Stockholm, Sweden – The Yemeni government officials and Houthi rebels are due to meet in Sweden this week for UN-sponsored talks aimed at ending the war that has been going on for more than three years.
The talks are due to take place this week but the UN has refused to reveal the exact dates, times and venue although they are expected to take place on December 5 close to Stockholm.
While there have been several international initiatives aimed at bringing the brutal war to a close, the latest round of discussions could yield major breakthroughs.
A source familiar with the talks told Al Jazeera that the UN is seeking to introduce a set of confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire in Hodeidah and an end to the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) air strikes across the country.
The source added that the Houthis will cease all rocket and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The talks are also expected to discuss the reopening of Sanaa international airport, large-scale prisoner swaps and the payment of salaries to civil servants in Houthi-held areas.
The war, which has been raging since March 2015, has received considerable media attention following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, who was brutaly murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Western powers have expressed their anger over the killing and pulled their support for the Saudi-UAE.
Germany and Norway suspended arms exports to Riyadh while the US Senate is due to consider a resolution this week to end its support for the conflict.
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the alliance has launched more than 18,000 air raids on Yemen and imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undermining the Houthis’ grip on power.
This has exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which aid groups have decried as “choking civilians”.
More than three-quarters of the population, around 22 million people, need humanitarian assistance, while 11 million require urgent help in order to survive.
Who is attending?
The “consultations” will be attended by only the main “parties to the conflict”, according to the UN: representatives from President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthis.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths is hoping to getboth sides to agree to a “framework” that “establishes the principles and parameters for UN-led, inclusive Yemeni negotiations to end the war, and restart a political transition”.
Who is not attending?
Despite the lead role the alliance is playing in the war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not be present in Sweden.
However, both countries and Iran – which supposedly backs the Houthis – have said they support the UN’s scheme.
One powerful group expected to be left out of the talks are the southern secessionists, some of whom are represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Financed by the UAE, the STC has been aggressively pursuing independence for southern Yemen, which was an independent country until 1990.
“These talks are dealing with somewhat specific measures that don’t necessarily involve the STC directly,” said Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“But any substantive peace process would likely have to involve the STC in some form.”
Kawkab al-Thaibani, a Yemeni rights activist and member of the Women4Yemen network, called for women to be given more prominence.
“This is not just a call for social equity. For these talks to be successful, women from both camps have to represented,” al-Thaibani said.
“We need the effective participation of women, both in terms of numbers and representation. Women are absent and are poorly represented by both sides and unless they are included in future political discussions, the talks will be doomed to fail.”
What might come out of these talks?
Getting the warring parties around a negotiating table is in itself a “major achievement”, according to analysts.
“Realistically, a best-case scenario would be to see a set of announcements on confidence-building measures, a set of de-escalation agreements and then some sort of agreement for further talks,” said Baron.
“But the trust among the various parties is so low at this point that this really is starting off from ground zero.”
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said while this first round of talks would be “a trust-building exercise”, there could still be several breakthroughs.
“Agreeing on a ceasefire is going to be pretty easy,” she said. “The Houthis have already said they will not fire missiles into Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So while it seems like a big outcome, it’s actually a pretty simple and straight-forward issue.
Aid groups in joint plea for US to cease support for Yemen war
“The major issues are: What happens with Hodeidah port and the city and will the Houthis transfer control to the UN?
“Also, what happens to the thousands of prisoners held by both sides? This is a priority for the government. They have a lot of people who are being held by the Houthis, such as the former Minister of Defence, General Mahmoud Al Subaihi, and one of Hadi’s relatives, his nephew, Nasser Ahmed Mansour Hadi,” she said.
According to al-Deen, 1.2 million civil servants have not been paid since 2016, compounding the country’s humanitarian crisis, and that is something the Houthis would be looking to address.
Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni political analyst and assistant professor at Michigan State University, said it would be difficult to see the crisis come to a conclusion without the end of foreign intervention.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have set up bases in several parts of southern Yemen.
“Before the war, there was a discussion of Yemen becoming a federal state, something akin to the relationship Quebec has with Canada,” said al-Adeimi.
“Something like that could be well received and placate some of the grievances we see among southerners,” she said. “But the people see Hadi as a traitor, someone who has completely failed them – a Saudi puppet.
“Unless there is an end to this foreign intervention, unless the Yemenis are given a chance to decide their future for themselves, it will be hard to see the country begin the healing process.”
Do the Houthis have a plan for peace in Yemen? | Upfront