Can Yemen peace talks avert a humanitarian disaster?
Meeting between Houthi rebels and government officials hailed as a ‘milestone’ by UN, but huge obstacles still remain
Peace talks aimed at ending nearly four years of civil war in Yemen have begun in Sweden, amid warnings from the United Nations that unless an agreement is reached half the country’s population could face starvation.
For the first time since 2016, representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognised government and Houthi rebels have sat down opposite each other, in what UN special envoy Martin Griffiths has hailed as “a milestone”.
Even getting both sides around the table has been an achievement. The last attempt at a negotiated peace collapsed in September when the Houthis failed to show up for talks in Geneva.
This time, in a symbolic confidence building measure, Griffiths began by announcing that the two parties had agreed to exchange some 5,000 prisoners.
Fighting in Yemen began back in 2014 when Houthi rebels took over the capital Sanaa and forced out the internationally recognised government of President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. This prompted a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries to intervene to stop the Iran-backed Shia militias taking control of the country.
The coalition’s deadly air campaign has been strongly supported by the West, with British weaponry and technical assistance drawing strong condemnation back home and accusations the British government could even be complicit in war crimes.
But while the conflict has developed into a proxy struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in Yemen more than three years of war has brought the country to brink of total collapse. The death toll from fighting is believed to run to the tens of thousands, while the conflict has created a humanitarian disaster, displacing more than 500,000 people, creating a deadly cholera epidemic and bringing 14 million Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
As many as 85,000 children may have already died from hunger, according to Save the Children.
The food situation has been made significantly worse in recent months by fighting in the city of Hudaydah. Around 80% of the country’s entire food and medical supplies pass through the port, but intense fighting has stopped much of it coming through.
The Independent says the UN’s primary aim in these talks is to “prevent a full-scale assault on the city by the coalition, and reopen the airport in the capital Sanaa — where access is restricted by Saudi control of Yemeni airspace”.
While the BBC agrees that “the key aim of this round is to prevent an all-out battle for the rebel-held Red Sea port”, it says “the UN also hopes to come up with a framework for talks on what a future political solution in Yemen will look like”.
Talks have been given fresh impetus by the impending humanitarian disaster and increasing international pressure to end the war, which has mounted since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime, in October in Istanbul.
Initial signs suggest progress could be slow, though.
CNN says the first direct discussions between the parties started “just hours after they traded threats”, with Houthi rebels promising to shut down Sanaa airport unless Saudi Arabia eased its air blockade, and government officials demanding the rebels withdraw from Hudaydah.
Yemen Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani gave little indication that he was going to offer concessions to his rivals.
He rejected a Houthi proposal to form a presidential council without President Hadi as “nonsense”.
“They should withdraw from the institutions of the state and hand them back to the legitimate government. Other than that, there will be no peace,” he told Al Jazeera.
But writing in The New York Times, Griffiths remained optimistic.
“It is an important beginning to see warring parties sit together and talk — a conversation that requires both sides to suspend their belief in the possibility of a military victory”, he said.
Despite “the language of de-escalation and restraint” in Stockholm, the BBC’s Lyse Doucet says “the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni government allies still believe taking Hudaydah from the Houthis is the best way to bring an end to this war. Houthis aligned to Iran are digging in.”
“Yemen desperately needs to avert an even greater disaster. But the logic of war still prevails, and tragically so”, she says.