Expectations low as Yemen’s warring parties meet for talks

CAIRO (AP) – Yemen’s warring parties will meet in Sweden this week for another attempt at talks aimed at halting their catastrophic three-year-old war, but there are few incentives for major compromises, and the focus is likely to be on firming up a shaky de-escalation.

United Nations (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.

Both the internationally recognised government, which is backed by a United States (US)-sponsored coalition, and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels say they are striving for peace. A Houthi delegation arrived in Stockholm late Tuesday, accompanied by UN envoy Martin Griffiths. The government delegation and the head of the rebel delegation headed to Sweden yesterday.

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 Abed Rabbo 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.”

A Yemeni rebel delegation prepares to fly on a Kuwaiti plane accompanied by a United Nations peace envoy heading for high-stakes talks in Sweden with the government aimed at ending the country’s devastating war in Sanaa on Tuesday. – AFP

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

The conflict began with the Houthi takeover of the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen in 2014. The 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. Coalition airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, and the Houthis have fired long-range missiles and targetted vessels in the Red Sea.

The fighting in Yemen has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. UN’s World Food Programme Executive Director 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.” The mounting humanitarian needs, and outrage over the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi, have galvanised international support for ending the war. The US has called for a cease-fire 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.

The coalition 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.