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Between Hope and Hesitation: Understanding Yemen’s Fragile Ceasefire

In April 2022, the United Nations brokered a 6-month truce between Yemeni factions, in line with the Saudi initiative declared in March 2021. While the ceasefire officially expired in October, it has continued since then, albeit with occasional violations. The situation in Yemen is therefore difficult to define; in September 2023, nearly eighteen months after the ceasefire, it hovers between war and peace, raising questions about the long-term stability of the arrangement. The de facto truce necessarily elicits conflicting interpretations: some observers see it as a step towards peace, while others consider it a temporary fix that will inevitably fail unless more concrete measures are put in place.

Advantages

First, the truce offers a chance for both sides to strengthen the intra-Yemeni dialogue and build trust. In light of regional reconciliation efforts—notably the China-sponsored Saudi-Iranian initiative—Riyadh has initiated direct talks with the Houthis. A Saudi delegation visited Sana’a in April to address various issues, including the pressing concern of public employee salaries.

During the period of breathing room created by the truce, the Yemeni government has also engaged in diplomacy, conducting regional visits and exchanges in order to win international goodwill. Ahmed Awadh Bin Mubarak, the Foreign Minister of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, recently traveled to Iraq for discussions about Iraqi influence on the Houthis, exploring Baghdad’s potential role in Yemen’s peace process due to its positive relations with all sides in the conflict and its ability to exert pressure on the Houthis.

Simultaneously, regional and international efforts have intensified to find a comprehensive political solution. A series of Omani delegations, with UN support, have traveled to Sana’a on a regular basis since the start of the truce to engage in discussions with the Houthis, focusing on efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement. From August 17-20, an Omani delegation visited Sana’a to negotiate a three-point deal concerning salary payment, the full opening of airports and seaports in northern Yemen, and an extended truce. Moreover, Timothy Lenderking, the US envoy to Yemen, has conducted a tour of the region to engage with both local and international parties involved in the Yemen peace process to promote UN-led peace efforts.

Second, the truce allowed the United Nations to address the critical issue of the FSO Safer, the deteriorating oil tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast. By August 11th, a two-week UN-led mission completed the replacement of the vessel and the transfer of its oil cargo. This swift action aimed to prevent an imminent oil spill, which could have led to an ecological disaster in the region and disrupted Yemen’s food supply and crucial sea trade routes.

Third, although a permanent peace in Yemen has remained elusive, the country’s economic situation has seen a slight improvement during the truce. The Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah, both of which are under the control of the Houthi rebels, have both been opened for transportation and limited commerce. These actions have not led to a substantial economic boost, but could be precursors to other, more effective steps.

Yemen faces significant economic challenges. Since the beginning of the war, around 80% of its population has been living below the poverty line, and several persisting challenges have hindered meaningful economic and humanitarian improvements. One primary concern has been the contentious salary disbursement issue since the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) relocated to Aden. The Yemen government and the Houthis have failed to reach a resolution; the Houthis have demanded that the Yemeni government pay these salaries through oil and gas revenues, while the government has insisted the Houthis pay them with their share of revenues from the Hodeidah port.

At the same time, due primarily to Houthi attacks on oil export ports, the economic crisis has deepened, leaving Yemen without crucial foreign currency reserves. Foreign financial support has also declined due to donor reluctance and concerns over corruption within international NGOs involved in Yemen. Other factors explaining a decrease in aid for Yemen have been the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, diverting badly needed funds elsewhere, and the Ukraine conflict, which has largely supplanted Yemen’s civil war in the public consciousness. Additionally, some donor countries have faltered in fulfilling their obligations due to apprehensions about corruption within international NGOs operating in Yemen. Despite growing humanitarian needs, the World Food Program had to reduce aid due to insufficient funding from recent pledging events. As of June 2023, the annual Humanitarian Response Plan had received only 29.1% of its required US$4.34 billion in funding, leading to substantial cutbacks in assistance programs. However, Saudi Arabia recently granted $1.2 billion to Yemen’s government on August 1st, following a $1 billion deposit in February 2023. The UAE also contributed $300 million to CBY-Aden as part of an aid package in late 2022.

