Amman — A top U.S. envoy was part of a parade of international diplomats officials who breezed through the Middle East over the last week to take part in talks aimed at hatching a political solution to. There was no solution, but one official told CBS News there at least appears to be a growing appreciation of the complexity of the problem.
Every night after they break their dawn-to-dusk fast for the holy month of Ramadan, many Yemenis join in all-night, often heated discussions about how to end the war that has torn their country apart for more than six years. Yemeni journalist Hamdi Albokari led one of those discussions on the Clubhouse social media app this week, and the link between Yemen's crisis and another standoff in the region was a major topic of debate.
Yemen's war and the Iran nuclear deal
"We know that there areconcerning the happening in Vienna, and any progress happening there will be reflected on the situation here in Yemen," Albokari told CBS News.
The talks in Muscat, the capital of Yemen's neighbor Oman, wrapped up after a week without any tangible progress. Two linked factors may be standing in the way: The war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Yemen's Western-allied government is complicated and still raging, and the Houthis' benefactors in Tehran remain locked in a separate, but equally thorny set of negotiations with Washington over their own nuclear program.
The Houthis refused to meet face-to-face with the negotiators in Oman over the last week. A source close to the negotiations told CBS News they had been urged not to talk directly with the U.S. or Saudi delegations. Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch rival, has led the war against the Houthis in Yemen on behalf of the country's beleaguered government.
The source told CBS News that the American delegation had at least gained "a better understanding of the complexities in Yemen" over the last week, and there was a clear sense that "they are determined, this time, to succeed."
"Right now, the Americans are still in a phase of exploring what each party wants," said Albokari, the Yemeni journalist.
President Biden's Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, visited Muscat and other regional capitals over the last week. He was joined by the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, and the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
Murphy recognized the challenges of trying to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen amid the standoff with Iran, and he said the hardline policy of the previous U.S. administration in dealing with Tehran was, to some degree, still standing in the way.
"So long as we're still sanctioning the hell out of the Iranian economy... it's going to be hard to push the Houthis to a cease-fire," he told The Associated Press this week.
Murphy called the separate talks in Vienna aimed at drawing both Iran and the U.S. back into the 2015 nuclear deal, "very important, perhaps critical to peace in Yemen."
If there's no real progress in the Iran talks, Murphy predicted that the Iranians would continue to "see Yemen as an opportunity to make mischief against the United States and our allies."
The UN envoy struggled to hide his disappointment as the talks ended.
"Unfortunately, we are not where we would like to be in reaching a deal," Griffiths said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the war continued unabated, causing immense suffering to the civilian population."
Complex war with a "high price"
Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Oxford University's Pembroke College, told CBS News that the stream of representatives from around the globe passing through Muscat over the last week was in itself a sign of earnest attempts to craft a cease-fire agreement. But she was clear that a political agreement would only be the first step, and just like the politics behind it, the war itself has become incredibly complicated.
"Reaching a deal will be extremely difficult, but not impossible," she said. "The greater challenge will be translating any deal into peace on the ground. That may well be impossible currently."
As the talks took place in Oman, Yemen's civil war raged across the border.
Since the Houthi rebels started fighting Yemen's internationally recognized government and its allies more than six years ago, the United Nations' humanitarian agency says the war has "caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure."
The fiercest fighting now is over control of the oil-rich region of Marib. Both sides are claiming victory, but the violence continues, with thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says the escalation in hostilities this year alone has "led to the displacement of over 13,600 people (2,272 families) in Marib — a region that is hosting a quarter of Yemen's 4 million internally displaced people."
"Civilians continue to pay a high price,'' UNHCR's representative in Yemen, Jean Nicolas Beuze, told CBS News. "Casualties and forcible displacements are a daily occurrence and humanitarian agencies struggle to deliver lifesaving interventions due to fuel shortages."
But Marib is just one of many fronts in the war, and Kendall said the disparate nature of the forces now engaged in the fighting will make ending the conflict more difficult.
"There are dozens of militias and dozens of active fronts. The war has polarized regions and kicked off cycles of revenge that can't be stopped just because political elites have reached an agreement," she said.
As an example, the powerful Southern Transitional Council (STC) was completely absent from the talks in Muscat. The separatist group is allied with neither the Houthis nor the Yemeni government and has battled both in its fight for independence for a southern region of the country.
"It's possible that Yemen could unravel further," warned Kendall. "Whatever the future power balance in Yemen, stability will rely on strong local governance that is representative and un-corrupt."
She said the foreign powers negotiating over the future of the impoverished nation should seize "every opportunity... to use the momentum of ongoing diplomacy" to shore-up local institutions in the country.
"At least then Yemenis will have a chance of getting on with their lives, whether or not the powers that be can settle their differences," she said.