DUBAI Yemen's warring parties are heading to Geneva for U.N.-sponsored talks from Monday, but there are few if any signs that either is ready to make the compromises necessary for a deal.
The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has said the talks can end more than two months of conflict that has killed almost 2,600 people, and save the Arabian Peninsula country from permanent division.
But he also said on Friday that the sides would initially not even sit at the same table."All the parties are still barricaded behind their positions and continue to bet on war rather than a political settlement," said Abdel-Bari Taher, a Yemeni analyst.
This may be because President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi insists that the talks be limited to discussing the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the Houthis to quit Yemen's main cities and recognise his authority.
But it may also be because the Iranian-allied Houthis see little reason to give ground, having increased the territory under their control despite 11 weeks of aerial bombing by a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia who fear that Iran is expanding its influence.
Together, Houthi fighters and troops loyal to veteran former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have seized large parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa and much of the port city of Aden.
Meanwhile a humanitarian crisis has worsened dramatically. The aid agency UNICEF says 80 percent of the population, or more than 20 million people, need some form of aid.
FOOD AND FUEL CUT OFF
The figure was up by 5 million inside a week, highlighting how a coalition air and sea blockade has cut off supplies not only of food but also of fuel for the pumps that arid Yemen relies on to provide water for drinking and sanitation.
The Houthis say they are pursuing a revolution against a corrupt government and Islamist militants, and deny any military or economic links to Iran, which also says it gives them only diplomatic support.
Houthi leaders say they will attend the talks from Monday without preconditions, although they have complained about a lack of clarity on who will attend and what will be discussed. Discussions were originally scheduled for Sunday, but delayed as one of the delegations was arriving late, the United Nations said.
The exiled government, meanwhile, is showing signs of divisions between Hadi and his deputy, Khaled Bahah.
Bahah was in Djibouti and did not attend a meeting on Wednesday in Riyadh, where Hadi's government now sits, at which the negotiators were chosen.
Farea al-Muslimi, a researcher at Carnegie Middle East Centre, said they appeared to have been appointed largely on the basis of their loyalty to Hadi.
"Their selection tells you how little is being expected of the talks, and is a sign that attending them is symbolic and more a result of international pressure than genuine will to reach a resolution."
Among the negotiators is the head of the Salafist al-Rashad party, Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, who is on a U.S. list of people supporting terrorism, an allegation he denies.
FEAR OF BEING SIDELINED
Yemeni officials, foreign diplomats and analysts said Hadi was apparently trying to undermine the talks, fearing that he will be marginalised if an agreement is reached in Geneva, or if the Saudi-led campaign ends without a victory.
Hadi was installed in 2011 by Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf countries to replace Saleh after a popular uprising.
But, in a highly tribal, factionalized country, he has no real power base of his own. With most of the army still loyal to Saleh, and Saleh supporting the Houthis, Hadi is now trying rapidly to build his own military force.
Yet as voices grow louder in Saudi Arabia suggesting that the air war cannot loosen the Houthis' control, Hadi's patron has offered little support for his desire to set up a "safe zone" where he can base that force.
A diplomat told Reuters in Riyadh last week that Hadi felt his value was diminishing by the day and that "any agreement with the Houthis would be at his expense".
Nevertheless, one Yemeni source in Riyadh said Hadi apparently retained the support of those in Saudi Arabia, still in the majority, who believe the war can be won.
Writing in Monday's al-Araby newspaper, published in London, Qatari analyst Mohammed al-Misfer said: "The president needs to be reassured, with Saudi guarantees, that he will not be removed except after Yemen is liberated from the Houthi hegemony and his administration is given two years to rebuild and then hold popular elections."
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh and Noah Browning in Dubai; writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Kevin Liffey)