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Making the Most of Yemen’s Uneasy Truce

 

Personnel changes to the official Yemeni government, coupled with the recent truce between the warring parties, have presented Yemen with a major opportunity for advancing a lasting peace after years of perilous conflict. Such shifts should be lauded for their significance, given the past difficulties of brokering any agreement to halt the fighting. That said, the truce in effect today is not an end in it of itself, but rather a means to enforce durable peace. Serious doubts—although cautious hope—regarding the efficacy of the current agreement remain, as the country reaches a moment that may prove to be critical to its future.

A Cautious Peace

The initial truce that quieted guns across Yemen took effect on April 2, 2022. The deal calls for an end to all military operations inside and outside of Yemen, the entry of 18 fuel ships to the port of Hodeida, two commercial flights per week in and out of Sanaa Airport, agreements to discuss an end to the siege of Taiz, and follow-on talks for “next steps towards ending the war.” The agreement was extended for two more months on June 2 under the same terms.

Generally, the implementation of the truce has gone smoothly, though shortcomings have emerged. To be sure, the 18 fuel ships have come to dock at Hodeida throughout April, May, and early June before the truce extension. However, both the Houthi Movement (Ansar Allah) and the Saudi-led coalition have allegedly held up the ships. This behavior only underlines the precariousness of the truce, the mutual distrust exhibited by both parties, and the abuse of humanitarian aid to achieve political motives.

The hurdles in enforcing the truce go beyond port access. It took weeks for the first flight to leave Sanaa on May 16, following disagreements over travel documents. In particular, the Yemeni government has accused the Houthis of providing members of Hezbollah with doctored Houthi documents to travel to Yemen. At the point of writing, the parties have not met the objective of two flights per week set out by the ceasefire agreement.

Ultimately, these issues are far less meaningful and significantly less tenuous than the ongoing negotiations on the fate of Taiz. The city—Yemen’s third largest—has been under siege and cut off, from the rest of the country since March 2016.  A breakthrough on the fate of Taiz would mark a major turning point for wider peace negotiations in Yemen, given the city’s commercial importance, size, and symbolism to Yemeni society. That said, the Houthis have rejected a UN proposal to open the main road into Taiz on June 21, though the Yemeni government has accepted the plan. The Houthis have since countered with their own proposal, but the parties have seen little progress on the issue.

Nadwa Dawsari, non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, explained this dynamic, “the Houthis simply refused to open the main roads. They presented a proposal to open some dirt roads which would not have made any difference or reduced the suffering of civilians. Reports indicate that the Houthis sent a letter to OSESGY (Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen) basically indicating that they insist on either opening the roads they proposed or nothing.”

Even with such setbacks, the level of violence has decreased substantially across the country. War monitors have documented a complete end to the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign, as well as Houthi cross-border strikes against the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Low-level violence and force-bolstering has continued in some areas, including Marib, but the lull in violence has resulted in a major decrease in civilian deaths, which should be the main focus of international efforts to draw down the war in Yemen.

Improving Humanitarian Access

During its brief existence, the truce has already improved humanitarian access in Yemen, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA has reported increased humanitarian access since the April truce, including areas previously “cut off or identified as hard to reach.” This aid comes at a crucial time, given inflated global food prices.

Indeed, Yemen still constitutes the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, particularly for food security. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification’s (IPC) March 2022 report highlighted that 17.4 million people are in IPC Phase 3 and above, requiring immediate food assistance. Roughly 31,000 people faced famine conditions (IPC Phase 5) as of March, with a projected increase to 161,000 by the month’s end. This says nothing of widespread displacement, limited to non-existing medical services, and finite access to basic commodities like fuel and water. Despite modest improvements in humanitarian access, humanitarian situation is not necessarily improving. This has largely been the case due to lack of funding totaling merely $2.9 billion, bureaucratic hurdles, disrupted transportation lines, and infrastructure.

Dr. Aisha Jumaan, President of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation noted this issue in an interview: “Unfortunately, the humanitarian and economic situations are going from bad to worse with less funding for humanitarian work in Yemen and increase in food [prices], especially wheat. The humanitarian indicators will worsen, with an increased number of people experiencing famine, infectious diseases, and other [poor] health outcomes. Chronic diseases patients cannot afford the cost of medications in the market due to economic hardship and the cost of bringing items into a country that is under a blockade.”

Difficult Prospects for Peace

Ultimately, improving the humanitarian situation necessitates adhering to the current ceasefire and urging follow-on talks; the single best way to improve the humanitarian and human rights situation in Yemen is to end the war. The issue at hand is whether the parties involved believe that peace is the best policy to achieve their goals.

