Yemen peace talks set to start on Thursday in Sweden

  • 5 Dec 2018

A team from Yemen's Saudi-backed government arrived in Sweden to attend peace talks starting on Thursday with members of the Iran-aligned Houthi group.

UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is seen during his departure at Sanaa airport, Yemen on December 4, 2018. ( Reuters )

Yemen's warring parties have arrived in Sweden on Wednesday for another attempt at talks aimed at halting their catastrophic three-year-old war, but there are few incentives for major compromises, and the best outcome might be to firm up a shaky de-escalation.

Both the internationally-recognised government, which is backed by a US-sponsored and Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels say they are striving for peace. A Houthi delegation arrived in Stockholm late on Tuesday, accompanied by UN envoy Martin Griffiths.

Griffiths flew to Sanaa in the days leading up to the Sweden summit after his plans to host talks in Geneva in September failed when the rebels refused to leave Sanaa, saying they feared they would not be allowed to return.

"The (UN special envoy) would like to announce the restart of the intra-Yemeni political process in Sweden on 6 December 2018," his office tweeted.

UN officials say they don't expect rapid progress toward a political settlement, but hope for at least minor steps that would help to address Yemen's worsening humanitarian crisis.

Confidence-building measures before the talks included a prisoner swap and the evacuation of wounded rebels for medical treatment. The release of funds from abroad by Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to pay state employees in rebel-held territory is also in the works.

Yemeni scholar Hisham al Omeisy, who has written extensively about the conflict, said the talks would focus on "de-escalation and starting the political process."

"It's not much, but given the humanitarian situation and toxic political atmosphere currently prevalent in Yemen, it's better than nothing."

TRT World's Oubai Shahbandar has more.

World's worst humanitarian crisis

The conflict began with the Houthi takeover of the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen in 2014. The Saudi-led coalition went to war with the rebels the following March.

The war has claimed at least 10,000 lives, with experts estimating a much higher toll. Saudi-led air strikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, and the Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

The fighting in Yemen has generated the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The executive director of the UN's World Food Program, David Beasley, said on Tuesday that 12 million people suffer from "severe hunger."

"I've heard many say that this is a country on the brink of catastrophe," Beasley said. "This is not a country on the brink of a catastrophe. This is a country that is in a catastrophe."

Calls for ceasefire

The mounting humanitarian needs, and outrage over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, have galvanised international support for ending the war. 

The United States has called for a ceasefire and reduced some of its logistical aid for the coalition. Iran has also signalled support, urging all sides "to have constructive and responsible participation in the talks."

But previous peace efforts have failed, with neither side willing to compromise.

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to tolerate what it views as an Iranian proxy on its doorstep, and the Houthis have little incentive to withdraw from the capital and other territories they have captured and held at great cost. 

Other armed groups taking part in the chaotic civil war, including southern separatists and local militias, will not be taking part in this week's talks.

At the same time, the two main parties could see the other as weakened, tempting them to make maximalist demands. Saudi Arabia has come under heavy US pressure since the killing of Khashoggi, and the Houthis are under intense financial strain.

Issues to be discussed

The impasse is on vivid display in Hudaida, a Red Sea port city where Yemen imports 70 percent of its food and humanitarian aid. 

Forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been trying to capture the city for months, but have been held off by rebels dug in on its outskirts, with neither side willing to back down.

One idea likely to be discussed at the talks is a proposal for the rebels to hand over Hudaida to some type of UN administration. The two sides might also discuss further prisoner releases.

But the Houthis are unlikely to agree to withdraw from territory or lay down their arms, as the Yemeni government has repeatedly demanded. And Hadi's administration is unlikely to agree to a power-sharing arrangement that would grant the Houthis a larger role in government, which was one of the original aims of the rebellion.

"I don't expect much from this round," said Baligh al Makhlafy, a Yemeni pro-government analyst attending the talks as a technical consultant. 

"Maybe there'll be some more exchange of prisoners or some progress on the economy, but I don't think the Houthis will leave Hudaia peacefully. They believe they have a powerful card there."