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Peace deal for Yemen's south stumbles as Riyadh agreement deadline expires

The Riyadh agreement was signed by the government and southern separatists [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 December, 2019

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The Riyadh Agreement signed on November 5 stipulated the creation within 30 days of a new 24-member cabinet with equal representation for the southerners.

The Yemeni government and southern separatists have failed to meet a deadline to establish a power-sharing government, an ominous sign for hopes of a wider deal to end years of war.

In August trouble erupted as southern secessionists seized control of the city of Aden, the internationally recognised government's temporary capital.

The UAE - a key part of the Saudi-led coalition helping fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen's main conflict arena - trained and remains close to separatist troops, signalling rifts within the Gulf powers' intervention.

In a bid to end the "civil war within a war", Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing deal with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) under which the government would return to Aden.

The Riyadh Agreement signed on 5 November also stipulated the creation within 30 days of a new 24-member cabinet with equal representation for the southerners.

 

Yemen's prime minister Maeen Abdulmalik returned to the city last month but the new cabinet has yet to materialise, along with other key reforms including integrating secessionists into a central command structure.

'Very ambitious'

"The timeline of the Riyadh Agreement was always very ambitious. It is no surprise to see deadlines slip," Elisabeth Kendall, Yemen expert and senior research fellow at Oxford University, told AFP. 

"The bigger question is: are the promises simply being delayed, or are they ultimately not achievable?"

The two sides say they are committed to the Riyadh Agreement but have traded accusations over who is responsible for the failure to meet the deadline to form a new government.

STC spokesman Nizar Haitham said on Thursday that Yemen's government was "deviating" from the agreement and mobilising its troops in the south, an accusation the government denied.

However in recent days an STC official told AFP that work to implement the Riyadh Agreement was ongoing and that there has been "significant progress" in implementing military and security arrangements. 

"Starting next week, we'll begin steps in implementing what was agreed on," this source said in a written statement without elaborating.

According to government spokesman Rajih Badi, the secessionists are the ones failing to abide by the treaty. 

He said that government military movements in the south are in line with the Riyadh Agreement and in coordination with the Saudi coalition, which continues to lead the anti-Houthi camp comprised of both government and secessionist forces.

But although clashes in the south have largely subsided, the situation on the ground remains fragile, said Kendall. 

"This is a classic case of an agreement being easy to sign but near impossible to implement," she said.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Sanaa airport opening 'too little, too late'

Other parts of the deal, including placing forces from both sides under the authority of the defence and interior ministries, have also not been fulfilled. 

"The Riyadh Agreement erected a whole set of deadlines that, for starters, rely on very different Yemeni parties being wholly sincere in wanting and being able to share power in Aden," Neil Partrick, a London-based Middle East analyst, told AFP. 

"It's hugely ambitious just to hope to get a power-sharing deal to meaningfully hold up in Aden," he continued.

"But to see this as a basis for the sharing of power throughout the south and for then taking on the Houthis in the north, is possibly not even that serious."

Mohammed Bawzeer, an Aden resident, told AFP there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment in the city. 

"Deadlines have passed, and there is no change on the ground," he said. "We just see things getting worse and worse." 

Yemen's conflict, which has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions to the brink of famine, erupted in 2014 when the government was forced out of the capital Sanaa by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, triggering a Saudi-led military intervention.

Last week, Saudi Arabia signalled the possibility of calm in Yemen in a prelude to ending the four-year conflict, a state-owned media outlet reported on Friday.

Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir alluded to the possibility of peace when he spoke at a conference in Rome, according to Al-Arabiya.

"There is a possibility to calm down the situation that will be followed by a settlement in Yemen," Jubeir said.

His comments came after Riyadh released a group of Houthi prisoners last week – a step many saw as an attempt to end a war that has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and pushed millions to the brink of famine.  

Since 2015, more than 90,000 people have been killed and millions displaced by Yemen's conflict, which the UN has termed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

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