Yemen Peace Talks Facing Formidable Obstacles Open in Sweden

(Bloomberg) -- Yemen’s warring parties gathered for peace talks in Sweden on Thursday, an achievement in itself that reflects the formidable challenges negotiators face trying to end a conflict that’s fueled the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Last time the United Nations tried to hold peace talks, in Geneva in September, Iran-backed Houthi rebels didn’t show up and the effort collapsed. This time, UN special envoy Martin Griffiths personally escorted negotiators from the group, which controls the capital, Sana’a, on a plane provided by Kuwait.

The meetings in a castle outside Stockholm will be the first since 2016. The delegation of the Saudi Arabia-backed government is led by Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al Yamani.

Expectations weren’t high.

“The talks in Sweden are preliminary consultations to set the stage for eventual negotiations,” according to Peter Salisbury, a consultant at International Crisis Group. “Griffiths hopes that the two sides will agree on some basic confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps, the reopening of Sana’a airport and perhaps an agreement to stabilize Hodeidah, as well as a broad road map for future talks.”

Confidence Building

The port city of Hodeidah is a crucial aid and imports lifeline that’s been under siege from the Saudi-led military coalition backing Yemeni government forces since June.

In a press conference, Griffiths was careful not to overstate his chances of success, while noting there was a “need to move urgently” toward a solution.

“What I’d like to see is a process of orchestration to reach certain milestones that we can then publish as an agreement,” he said Thursday. The delegations have signaled they want a reduction in violence, Griffiths told reporters.

Some confidence-building steps have already begun. This week, the sides agreed in principle to a prisoner swap, and 50 wounded rebels were evacuated to Oman for medical treatment.

Khashoggi Murder

Griffiths might be able to get the two sides to agree on additional measures and “sign up to a broader framework for negotiations with some tweaks, and schedule substantive peace talks in the near future” Salisbury wrote. “But unfortunately, the odds are high that the consultations will break down amid mutual recriminations, as has happened during all previous rounds.”

The war -- a proxy battle for regional influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran -- has ravaged Yemen, which even before the fighting had been dysfunctional and poor. Thousands of civilians have been killed, and displacement, hunger and sickness are rampant. Three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of them require it urgently to survive, according to the UN.

Parties to the conflict “are realizing that neither side is going to able to by military means exercise control over the country,” U.S. ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller said in Stockholm. “They are going to have to find some way of sitting down to reach a power-sharing agreement.”

Saudi Arabia led a coalition of mainly Sunni-ruled countries into the fighting in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Efforts to end the conflict took on new urgency after the murder of Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. U.S. lawmakers began reassessing the actions of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and some have demanded an end to weapons sales to the kingdom and military cooperation with the Saudis.

In late October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged the sides to cease fire and sit down for negotiations within 30 days.

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