Current events suggest that there is space for cautious optimism, though the window of opportunity to achieve lasting and effective change is closing. Saudi Arabia desires an honorable exit from the war. Though this ambition is hardly realistic as Riyadh has garnered lasting reputational harm because of its military operations in Yemen, international leaders and institutions should encourage the Saudis to follow this path if it leads to negotiations to end the war. The formation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) on April 7 demonstrates the lengths to which Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are willing to go to resolve the Yemen issue in this respect.

Meanwhile, the UAE probably prefers a weak Yemeni neighbor in which it can meddle. The UAE also desires control over strategic Yemeni islands like Socotra. De facto control over these features would enhance the UAE’s importance in maritime security. Keeping Yemen weak, meanwhile, ensures that no missiles fly over Abu Dhabi. This is critical given Saudi and Emirati support of specific individuals on the PLC and suggests that these states are working toward ending the war and sustaining their influence – the latter of which could be detrimental to a lasting peace.

Importantly, the original reason behind the Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen—Ansar Allah—still exists. The Houthis are stronger than ever, in no small part due to limited pro-government unity and Iranian support, making it always possible to walk away from negotiations if the terms do not favor them. On one hand, it is difficult to imagine the Emiratis or Saudis allowing an Iranian-aligned militia to take full control of Yemen. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to picture the Houthis sharing their power with coalition-backed parties.

In fact, the Houthis have provided plenty of reasons to doubt the seriousness of any truce they enter. There are many reports of Houthi military buildup and some skirmishes in key frontline areas. Furthermore, the Houthis continue to impose a deeply conservative and radical social and political system in their areas of control. The group is notoriously guilty of child recruitment and indoctrination – practices that continue today. This says nothing of continued aggressive rhetoric against its real and perceived enemies that reflects the group’s zero-sum political vision for Yemen. If there are “moderate” Houthi leaders, it is growing increasingly difficult to identify them.

The shortcomings of the Houthis say nothing of the various pro-government militias across Yemen that still lack unity. While unity on the pro-government side is crucial for advancing a mutually hurting stalemate in Yemen, this cannot be a pretext for the truce’s collapse. Therefore, it is reasonable to view the PLC as a unifying entity, but it is also concerning to see unity often expressed in purely military terms.

For these reasons, Ms. Dawsari is skeptical of a lasting truce. “Honestly, I am not optimistic at all,” she said. “I don’t think there is a commitment to end the war. The Houthis have the upper hand militarily and they still want to take Marib and expand all over Yemen. No one has [the] leverage to force them to accept a political settlement.” Dr. Jumaan shares this perspective but criticizes U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. “The ceasefire is keeping the status quo and giving a false sense of reprieve, so the international community can pretend that nothing is wrong in Yemen. Many Yemenis will suffer silently.” She continues: “if Biden’s [upcoming] visit to Saudi Arabia ends with more security guarantees to Saudi and UAE without any meaningful efforts to end the support for the war in Yemen, I expect that the war will become even more fierce and that MBS/MBZ will be emboldened to be more brutal.”

Indeed, potential pitfalls exist that may threaten future negotiations between the PLC and the Houthis. The coalition’s concessions—called by many for years— have resulted in some progress. Thus, increased Western pressure on the coalition should produce further gains. However, pressing the coalition to quit the country could just as easily cede Yemen to the Houthis, who have proven to be eager to break nearly every deal they have signed in the past and would view this as a sign of weakness. International support to the PLC, while simultaneously reminding Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to draw down their presence in Yemen and cease all operations causing direct and indirect civilian harm remains the most reasonable course of action.

Looking ahead, peace talks must advance beyond the truce stage quickly; in other words, this war will only end if all actors in Yemen view peace—not war—as the best way to achieve acceptable, non-zero-sum goals. Taiz is the next step in this regard. Oman has done well guiding the Houthis through meetings and mediation—a result of the former’s longstanding neutrality on most regional issues—and should continue to play a central role in diplomacy. Simultaneously, Washington should continue to pressure the coalition on human rights. The United States should also seek to bolster the PLC’s functionality and expand its relationships with civil society and communities in its areas of control through development aid.

However, the approach highlighted above is not guaranteed to succeed. Yemen, like other active conflict zones, is unpredictable. International actors and relationships outside of Yemen, including Saudi-Iranian talks, carry substantial weight in the conflict. But for hostilities to truly end, international negotiations that center the well-being of the Yemeni people and the stability of the country are a crucial first step.

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
Country: Yemen

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Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa.


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