Riyadh (AFP): Top US diplomat John Kerry arrives in Saudi Arabia later on Wednesday to push for peace in Yemen after UN-brokered talks collapsed despite world concern over mounting civilian casualties.
Over two days, Kerry is to meet Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and other Gulf ministers.
He will also meet UN Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Britain’s Under Secretary of State for the Middle East Tobias Ellwood.
The kingdom leads an Arab coalition that began air raids in March last year and later sent in ground forces to support Yemen’s internationally recognised government after Huthi Shiite rebels and their allies overran much of the country.
As the civilian death toll continues to climb, the kingdom has faced mounting criticism from human rights groups.
But there is little expectation of a breakthrough from Kerry’s latest visit to the kingdom.
Peter Salisbury, associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, told AFP there is “mounting pressure” from certain groups within the US government to see the war ended as soon as possible.
“However, the Americans are limited in their ability to produce a meaningful political settlement.”
He said the current international approach, relying on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, essentially demands surrender by the rebels who control the capital Sanaa.
“Demanding that they surrender unconditionally simply isn’t going to work and my expectation is that, in a best case scenario, we will see many more months of war,” Salisbury said.
He added that neither the rebels nor the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi is willing to make the necessary concessions for a peace deal.
Seventeen months after the coalition intervened, anti-rebel forces have regained territory but the Huthis still control most of the interior highlands and Red Sea coast.
In the southwest, government forces are battling to break a rebel siege of Taez, Yemen’s third city.
Riyadh says the Huthis are backed by its regional rival Iran.
Coalition-supported pro-government forces are also fighting Al-Qaeda jihadists who have exploited Yemen’s power vacuum to expand their presence in the south and southeast.
– Civilians suffer -For civilians in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country even before the war escalated early last year, the humanitarian situation “continues to deteriorate”, the UN says.
More than 6,600 people, roughly half of them civilians, have been killed, while millions lack food, clean water and adequate healthcare.
US officials have repeatedly urged their major Middle East ally to avoid harming non-combatants.
A diplomatic source in Riyadh said it is “becoming increasingly clear” that elements of the US administration are alarmed by the civilian death toll.
Most recently, the State Department expressed deep concern after 19 people died in an August 15 air raid on a hospital supported by the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity.
As well as providing precision-guided bombs, American forces have assisted the coalition with aerial refuelling and intelligence, although they have slashed the number of advisers directly supporting the coalition.
Yemeni diplomatic sources said the US wants a deal on Yemen before the end of the year and will insist on the resumption of peace talks.
After making no headway, Ould Cheikh Ahmed on August 6 suspended the talks in Kuwait for one month, which triggered an escalation in fighting.
Negotiations ended after the Huthis and forces loyal to their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, appointed a council to govern Yemen.
The move directly challenged Hadi’s government, which works from Riyadh and Yemen’s second city Aden.
The diplomatic source in Riyadh said he expected a push in Jeddah for new peace talks.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what the Saudis want as well,” the source said.
The problem is that “there’s no clear mechanism” for a way forward, he added.
Salisbury said the talks should be broadened beyond the rebels and government to include groups in the south who want its pre-1990 independence restored.
That, he said, “would send the message that peace in Yemen will be inclusive, not something agreed purely along the lines of elite interests.”
Kerry arrives from Nigeria and Kenya on a trip focused on counterterrorism.
In Saudi Arabia, he will also discuss the conflict in Syria, in which the kingdom has taken part in US-led air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group, the State Department said.