A UN conference scheduled to be held in Geneva next week could decide the fate of war-torn Yemen.
Officials representing the country’s rival political factions will meet on June 14 to help negotiate an end to months of fighting.
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Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, has been working closely with members of the United Nations Security Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council, governments in the region and other partners to end the conflict.
A veteran diplomat with several high-profile UN posts, Ould Cheikh Ahmed served as head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, deputy head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, and humanitarian coordinator and UN Development Programme resident representative in Syria.
Al Jazeera spoke to Ould Cheikh Ahmed on the importance of the forthcoming Geneva peace talks.
Al Jazeera: Which parties will be attending the Geneva conference?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed: We have allocated seven seats for both sides and expect representatives from the Houthis and the General People’s Congress (GPC) party; as well as the Socialists, the Nasserites and Islah party.
The government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi will also be in attendance with a strong voice, calling for legitimacy and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 , which calls for the unconditional end to the violence.
Al-Qaeda was present in Yemen well before the current crisis. Unfortunately, just like in Syria and Iraq, the biggest loser is always the civilian population and the beneficiary is extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
Al Jazeera: What was required to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed: The Houthis have been willing partners and made it clear they would attend any talks brokered by the UN – provided the talks were not held in a country taking part in [Saudi-led coalition] air strikes.
The only reason they stayed away from the talks in Riyadh was because of Saudi Arabia’s lead role in the coalition.
Al Jazeera: Have you reached out to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : I have not met Ali Abdullah Saleh. I have been in contact with his colleagues from the GPC party and they have been a helpful partner.
I, as well as the UN, are open to discussions with whomever can bring peace to Yemen.
Al Jazeera: What are you doing to satisfy the demands of both the Houthis and Saudi Arabia?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : The coalition, made up of the Houthis and Saleh, have been insisting on a ceasefire before the start of any discussions. On the other side [representatives of Hadi], have been calling for the implementation of Resolution 2216 before talks commence.
We’ve told both factions to come to the negotiating table, without any conditions and discuss both items.
I’ve said that there will be a ceasefire provided the Houthis start withdrawing, which is the first stage of the implementation of Resolution 2216. This is how we plan to satisfy both sides.
Al Jazeera: How do you plan to settle a conflict that has a much wider political context?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : We are consulting all parties. We have met with the Saudis, Iranians, Omanis and Qataris; however, it is important to remember that this started within Yemen, a group of Yemenis decided to take the capital by force, and this conflict can only be sorted by Yemenis.
We have arranged this meeting in Geneva for June 14 so that Yemenis can meet in one room and discuss [the conflict] between themselves.
This is a purely Yemeni affair. The Iranians have not been invited, nor have any other country.
Al Jazeera: What role has Iran played in the conflict?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : I have spoken to the Iranians and so far their role has been very positive. They have repeatedly offered humanitarian assistance.
They initially wanted to send an aid ship to the port city of Hodeida but after consultation they redirected their vessel to Djibouti.
Regarding claims that Iran has been backing the Houthis – this is something I am not prepared to talk about as it is something I cannot prove.
Al Jazeera: Al-Qaeda has expanded its footprint in the south and its influence is growing in other parts of the country. How do you plan to curb the group’s offensive?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : Al-Qaeda was present in Yemen well before the current crisis. Unfortunately, just like in Syria and Iraq, the biggest loser is always the civilian population and the beneficiary is extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
It’s very important that when an agreement is reached, Yemen’s national army will be better able to address this threat.
Al Jazeera: Has this conflict done irreparable damage to the fabric of Yemen and could we see a conflict along sectarian lines?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : I’m optimistic that Yemen will remain unified. The conflict has not reached a point of no return. Yemenis are very tolerant and despite the differences between the Zaidis and the Shafis, it has not reached a dead end.
This is why we need people to return to the negotiating table and help work to avoid sectarianism and the division between north and south.
Al Jazeera: Is the UN still pushing for Yemen to be broken up into a six-region federal system?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : All of the factions we have spoken to say we need to revisit the plan of dividing the country into six regions and start anew.
They say the six region system was not handled appropriately by the government. However, since this is a particularly sensitive issue, we will leave it to the Yemenis to deliberate among themselves.
It is an issue which has a profound effect on the south and is linked to the Houthis’ grievances. It’s a discussion that will happen, not in the first stage of talks, but it has to happen.
Al Jazeera: Your predecessor, Jamal Benomar, has been blamed for failing to listen to the Houthis. What do you plan on doing differently?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : I intend to listen to all parties and to take into account their grievances. The Houthis are Yemenis and they deserve to be heard, but they cannot force or intimidate others. This is a point I have raised with them.
Also, the GCC will have to play a pivotal role in rebuilding Yemen. The biggest contribution will come from the GCC, that’s why I insist on the GCC initiative.
I have been coordinating very closely with Dr Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary-general of the GCC, and Dr Saleh al-Qunaieer, the GCC’s special envoy to Yemen; they are important partners in the reconstruction of Yemen.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the talks can lead to an end in hostilities?
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : Geneva is a breakthrough, if it happens, it can lead to a new dynamic, an end to this conflict.
Ould Cheikh Ahmed : This is what I hope for. The country is facing a dire humanitarian crisis with more than 20 million people, 80 percent of the population, in need of aid. We also know from experience that a humanitarian pause will be a conducive environment for political dialogue.
We have been talking very closely with the Saudis on the issue of humanitarian assistance. The current situation is not good and we expect more and for the situation to improve.
The five-day humanitarian pause brought a lot of assistance to the people of Yemen. However the regions of Taiz, Aden and Ad-Dali received much less help than expected. Our priority is addressing the crisis in Saada, Taiz, Aden and Ad-Dali; areas that are in urgent need of assistance.
Follow Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos