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Bilal Ahmed, associate editor of, says US pressure and advancement of the Islamic State could be behind the timing of the peace talks between the Houthi rebels and the Saudis

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Over a year of fighting in Yemen between the Houthi rebels and the government forces has killed about 6,000 people, and internally displaced over 365,000 people. Amid deteriorating health conditions and shortages in supplies, a seven-day ceasefire was called for by the Saudi-led forces, and it took effect on Tuesday. This comes after Saudi-led air strikes killed 19 Yemeni civilians just days before. Yemen’s warring parties are holding closed door talks in Switzerland, where they agreed on Wednesday to exchange hundreds of prisoners in an effort to move forward with the talks. Let’s have a look at what the UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had to say. ISMAIL OULD CHEIKH AHMED: I have been strongly encouraging the parties to work on confidence-building measures, including implementing a ceasefire, the releasing of prisoners, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian supplies, that would constitute positive steps, and therefore to lessen tensions and ease the path to a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Yemen. PERIES: Now joining us from London to discuss all of this is Bilal Ahmed. Bilal is an associate editor of He’s also a Ph.D. student at SOAS at the University of London. Bilal, good to have you back on the Real News. BILAL AHMED: It’s good to be here. PERIES: So Bilal, as I said in the intro, almost 6,000 people have been killed, and so many, 365,000 people displaced according to the UN. And 80 percent of Yemen’s population is in need of basic humanitarian aid and supplies. So it’s obvious that the ceasefire is coming at this time, obviously, to help the people displaced. But politically, what’s really going on? AHMED: Well, I think that what we need to reflect on is the fact that the White House is probably putting quite a lot of pressure on the Saudi government to resolve this issue, given the fact that the civil war has provided a vacuum in which groups like Islamic State as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can assert themselves in Yemen. The White House’s primary concern in Yemen has always been about terrorism and countering terrorist groups in the country. And this has always outweighed its concerns for the Yemeni political situation in terms of substantive democracy. And I think this is the main thing that is going on, and I think this continues to be its primary guidance in diplomatic pressure for the Saudi-led coalition. And it is dominantly Saudi Arabia to resolve this issue, and I think that a large part of what’s going on is that these various forces have just come to a head. And I think there, we need to pay attention to the fact that there has been indications of diplomatic pushes for solutions to conflicts in Libya and Syria as well. Syria is now incorporating something of an overt armed intervention from numerous coalition forces. So as a result of that you probably have a regionwide push for a resolution to many of these issues that are rooted in armed conflicts that resulted after the beginning of the Arab Spring. PERIES: Now, do we have any evidence of the IS’s infiltration into Yemen? AHMED: There is evidence that–well, it some extent has been posting attacks recently. I think, personally I think part of what’s happening is that the U.S.-led drone strikes program has resulted in a situation where many al-Qaeda fighters are still able to assert themselves within the country. But however, they are not, have not been able to do so with certain leadership apparatuses, which have been threatened and destroyed by the drone strikes. But that leaves many of their resources and many of their infrastructural capabilities, and many of their demands in terms of expertise more or less intact. So what, all that’s really happening right now, and I think the White House is well aware of this, is that Islamic State is able to mobilize and appropriate many of those energies in order to leverage them against the, um, the new Yemeni government, or whoever will take power in Sana’a, or whatever forces they do wish to target during this ongoing civil war. PERIES: Right. Now, on Tuesday the Saudis made an announcement that there’s been a joint 20-member state Islamic alliance formed in order to fight terrorism. Tell us a little bit about that formation, and why it has come about. AHMED: Well, that formation is most–once again, you have a Saudi-led coalition that’s mostly Saudi Arabia. And I think that’s important to note, that part of what’s happening is that Saudi Arabia is attempting to operate with respect to its own interest and with respect to the interest of the Gulf monarchies in general, with something of an international respectability and international cooperation. But that risks obfuscating and mystifying what’s actually going on, which I think is important. However, I also think that part of what’s happening is that you have a very large military mobilization going on in Yemen right now between Saudi Arabia and its allies, although you have notable absences, such as Pakistan. And Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in seeing much of that mobilization continue, especially as it involves a very severe degree of domestic repression which occurs in many countries in times of war. This is statecraft 101, to some extent. But Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in its armed forces mobilizing to such a large extent, and it probably has an interest in seeing that mobilization simply being applied to a new military context, which would be Syria. PERIES: Bilal, you mentioned something very interesting, which is Pakistan. Are they a part of this alliance or not, and what are the tensions that exist between what Saudis are announcing and Pakistan? AHMED: Well, it’s actually a, something of a diplomatic situation that’s going on right now. Because Pakistan was included in the coalition without it necessarily being agreed to, without Islamabad fully being consulted, which is a bit strange. Pakistan stayed out of the coalition in Yemen because it didn’t wish to get involved in what was clearly a conflict with an increasingly sectarian character, given its significant Shia population, and given the consequences of sectarian rhetoric in Pakistan itself, which is already dealing with a hugely disparaging effect from sectarian rhetoric. It remains to be seen if Pakistan will join this anti-terrorism coalition. The Pakistani military certainly has a strain that is ambitious enough to pursue that objective. However, this leaves a lot open and a lot of questions to be asked. And a lot of questions to be answered, based on which factions will be able to take control of Pakistani foreign policy in this context, and whether or not the risk of joining the coalition and potentially operating in Syria is considered to be worth it. Although it is worth noting that Pakistani mercenaries have been operating in both Yemen and Syria before, and that what we’re really talking about is the public military apparatus. PERIES: Bilal, this is an ongoing discussion as tensions in the region rise, and I hope to have you back very soon. AHMED: Thank you very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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