Yemen peace talks begin but major hurdles remain

Experts do not expect the Stockholm talks to lead to a substantial breakthrough.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Sticky points. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom (L) and UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths attend the opening news conference on UN-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg Castle, December 6.  (Stina Stjernkvist /TT News Agency)
Sticky points. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom (L) and UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths attend the opening news conference on UN-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg Castle, December 6. (Stina Stjernkvist /TT News Agency)

LONDON - The start of UN-led peace talks in Sweden between warring sides in Yemen was welcomed internationally but major hurdles remain to ending the nearly 4-year conflict.

The Stockholm talks opened as an all-out battle for the strategic rebel-held port of Hodeidah looms. The Saudi-led coalition has encircled the Red Sea port city, which it says is a major source of arms for the Iran-backed Houthis.

A big divide separates the two camps. The fate of the city and its port is one of the main issues on the talks’ agenda. Other major points include reopening the main airport in Sana’a, shoring up the Central Bank of Yemen and de-escalating tensions while building confidence for future negotiations.

Few observers say the current series of talks could result in a breakthrough towards peace in Yemen. However, some have said international pressure could lead to a broader framework for additional meetings.

“The US ‘big stick’ approach could maybe force both Yemeni parties to reach minimum understandings in the current talks to pave the way for the final negotiation phase,” said Yemeni writer Hani Salem Masshour.

The biggest stumbling block, however, could be the Houthi rebels’ interest in short-term battlefield gains over a lasting solution.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government led by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, has sought to dislodge the Iran-backed Houthi militia that overtook Sana’a in September 2014. The conflict escalated in early 2015 after the Houthis seized control of much of western Yemen, forcing Hadi to flee the country.

The conflict has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said there had been nearly 1,500 civilian casualties in Yemen from August through October.

The talks began December 6 with opposing sides agreeing to free thousands of prisoners, a development UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths described as hopeful.

That hope, however, was dampened by reports that Houthis attacked civilian and military targets in Hodeidah, destroying one of the city’s biggest malls and seeking to retake a strategic main route linking it to Aden, where Hadi’s government is based.

“The Houthis are exploiting the halt [in fighting] to take back strategic sites in the south of Hodeidah,” Yemeni military spokesman Lieutenant Mohammed Qaida told Emirati newspaper the National. “Our patience is running out and if the United Nations doesn’t take the Houthi violations seriously, then we will storm the city and the ports. This will be our response.”

There was tough talk from Yemeni officials in Stockholm, who said they were open to peace but would not countenance double-dealing from the Houthis.

“We are still looking into means towards peace but if they [the Houthis] are not responsible, we have many options, including military decisiveness,” Yemeni Agriculture Minister Othman al-Mujalli said.

Griffiths urged compromise over Hodeidah.

The coalition claims that the port serves as the rebels’ main pipeline of arms, including rockets that have been fired on Saudi territory. The coalition has expressed major concerns about Tehran’s role in backing the Houthis, which it views as part of a larger Iranian attempt to extend its influence throughout the region.

Washington has strongly backed the Saudi-led coalition against the “Iranian threat.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis have both affirmed the United States’ support for Yemen’s internationally recognised government.

“Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security and our interests in Mideast stability,” Mattis told the US Senate.

The Houthis, wary of being listed by Washington as a terrorist group, have been more willing to negotiate. However, given political conditions and lingering mistrust between the two sides, it is unlikely that the Stockholm talks will lead to a substantial breakthrough. International mediators seem satisfied with convening the talks on schedule and agreeing to confidence-building measures.

No peace talks have taken place since 2016 and the last attempt at negotiations in Geneva earlier this year failed when the Houthis refused to attend.