Over the past week, Stockholm has hosted peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties: the Houthi delegation, and the internationally recognized government. The negotiations resulted in an arrangement for a prisoner-swap, a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah, and preliminary steps to establish humanitarian corridors throughout Taiz province. Still, although exceeding expectations, progress resulting from the negotiations in Stockholm does not match what is needed to counter the entirety of the humanitarian crisis. In spite of the tough road ahead, the resultant agreement is a good start that will probably be built upon in further talks, with the end goal of finding a political solution. While fruitful, this most recent round of talks between the dueling sides is best understood as a confidence-building exercise, and a trial run for the negotiators’ most recent mediation strategy.
At the outset of the negotiations, the parties focused on the exchange of each side’s respective prisoners. The eventual agreement that all 16,000 detainees will be released in January 2019 was the first sign that negotiators in Stockholm would walk-away with tangible success. The deal will help thousands of Yemeni families reunite with their captured relatives and alleviate part of Yemen’shumanitarian crisis. With the swap’s deadline occurring only one week before the expected commencement of the next round of negotiations – successful follow through on this agreement could give mediators the momentum they need to trudge toward more agreements.
Building on the success of negotiating the prisoner swap, participants also reached a satisfactory settlement regarding the disputed port city of Hodeidah. According to the agreement’s text, there will be redeployment of both Houthi and government forces. To mitigate potential disruptions, this process is organized to occur over two phases. Phase one gives fighters on opposing sides 14 days to cease operations on the main highway connecting Sana’a and Hodeidah. Their absence is intended to allow for the smooth passage of goods and peoples between the two cities. In phase II, the fighters of both parties will vacate Hodeidah and its seaport altogether, with the Houthis exiting North, while the Hadi government’s troops do the opposite. If all goes according to plan, this will be complete 21 days after the agreement’s initial signing. Filling the void left by fighters, the UN will have an observatory role during this process, during which local troops approved by both parties will proceed to secure the city and seaport.
Control of the port is important, and the UN’s role overseeing the access point will make the transportation of aid immensely easier. At the same time, the vacating of Houthi fighters from Hodeidah will likely end the threat of maritime attacks against Saudi oil tankers and vessels which had previously prevented the nation from utilizing the Bab Al-Mandab Strait. This deal can be justifiably characterized as a win-win scenario for both parties. The UN-facilitated exit of Houthis from the city allows the group to avoid the embarrassments and loss that would have resulted as the Arab Coalition slowly advanced. It also allowed the Arab Coalition to enter the city after two previously failed attempts to expel the Houthis.
In addition to the inability of the Saudi/Emirati led-coalition to defeat the rebels, the Saudis especially faced added international scrutiny about their role in Yemen following the embarrassing fallout of the Jamal Khashoggi affair. Recent applications of international pressure, such as those exerted by the United States Senate, European Union and various media outlets converged with Martin Griffiths’ already ongoing efforts to bring both sides to the table.
Another aspect of the agreement was a statement of understanding regarding Taiz. That the province’s situation was even addressed is breakthrough for many Yemenis trapped in this southern-western governorate that has seen some of the war’s most intensive fighting. As a result of this understanding, a joint committee has been agreed to be formed by the two parties to include representation by the UN and other civil society organizations. The mandate of the committee will be to create humanitarian corridors for the smooth passage of aid and people. Establishing the corridors is expected to go hand-in-hand with a ceasefire. Despite not receiving as much attention as Hodeidah, inhabitants of Taiz have been surviving amidst equally tragic circumstances. The impetus for this Taiz agreement can be partly attributed to the military stalemate in the governorate, in which no party has been able to make any significant advances, all occurring against a backdrop of humanitarian suffering.
The outcome of the negotiations in Sweden is a good first step toward continued talks and negotiations that could eventually restore peace in Yemen. The handshake of the heads of the two delegations was a welcome change when compared to the explosive endings that had occurred at previous talks. Although symbolic, such a handshake was optimistically interpreted as a sign that both sides accept their joint responsibility in pursuing peace. From the perspective of mediators, one important conclusion of the negotiations in Sweden has been the successful usage of a formula that combines pressure on the ground with significant international condemnation of the regional powers that have the authority to change the trajectory of the war. Perhaps this formula is one that can be recycled to ensure successful future negotiations.