A new ceasefire enters into effect in Yemen midnight Sunday, with the United Nations hoping it can be the cornerstone of a long-lasting peace deal at upcoming talks in Kuwait.
Analysts are optimistic after mediation efforts have largely silenced the guns along the border with Saudi Arabia, which is leading a pro-government coalition that has bombed Huthi rebels and their allies since March 2015.
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“For the first time, the groups that can end major military operations, particularly the Saudis and the Huthis, appear to be more willing to do so,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group.
The Iran-backed Huthis and Saudi Arabia exchanged prisoners in March after unprecedented talks mediated by tribes along the frontier, where dozens have been killed in cross-border shelling.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir confirmed Monday that a Huthi delegation was in Riyadh for talks.
And Huthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam announced Tuesday “an agreement on the continuation of the lull at the border and on stopping military operations in some provinces of Yemen.”
This agreement may “lead to a total cessation of military actions in the country and open up clear prospects for inter-Yemeni dialogue in Kuwait,” Abdulsalam said.
The Saudi-led intervention against the rebels has drawn strong criticism over heavy civilian casualties and prompted discreet Western pressure on Riyadh to find an exit from the deadly conflict.
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The United States has even seen the intervention as limiting the participation of its Gulf partners in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State miliatant group in Syria and Iraq.
“We recognise that the focus on Yemen over these last months has detracted in some sense from the ability of the Gulf states to participate in the military components of the coalition,” a US official said Wednesday, as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Bahrain for a visit.
A presidency statement on Tuesday expressed a “sincere desire to make peace”, announcing the arrival in Kuwait of representatives in a “de-escalation committee” set up by the United Nations to oversee the ceasefire.
The Saudi-led coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri had already announced in an interview with AFP in March that it was nearing the end of “major” military operations in Yemen.
This was quickly welcomed by Washington, which like humanitarian organisations has been voicing concern over the human cost of a conflict that the UN says has killed about 6,300 people — nearly half of them civilians.
Despite bouts of fierce fighting and frequent air raids, neither the coalition-backed loyalists, nor the rebels allied with troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, appear to have made significant advances on the ground.
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Loyalists pushed the rebels out of five southern provinces including Aden last summer with air and ground support from the coalition, but have since failed to secure the port city and other parts of the south where jihadists have gained ground.
Huthis, meanwhile, continue to control the capital Sanaa as well as large parts of the country’s north and west.
“Strong international pressure has been put on parties in the Yemeni conflict and their regional allies to cease hostilities and move towards a political settlement,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
Kerry on Thursday urged Iran to help end wars in Yemen and Syria.
Kahwaji added that, in attending talks in Riyadh, the Huthis have opted for a “unilateral settlement,” ignoring their ally Saleh.
The marginalisation of Saleh, who was ousted in 2012 after 33 years in office following nationwide protests, is likely to please Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and his Saudi backers, but the veteran leader could still hinder a political process.
Hadi himself is in an awkward position after his surprise sacking of deputy president and prime minister Khaled Bahah, who slammed the measure as a “coup d’etat” and accused the president of “abusing and obstructing the work of his government”.
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Ongoing fighting and the cabinet reshuffle just before negotiations kick off on April 18 “are only a few obstacles that could undermine the Kuwait talks”, said Alley.
“Even if major combat ends, the road to peace in Yemen will be long and difficult and internal conflict is likely to continue for some time,” she said.
A senior Saudi officer acknowledged the challenges ahead.
“Waging war is one thing. Stabilising a country is another. It doesn’t happen in a day. It’s not a football game,” he said.