Amid a seemingly zero-sum situation, both parties have expressed dissatisfaction with the concessions made to maintain the ceasefire. The Yemeni government believes it has made significant compromises, including ending the blockades of Houthi ports and airports and allowing the Houthis to make money off of them without receiving substantial returns. The Houthis, in turn, have increased their demands and rejected the proposed terms for renewing the armistice, resuming oil exports, and transferring revenue to the National Bank of Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, Muammar al-Eryani, cautioned on July 10th that the UN’s proposed armistice terms might be reconsidered if the government’s interests were not safeguarded. Likewise, on July 22, Mahdi Al-Mashat, the president of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, announced the suspension of negotiations with Saudi Arabia due to allegations related to the control of oil and gas reserves and the disbursement of salaries.

Disadvantages

At the local level, the lack of political determination and trust, coupled with the recent humanitarian-centric approach to peace on the international stage, introduces uncertainty regarding the continued truce and impedes sincere endeavors for enduring peace. Within this context, three primary obstacles have emerged.

First, the truce allows the Houthis in the north and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the south to bolster their positions and hoard resources. This could lead to prolonged and intense conflict over those resources once the truce ends, laying the groundwork for further violence. Within the truce period, the Houthis have focused on economic demands, targeting strategic facilities to gain access to oil and gas resources controlled by the Yemeni government.

Amid the truce and the ongoing Saudi-Houthi negotiations, the Houthis appear to be shifting their military focus to southern governorates while tactically ignoring the strategically important Marib governorate in the east. They are recruiting new fighters through cultural programs and preparing logistical support for future conflicts using customs resources from Hodeidah port to buy weapons and smuggle them after lifting the port ban. These are not the actions of a group that appears intent on laying down its arms and committing to diplomacy.

Indeed, while sporadic skirmishes occur across various battlefronts, including Marib, the Houthis are intensifying their military buildup towards the southern governorates of Al-Dhalea and Lahj, as well as the central Yemeni governorate of Taiz. Recent clashes in Lahj’s Yafa’ district resulted in casualties on both sides. During these encounters, some reports suggest that the Houthi-appointed air force commander, Ahmad Ali Hassan Al-Hamzi, was killed a few weeks ago, although the exact location remains unclear.

In southern Yemen, the ceasefire has catalyzed the STC to bolster its secessionist aspirations. However, this phase has also brought about challenges, including internal divisions, the activities of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and complex negotiations with the Yemeni government, as well as with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The struggle between the STC and the Yemeni government over Hadramawt peaked when the largest Yemeni governorate in the southeast announced the formation of the Hadramawt National Council on June 20. Other southern governorates like Shabwa and Abyan may consider adopting similar governance structures that maintain a degree of autonomy from other political factions. Some believe that Saudi Arabia may even support such moves in order to counter the growing influence of the UAE-backed STC, which aims to gain control over this strategically significant province for Riyadh.

Second, the Southern Security Belts forces, on the other hand, are supported by the UAE. In recent months, as Al-Qaeda activities surged in the south, they launched a military campaign against the group, their second such operation this year. Regrettably, during this operation, a roadside blast resulted in the loss of the Security Belt forces commander in Abyan governorate, Abdul Latif Al-Sayed, along with several of his soldiers.

Finally, as Yemen stands at the precipice of uncertainty due to the fragile ceasefire, its people undoubtedly question the destiny and the long-term unity of their nation. Indeed, suspicions of a covert deal between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, possibly involving Iran, add to the unease. The status quo facts that have evolved over the eight-year conflict, particularly regarding the persisting power imbalances among the warring factions, fuel concerns about the fairness of any future peace agreement. As always in war, the largest victims will be the Yemenis themselves.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Politics & Governance
Country: Yemen

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Dr. Omar Munassar, a Middle East scholar and former assistant professor of international relations at Uludağ University, specializes in foreign policy, identity politics, conflict and peacebuilding, with a particular focus on Yemen, the Gulf region, and Turkey.


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