CAIRO (NYTIMES) - A delegation of Houthi rebels flew from the capital of Yemen to Sweden on Tuesday (Dec 4), the biggest step toward peace in the country's civil war since 2016.
Houthi officials said that preliminary talks with the delegation from the Saudi-backed government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi could begin as early as Wednesday.
The UN envoy to Yemen, Mr Martin Griffiths, was also aboard the Kuwaiti airliner that left Sanaa, the capital, on Tuesday, one day after 50 wounded Houthi fighters were allowed to fly to Oman for treatment as part of an elaborate sequence of confidence-building measures.
Mr Griffiths offered to accompany the Houthis to overcome their fears that the Saudi-led coalition, which controls Yemeni airspace, might intercept the flight, a senior UN official said.
The plane carried international and Yemeni hopes for the fragile political process. On Oct 30, amid growing concern at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, US Defence Secretary James Mattis set a 30-day deadline for a ceasefire in the conflict, which began in 2015, and for the start of peace talks.
Gen Mattis got part of his wish on Tuesday. Fighting raged on the ground even as talks moved forward.
The most intense battles lately have been fought in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, which the Saudi-led coalition is trying to snatch from Houthi control, and which is key to international efforts to stave off a looming famine across Yemen.
The United Nations redoubled its warnings on Tuesday when its humanitarian coordinator, Mr Mark Lowcock, appealed for US$4 billion (S$5.47 billion) to deliver aid in Yemen, which he said is likely to remain the world's greatest humanitarian crisis in 2019.
The organisation estimates that 57,000 people have died since the conflict started and that nearly four million people had been forced from their homes, including 600,000 displaced by the battle for Hodeidah.
Peace talks and external support could take the edge off extreme suffering, but that included "a lot of supposes", Mr Lowcock said.
In 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, then the defence minister, drove his country into the war to defend the internationally recognised government led by Mr Hadi, which had been ousted from Sanaa by the Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia gathered its allies, notably the United Arab Emirates, as part of what it sees as a proxy war against Iran, which backs the Houthis.
While Iran has supplied missiles to the Houthis, including some that have been fired at Saudi cities, Yemen analysts say the war is principally driven by the violent factionalism that wracked Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
Analysts cautioned that the talks, which are to take place in a renovated castle outside Stockholm, have at best a moderate chance of success.
"If we take past as precedent, and the situation on the ground, all indicators point toward not much coming out of the talks and a resumption of fighting in Hodeidah," said Mr Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group.
"I'm sorry to say that the broad momentum is very much in favour of continued violence and a worsening of the humanitarian situation, not in an outbreak of peace."
The last peace effort collapsed in September when Houthi officials failed to turn up for talks in Geneva. This time, the Houthis have turned up at the venue first, with the government delegation expected to be led by Mr Hadi's Foreign Minister, Mr Khaled Alyemany.
The other difference is a more concerted international focus.
In Washington, pressure to bring the war to an end has been driven of late by congressional anger over the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
Intense scrutiny of the role of the Saudi crown prince has drawn attention to what critics call his reckless conduct of the war in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have died in air strikes by Saudi and other coalition warplanes.
Last week, the Senate delivered a rebuke to President Donald Trump over his policy in Yemen by supporting a resolution that seeks to end US support for the war. More debate on the same resolution is expected this week. The CIA director, Ms Gina Haspel, briefed Democratic and Republican leaders Tuesday about the death of Mr Khashoggi.
Houthis and Saudi officials have stressed that the talks in Sweden, if they start, will not involve negotiations to end the war, focusing instead on confidence-building measures.
They are expected to discuss prisoner exchanges brokered by the Red Cross, the status of Hodeidah, and proposals to reopen Sanaa's international airport, which is currently accessible only to humanitarian flights.
The UN is pushing a proposal that it assume control of the port in Hodeidah as a means of ensuring a flow of relief aid to the eight million Yemenis who currently rely on international aid to eat, a figure the UN warns is likely to soon rise to 12 million.
Mr David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, welcomed the talks as a "steppingstone to longer-term hope".
"The focus of the talks on the future management of the Hodeidah port and city and de-escalation of the fighting are important and welcome," Mr Miliband said in a statement.
"The most practical step towards an improvement of the humanitarian situation would be an immediate cessation of hostilities to prevent further loss of life and allow for humanitarian assistance to reach those in desperate need."
Mr Salisbury, the analyst, said it was unrealistic to expect a major peace dividend from the talks, which initially may not even involve direct contact between Houthi officials and their foes.
"We also have to hope for the best and plan for the worst," he said. "All indicators point toward the talks either collapsing, ending in acrimony or ending inconclusively. And if any of those things happen, we will have a new fight for Hodeidah. That would be very bad news."