing power of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has taken advantage of the chaos to seize territory including the southeastern city of Mukalla.
Washington considers AQAP the extremist network’s deadliest branch and continues to regularly target its militants with armed drone strikes on Yemeni territory.
“There is a danger that the current war in Yemen could lead to long-term instability,” Sharqieh warned.