Switzerland's tranquil atmosphere has helped to bring about a number of historic peace agreements in the past, but it is doubtful that it will be effective when it comes to the United Nations talks scheduled to begin Tuesday, on a solution to the fighting in Yemen.
On Monday, less than 20 hours before the scheduled implementation of a UN-brokered cease-fire that was intended to prepare the ground for negotiations among various parties in a secret location in Switzerland – forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked the military base of the Saudi Arabia-lead coalition forces.
The attack, on the city of Taiz in the southwest part of the country, killed at least 60 people, including a Saudi colonel who was the commander of his country's special forces, as well as a senior army officer from the United Arab Emirates.
Houthi rebel forces, which are operating in cooperation with elements loyal to Saleh, launched the missile attack – the second bloodiest strike after one conducted by them in September.
In comparison to Syria, where the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), and Syrian President Bashar Assad, is finding it difficult to build up an effective ground force – or put their own boots on the ground – in Yemen the situation is very different. Sudanese, Emirati and Saudi soldiers are fighting there alongside mercenaries from South American nations, who are being funded by the UAE.
After 10 months of fighting, no resolution is on the horizon in Yemen. The government and Arab coalition forces may have succeeded in retaking the cities of Aden and Marib, but the rest of the country is still under the control of the Iranian-backed Houthis, while at least two provinces are under the thumb of Al-Qaidas Yemeni affiliate.
At the same time, ISIS is increasing its presence in the southern part of the country as well as in the capital of Sanaa, and members of the organization, which boasts at least three training bases in Yemen, are not afraid to appear in public with weapons.
As in Syria and Iraq, Yemen has become another country in which its civil war has turned into an international arena for conflicting foreign interests. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as the representatives of Iran, even though at the beginning of the Yemeni crisis the Iranians actually advised the Houthis not to attempt to conquer the entire country.
The general feeling is that the Houthis, who are in the main loyal to the Zaidi stream of Shia Islam, have naturally become an inseparable part of the Sunni-Shia struggle – although Houthis are considered to be a rather deviant Shia group. By contrast, their "partner" Saleh has declared a number of times that he belongs to Sunni's Shafii school, and even cooperated with the Saudis at one point in fighting Houthi rebels.
As a result of all this, depicting the war in Yemen as a religious and ideological struggle between Sunni and Shia may be convenient, but it is not accurate. It is a political and military campaign of control and influence, in which Saudi Arabia, which lost Syria and Iraq to Iranian influence, is now trying to preserve its power in Yemen as part of the struggle for regional hegemony. For its part, Iran sees Yemen as another possible stronghold in the region.
In the "outer circle" of involvement in this war are the Western powers, and the United States and Britain in particular, who have sold the Saudis billions of dollars of weapons and have very close ties with the Saudi royal family.
The paradox facing these powers exists in Yemen, too: The West wants to uproot Al-Qaida and ISIS throughout the entire Middle East, but although the Houthis could have served as an effective auxiliary force against these terror organizations – they have turned into an enemy of the West, due to pressure from the Saudis.
The paradox does not end here. The Saudis are suspected of supporting Al-Qaida in Yemen in order to strengthen that organization in its fight against the Houthis, while at the same time the United States continues to attack Al-Qaida bases in the southern part of the country.
This imbroglio of conflicting interests could very well damage the chances of reaching a negotiated diplomatic solution, especially in light of the complex social structure in Yemen, where familial and tribal loyalty strongly affects political considerations. Both sides come to the negotiating table with sky-high opening positions.
The internationally recognized president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, demands a Houthi withdrawal from all the territory its forces captured since the beginning of the fighting, and especially from Sanaa, which they conquered in September 2014. For their part, the Houthis are demanding prominent status in any government established in the future; apparently, the deposed president Saleh will insist on a key position that would grant him control over military forces and budgets.
The talks in Switzerland are now the hope of the some 26 million citizens of Yemen, most of whom are in dire straits: At least six provinces having been declared areas in serious medical and nutritional distress, and one-quarter of the country's medical facilities have been destroyed or shuttered.
The number of dead has been estimated in the tens of thousands since the crisis began in 2011, and over 6,000 people have been killed since March alone. International aid groups blame the Arab coalition, and in particular Saudi Arabia, for systematic bombings of civilian centers and have even demanded that Britain stop supplying the Saudis with weapons, after the Saudis prevented provision of humanitarian aid. But Yemeni citizens in need of such aid will have to wait in the long line of victims of war. After all, compared to the horrifying figures from Syria, where over a quarter of a million people have been killed – Yemen is just a marginal affair.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now