The 6th Istanbul Mediation Conference was held on Oct. 31, with the participation of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and other international ministers, ambassadors, policymakers, diplomats and representatives from many international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
In his opening speech, Çavuşoğlu stressed the importance of mediation as a crucial tool in tackling ongoing conflicts taking place around the world. "The need for effective mediation is greater than ever before; preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution have become more crucial," he said.
As a Yemeni journalist, the ongoing war in Yemen was over my head when it came to thinking about how mediation could end or at least help reduce the conflict in a country that is experiencing the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world today. In the first attempt, my memory brought up Yemen’s bad experience with mediation during the last two decades.
A big failure
In fact, Qatar, the U.N., the EU, the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have all failed multiple times to mediate in several conflicts in Yemen since 2004. Between 2004 and 2009, the Houthis fought six rounds of war against the government of Yemen, headed by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In June 2007, Qatari mediation efforts resulted in a joint cease-fire agreement, which broke down after only a few months. The February 2008 Doha Agreement envisioned a more comprehensive solution for the conflict, providing the Yemeni government would cooperate with the release of prisoners, grant amnesties and rebuild the war-torn areas with a $500-million grant from Qatar.
However, the agreement fell through in May 2009 when Saleh declared Qatari mediation a failure due to disagreements over the disbursement of reconstruction funds. Qatar then withdrew its promised investments and the fighting quickly resumed. This conflict ended after Saudi Arabia's direct military intervention, and the government of Yemen proposed a cease-fire in 2010.
In 2011, when the Arab uprisings reached Yemen, the GCC, alerted by the potential violent escalation of the Yemeni conflict into its immediate neighborhood, offered its mediation services, resulting in the foundation of the Gulf Initiative which demanded that Saleh step down in an exchange for immunity. It also envisioned the establishment of a unity government consisting of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the opposition parties.
In November 2011, the government and the opposition parties signed the U.N.-led Agreement on the Implementation Mechanism for the Transition Process in Yemen, which placed former Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in power as an interim president. It also included measures on security reform and transitional justice and created the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).
After the collapse of the NDC, which was rejected by both the Houthis and the Southern Movement, the security situation deteriorated rapidly; in early September 2014, former President Saleh and his military allies joined forces with the Houthis and managed to capture Sanaa.
As a last attempt to reverse the developments on the ground, the U.N., led by Special Envoy Jamal Ben Omar, brokered the Peace and National Partnership Agreement between Hadi and the Houthis. The new agreement was never implemented.
Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in March 2015 further complicated any potential mediation efforts. In April 2015, the U.N. appointed Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to replace Ben Omar.
The new U.N. Special Envoy’s mission was to convince the warring parties to resume the political process in accordance with the GCC Initiative and the NDC outcomes, but this attempt was rejected by the Houthis. Ahmed’s term saw the conclusion of five short-lived cease-fires and prisoner exchanges.
Four separate rounds of talks in 2015 and 2016 did not produce any tangible results. After the final set of talks in Kuwait in August 2016, the Houthis refused to engage in any subsequent mediation efforts for two years.
In September 2018, peace talks in Switzerland collapsed because the Houthi delegation refused to attend. They claimed the Saudi coalition prevented the delegations from traveling to the talks.
Then in December 2018, after a two-year deadlock, a third U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, initiated a new round of peace talks in Sweden, still based on U.N. Resolution 2216.
The government of Yemen and the Houthis signed the Stockholm agreement, which consists of agreements on the exchange of prisoners, a cease-fire in the port city of Hodeida, the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Taiz, and a handover of the three Red Sea ports – Hodeidah, al-Salif and Ras Isa – to the U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen. As of May 2019, no significant steps toward implementation have taken place.
What is next?
This recall of the mediation challenges in Yemen made me feel depressed and hopeless, and by the time I realized that I was still inside the conference room, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was giving his speech. “Mediation cannot wait for a military stalemate or a request for help. There is a need for mediation at all stages of the peace continuum, from prevention to peacekeeping, peacebuilding and development, including between parties to protracted conflicts,” he said. “This is it,” I shouted inside me.
Yes, Yemenis should not wait for a military stalemate to start mediation efforts; they should not cry over spilled milk but open new doors and make more efforts for peaceful resolutions.
There is a severe need to coordinate mediation efforts with the growing number of international and regional organizations, civil society groups and other Yemeni people who are not directly involved in the conflict, and this is where Turkey can do more solid work to solve the conflict in Yemen.
At the very beginning of 2019, Çavuşoğlu gave a clear message about Yemen: “Finding a solution to the Yemen issue will be one of Turkey's priorities in 2019." I think the time has come for Turkey to take a firm step toward finding a solution for the crisis in Yemen. In addition to pointing fingers at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and condemning their destructive intervention in Yemen, Turkey could start offering other solutions.
Taking into consideration the unique context of the war in Yemen and as the theme of the conference suggests, “Taking Stock and Looking Ahead,” Turkey can use its rich experience in mediation gained since 2010, when it launched the Mediation for Peace Initiative with Finland.
The Turkish initiatives
Over the past 10 years, Turkey has made critical contributions to mediation, which include its endeavors to bring about internal reconciliation in Iraq, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, as well as two separate trilateral cooperation processes launched with the participation of Serbia and Croatia to achieve lasting peace and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The constructive attitude Turkey adopted for the peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear program issue through dialogue, the role in the talks between Somalia and Somaliland, and the support to the peace process in South Philippines add to the list of its contributions.
Turkey’s mediation efforts in Yemen should be in the form of non-military and voluntary actions. At the local level in Yemen, Turkey has the chance to start plans that aim to raise awareness of the crucial need for a peaceful resolution, build the capacity of the next-generation mediators, and support and host programs for Yemeni peace seekers. Such actions will build an important base for more concrete results in the near future.
Despite the fact that Turkey announced its support for the Saudi operation in Yemen only a few days after the intervention began in March 2015, Ankara has condemned its actions in the last three years and began to cooperate with Riyadh's enemy Iran, the Houthis main supporter. Rather than take such approaches, Turkey still has the chance to and should play a mediation role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the main regional actors of the war in Yemen.
I think Turkey could do much more in Yemen by promoting and protecting Yemen’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity. It is much better for Turkey to stay neutral and facilitate mediation through one of three ways: supporting mediation through a third Yemeni player instead of the government and Houthis, assisting mediation between the competing parties, or playing the mediator role between the regional actors of the war in Yemen.