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During peace talks, UN envoy says future of Yemen is at risk

For the first time in two and a half years, peace talks are occurring over the conflict in Yemen. Delegations from the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are meeting with a United Nations envoy in Sweden, where a prisoner swap was suggested as a way to build trust between the two sides. Nick Schifrin explains the country’s humanitarian crisis and the Capitol Hill battle over U.S. involvement.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the first time in 2.5 years, there are peace talks over the war in Yemen, the site of a proxy fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia backed by the United States.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the talks come as the conflict grinds on, the immense suffering continues, and the debate over U.S. support for the war heats up on Capitol Hill.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On a grassy, quiet estate in a renovated castle outside Stockholm, Yemen's warring parties sat around a table today to try and decide their country's fate, on one side, Yemen's Sunni internationally recognized government, across the table, Shia Houthi rebels, who hold the capital, in the middle, the U.N. envoy trying to make peace.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    The country's institutions are at risk. The fragmentation of the country is an enormous concern, and we must act now before we lose control of the future of Yemen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The country is cracking after a four-year war that's killed tens of thousands. It began as a civil war in 2014, but now a Saudi-led coalition fights on the ground and launches airstrikes with the help of U.S. advisers.

    And the U.N. says Houthi rebels receive aid and rocket parts from Iran. Both sides hold thousands of prisoners, and that was today's main confidence-building measure: a swap announced by U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    It will allow thousands of families to be reunited, and it is a product of very effective, active work from both delegations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Most recently, the two sides have fought hardest for the port city of Hodeidah. The Saudi-led coalition surrounded the city and the coalition's spokesman rejected a cease-fire.

  • Col. Turki Al-Maliki:

    Our operation in Hodeidah will continue. The pace of our operation, however, will change accordingly, depending on the situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.N. hopes to place Hodeidah under international control. The port accepts the vast majority of Yemen's humanitarian aid.

  • Martin Griffiths:

    What the U.N. is trying to do on the humanitarian front, and that's Hodeidah, specifically, the humanitarian issue, is to preserve the pipeline which is keeping people in Yemen alive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's not much keeping them alive. Today, the World Food Program said half of Yemen's population, 15 million people, are now severely food-insecure. Organizations such as the International Rescue Committee are trying to save an entire generation from famine.

    Amanda Catanzano is the IRC's senior director monitoring the Sweden talks.

  • Amanda Catanzano:

    The question we need to ask ourselves is, while these are welcome, do they correspond with the urgency of the situation inside the country? Are they going to matter, and are they going to alleviate any humanitarian suffering? Time is not something that Yemenis have on their side.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the streets of the capital, Sanaa, Yemenis are desperate for progress.

  • Shakib Al-Hamadi:

    Many people have fled. People are starting to eat from the trash. The situation has become utterly dire. So I hope the voice of reason and sense of humanity will prevail.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    While the U.S. supports the talks and is pushing to end the war, the administration is resisting punishing Saudi Arabia or targeting the Saudi defense minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    But opposition to the war in Yemen and to MBS, as he's known, is now coming to a crescendo in the Senate.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    How do you deal with an authoritarian despot that doesn't share American values, but that is important to American interests?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Louisiana Republican John Kennedy and other senators are considering how to influence Saudi policy, pushed to action by the murder and dismemberment, of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA assesses MBS likely ordered his death.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    I believe Prince Mohammed did know what was going on. Somebody gave the order, and either he gave it or watched it being given to gut Mr. Khashoggi like a fish.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One Senate bill would end support to the Saudi-led coalition. Another bill would end all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and sanction Saudi officials.

    A separate resolution would declared MBS complicit in Khashoggi's murder, and pushes Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen.

  • Amanda Catanzano:

    This conflict is being seen as morally bankrupt. It's being seen perhaps as strategically bankrupt and not advancing U.S. interests in the region, and it's also becoming deeply, politically unpopular. It really begs the question, what's the constituency for continuing to support this conflict?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    They're considering debating a resolution on the Senate floor which we think is just poorly timed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the administration oppose congressional action. That will prevent any measure from becoming law. But Catanzano says the Senate still holds power.

  • Amanda Catanzano:

    The Congress can't fundamentally alter the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

    However, they can change things at the margins. They control the purse strings. They have an ability to slow down or stop arm sales and other forms of support. While the White House remains in the driver's seat, to a large extent, Congress can become a very annoying backseat driver.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The road ahead will remain violent, but the U.S. and much of the world hope that today's peace talks can one day provide an off-ramp.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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