A concerted United Nations effort aimed at ending nearly 13 months of war in Yemen sees peace talks resuming on Monday, but with a ceasefire barely holding.
Previous attempts have failed to stop the fighting which has killed thousands of people, forced almost 2.8 million from their homes and raised regional tensions.
A ceasefire that came into effect on Sunday at midnight to pave the way for the talks in Kuwait has been violated numerous times.
But the Iran-backed rebel Houthis, the government, and the United Nations, which sponsored the ceasefire, have avoided talk of it collapsing, as happened with three earlier truces.
The ceasefire does not apply to jihadist groups, which have exploited the chaos to strengthen their hold in the south.
The coalition led by Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia early this week described ceasefire violations as “minor”. The coalition began air strikes in March last year to support Yemen’s government.
Briefing the Security Council Friday ahead of the talks, UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who has conducted months of shuttle diplomacy, said Yemen has “never been so close to peace“.
The government and the rebels and their allies last sat down to talk in Geneva in December, but six days of negotiations ended with no major breakthrough.
“We can expect a hard time” at the Kuwait talks, said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group.
“In a best case scenario, the two sides will agree to a package of compromises that will build trust, strengthen the ceasefire, allow for an inclusive government to return to Sanaa and restart the political process,” she told AFP.
“But this is a tall order.”
In contrast with previous ceasefires, joint committees of rebel and loyalist troops were formed to monitor compliance.
However they have not really begun their work.
On Thursday, military sources reported at least 35 pro-government fighters killed in clashes with rebels over three days near the Houthi-held capital Sanaa.
The coalition — which is not a party to the Kuwait talks — intervened after the Zaidi Shiite Houthis overran Sanaa in September 2014 and later advanced to other regions.
Chaos and misery have ruled the Arabian Peninsula country since.
Rights groups criticised the civilian toll from coalition bombings, but also accused the Houthis of abuses.
Alley says the government and rebels remain far apart on matters of substance.
President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised government insists on the rigid application of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 calling for the political process to resume and for rebels to withdraw from Yemen’s cities while surrendering their weapons.
The Huthis are allied with elite troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Alley says rigid implementation of Resolution 2216 would amount to “a Houthi/Saleh surrender and is unrealistic“.
It is also unclear if the Houthis would be willing to disband their “revolutionary councils” and allow a more inclusive government to return to Sanaa, she said.
Probably most important is for the two sides to agree on interim security arrangements essential for strengthening the ceasefire, Alley said.
This would also help prepare for other progress such as the return of the government and Huthi disarmament.
Yemen was already the Arab world’s poorest country before the conflict escalated but now the humanitarian situation is “staggering”, says the UN.
More than 6,300 people have been killed in Yemen since March last year — around half of them civilians — and 82 percent of the population need aid.
“We would of course hope and expect all the parties involved to respect the cessation of hostilities,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday.
“We have seen that is not, unfortunately, the case but we do think it is largely holding. We are continuing and on track with the peace talks.”
The United States, which provides precision-guided weapons and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, says the situation in Yemen “is far better than it was a year ago”, according to Rob Malley, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
Alley believes both the Huthis and the Saudis appear to want a way out of the war.
But with neither side having been defeated militarily, she wonders “whether a compromise can be reached that addresses the core concerns of each“.