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Understanding The Prisoner Swap In Yemen's Civil War


Any agreement between the two sides of the war in Yemen is unusual, so there's reason for cautious optimism about the announcement this weekend of a prisoner exchange plan between the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Peter Salisbury is a Yemen analyst for the International Crisis Group. He joins us now to talk about what this moment means for the conflict in Yemen, which has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Welcome to the show.

PETER SALISBURY: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: We don't have many specifics on this announcement, right? It came from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. What is known about the deal?

SALISBURY: Well, so far, what we know is that after three meetings over the past almost year and a half, really, the two sides have agreed that they're going to exchange some prisoners, something that they said they'd do for the first time in December of 2018. Where we're at now is they've finally come to an agreement on the first package, if you like, of prisoners, which will probably run into several hundred, some people are saying around sort of 1,400. And with a bit of luck, we'll see this happen in the next few weeks.

But with these two parties, the problem we've had consistently is they're OK at agreeing things with each other and not very good at actually turning those agreements into action. So we're going to have to hold our breath on this one...


SALISBURY: ...And see what actually happens.

CORNISH: Does the recent escalation in Iran-U.S. relations complicate this going forward, or even now? I mean, one side is backed by Iran. The other is by Saudi Arabia's led coalition, which is supported by the U.S.

SALISBURY: Yeah. I mean, as with everything in the Middle East, it's a little bit more complicated than just an Iran-backed group and a Saudi-backed group. What's perhaps more interesting to me at the moment is this has happened as we see an escalation in fighting between Saudi-backed government forces and Houthi forces in the north of the country, and as the Saudis and the Houthis try to almost separately negotiate a truce over the border where the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at Saudi infrastructure and the Saudis have been sending airstrikes back and both have been sending forces to fight each other over the border.

This feels, at the moment, like more of a signal of that track - the negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis is going OK. The Saudis were apparently in the room for negotiations this time, which they hadn't been at previous meetings. So that track's kind of going OK, while relations between the Houthis and the government plummet, which is a very interesting dynamic to see right now.

CORNISH: You brought up the continued airstrikes. And just this past week in an airstrike, the Saudi-led coalition killed more than 30 civilians. That's according to the U.N. Do people look at this moment, this agreement with any real optimism?

SALISBURY: I'm afraid not really, simply because we've seen so many agreements come and go. With this agreement, it's an announcement that the parties have agreed on the terms of something they've already agreed to do. So again, I think people are waiting to see evidence that they're actually willing to do this thing, first and foremost.

CORNISH: So why do you think this moment came? Why now?

SALISBURY: That's a really good question. And again, the shift that we see is that the Saudis have been involved this time around, and that's probably a signal that the Saudis and the Houthis are improving their relations. And they've been talking to each other directly since last October.

And the talks between the two were really precipitated by this massive attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, which you'll remember from last September, against a facility called Abqaiq, which almost took us to the point of regional war with the U.S. and Saudi on one side, Iran on the other, but also gave the Houthis and the Saudis this kind of pause where they both thought, well, maybe it's better off if we do a deal with each other that takes Yemen off the table and means that we aren't fighting each other. So that's one less thing for Saudi Arabia to worry about, and it prevents Yemen from becoming further embroiled in any regional conflicts.

CORNISH: That's...

SALISBURY: So we're seeing those interests being sustained as part of these talks.

CORNISH: That's Peter Salisbury with the International Crisis Group. Thank you for explaining it.

SALISBURY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.