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Middle East

Yemen - pinning hopes on a ceasefire

Fighting in the country is set to cease for the next 72 hours. But it is anyone's guess if it will lead to peace talks.

"False information," a spokesman from the Saudi-led international coalition said, had triggered an attack on a funeral procession in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in early October. Some 140 people were killed in the ordeal, and more than 500 were injured. The spokesman went on to say that Yemeni allies had given the coalition inaccurate information about the funeral and those in attendance. Apparently, the Saudis suspected that high-ranking Houthis were among the mourners.

The justification was met with reservation, largely because it illustrated just how ruthlessly coalition forces allied with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who himself fled to Saudi Arabia, have been dealing with their enemies. It seems that the suspected presence of a few leading Houthi rebels is enough reason to mercilessly attack a group of several hundred people from the air, people gathered for a funeral no less.

"We never thought that they would attack a funeral," one survivor told "The New York Times" newspaper.

'Principles, values and interests'

The attack forced the United States, the most important partner in the coalition of mainly Arab states, to react. Washington will immediately review its support of the coalition, said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. Future cooperation should be more closely aligned with US "principles, values and interests," he explained. Shortly thereafter, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for a ceasefire.

Speaking in New York earlier this week, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced just that. The cessation of hostilities, he said, would begin shortly before midnight on October 19. The ceasefire will last for 72 hours but may be extended.

Jemen Begräbnis von Abdul Qader Helal Bürgermeister von Sanaa (Reuters/K. Abdullah)

Fury after the attack on a funeral procession: Houthi protesters in Sanaa

Extension possible, but not guaranteed

It cannot be known if the ceasefire will hold, as Vincent Durac, Middle East expert at the School of Politics & International Relations in Dublin, told DW in an interview. One aspect that may point to success is the fact that the conflict has apparently come to a standstill. The Saudi-led, US-backed coalition has been under increasing pressure, especially since the attack on the funeral procession. Their adversaries, the Houthis, have also suffered a number of setbacks. They still control northern Yemen and will not leave their positions, "but there is a certain fatigue on both sides, and that could lead each to the conclusion that continued fighting will not create new advantages," said Durac.

The war in Yemen has been raging for one-and-a-half years. The fact that the Saudi-led coalition has made little progress, despite its modern, US-supplied weaponry, is no doubt something that has been registered with a certain uneasiness in Riyadh. Following the partial cooling of relations with Washington, the monarchy, which has been under US protection for decades, not only wanted to come to the aid of President Mansour Hadi in the conflict; it also sought to demonstrate its own strength and capacity for action.

But that is exactly what the kingdom has failed to do. It was unable to find enough allies for its Yemen campaign, and the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea did not send enough ground troops to take care of the "dirty work," as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it. The kingdom also declined to send in its own ground troops. Carnegie Endowment experts suspect Saudi Arabia's 31-year-old defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, may consider further fighting pointless.

Saudi Arabien Mohammed bin Salman Verteidigungsminister (picture-alliance/abaca/O. Douliery)

Saudi Arabia's determined young defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman

On the other hand, the House of Saud may feel obliged to keep fighting in order to meet the expectations that it has stirred domestically.

"It would be very easy to see the ceasefire, especially from the Saudi side, as a temporary compromise resulting from outside pressure," said Durac. "They could use the ceasefire as a way to signal to their partners, above all Great Britain and the United States, that they are aware of the problems created by carpet bombing."

That would mean that Saudi Arabia would continue fighting but it could present itself as enlightened to the outside world, Durac added.  

Major diplomatic difficulties

Should both sides decide to extend the ceasefire, or even begin peace negotiations, they would be confronted with major diplomatic challenges. The Houthis felt they were underrepresented in the government of President Mansour Hadi. They bemoaned the neglect of regions in the north and east of the country, where they make up a majority of the population, before the outbreak of hostilities.

Jemen Sanaa Huthi Kämpfer (Reuters/M. al-Sayagh)

Just as determined: Houthi fighters

Should both sides agree to talks, such issues would no doubt be brought to the table. More than anything, however, the Houthis will push for, or perhaps even demand, the resignation of Mansour Hadi. Durac expects that such demands could make negotiations difficult if not impossible. Yet even if the president engages in peace talks, other points will no doubt lead to serious problems.

"New elections must be held, and they must deliver a government that is ready to deal seriously with calls for autonomy from the citizens in the North and in the South," said Durac. "That is what it comes down to."

Solutions may be made more likely thanks to international pressure. The United Nations can hardly be interested in having yet another failed, or failing, state on its hands alongside Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

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