June 26, 2019

Yemen on the brink – of what?

By Guido Lanfranchi.

Last edited on May 21st, 2019

Four years into the Yemeni conflict, the situation in the country remains extremely volatile. The feeling is that Yemen is in a crucial moment – although it is not clear what the future holds, as the country continuously swings between fears of protracted conflict and hopes for a negotiated solution. In such a fluid context, acting for peace is more important than ever.  

Following the developments of the Yemeni conflict is no easy task. The recipe of the war in Yemen is extremely complex: several local groups conflicting over multiple fault lines, including political, religious, and tribal ones; regional and global powers providing support to their allies in the country; and years of military confrontation that have left a legacy of extreme mistrust among the parties. 

Over the past years, the United Nations have struggled even to bring the conflicting parties to the negotiating table, let alone moving forward with a solid peace plan. Yet, efforts for peace are always worth pursuing, and this historical moment might be a crucial one for Yemen to take steps ahead on the path towards peace.

After peacefully managing a political transition in the wake of the Arab Spring, Yemen precipitated in a political crisis in late 2014, when the Houthis, a political, religious, and armed movement from the North of Yemen, launched protests against the government, eventually seizing the capital Sana’a and forcing President Mr. Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee. 

As the two fronts started to clash militarily, international players jumped into the conflict, adding another layer of complexity. A coalition of regional states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates started a military campaign (mostly consisting of airstrikes) against the Houthis, also with the support of the United States. On the other hand, Iran allegedly stepped up its economic, political, and military support to the Houthis, albeit never in an overt manner[1].

Since June 2015, the United Nations has attempted to bring the Hadi government and the Houthis to the table for negotiations. This has not been an easy task and a number of different attempts have repeatedly failed, with each party blaming the other for the failure. However, a breakthrough unexpectedly materialized in December 2018, when a round of talks in Rimbo, Sweden, resulted in the signing of the so-called Stockholm Agreement.[2]The text envisaged agreements on a large-scale prisoners’ exchange and on de-escalation measures in Hodeidah, as well as a statement of understanding on the embattled city of Ta’iz. 

The deal’s implementation, however, have struggled to meet the expectations it had raised. To date, the prisoners’ exchange has not materialized.[3]Moreover, the due redeployment of troops from Hodeidah have been repeatedly delayed due to disagreements over who should take control of the port in the wake of the withdrawal.[4]In addition to that, fighting has continued in many areas of the country, with civilian casualties on the rise after the agreement, notably in the areas not covered by ceasefires.[5]

In the meanwhile, both parties have come under severe criticism for their conduct during the war. On the one hand, the Yemeni government has denounced a large number of ceasefire violations by the Houthis, also condemning their offensive in the Hajour district.[6]On the other hand, human rights organizations have accused the Saudi-led coalition of provoking large numbers of civilian casualties with their airstrikes campaign.[7]

After months of stall and unfulfilled announcements, on May 14ththe UN Redeployment Coordination Committee finally announced that Houthi forces had executed “partly as agreed” their withdrawal from Hodeidah, a key step in the Agreement’s implementation.[8]The withdrawal, however, was met with skepticism by the Yemeni government, with Information Minister al-Eryani accusing the Houthis of staging the pullout.[9]In addition to that, the withdrawal announcement was swiftly followed by an escalation of tensions, with clashing erupting in Hodeidah, and Coalition airstrikes pounding Sana’a in response to Houthis’ attack to Saudi oil infrastructure.[10]

In these tumultuous times, thus, Yemen seems continuously swinging between fears of war and hopes for peace. What can be done to ensure that the country moves towards a peacefully negotiated outcome rather than towards an escalation of the conflict?[11]

Crucially, both parties need to show their commitment to a negotiated solution, not only through their words, but also (and especially) through their deeds. In this regard, the incremental confidence-building measures advocated by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths could be crucial. Indeed, such measures could address very practical crisis situations, while at the same time improving the parties’ ability to dialogue and cooperate with each other. 

The Stockholm agreement provides a very good framework for these measures, for instance concerning the prisoners’ exchange and the troops redeployment. Other potential measures could include new (localized) ceasefires, the much-debated reopening of the Sana’a airport, and cooperation on humanitarian issues, although most recent disagreements between the UN and the Houthis on the provision of aid do not bode well in this regard.[12]Yet, despite all disagreements, incremental confidence-building measures seem to be the only option to pave the way for more a structured dialogue, which could hopefully address the complex political issues lying at the origin of the conflict.

The breakthrough achieved with the Stockholm Agreement has put Yemen in a crucial stage of its history. The country is on the brink of a new phase, but such new phase could mean anything, from progress towards peace, to continuation and possibly exacerbation of a brutal conflict. It is the hard task of the Yemeni people, with the help of the international community, to hopefully lead the country on the path of peace.


[1]On Iran’s alleged role in Yemen: https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2018/dec/05/iran%E2%80%99s-role-yemen-and-prospects-peace;https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-iran-houthis/exclusive-iran-steps-up-support-for-houthis-in-yemens-war-sources-idUSKBN16S22R.

[2]The Stockholm Agreement: https://osesgy.unmissions.org/full-text-stockholm-agreement.

[3]Delays in the prisoners’ exchange: https://osesgy.unmissions.org/full-text-stockholm-agreement.

[4]Disagreements over the Houthi’s withdrawal from Hodeidah: https://www.voanews.com/a/yemen-s-rebels-vow-never-to-surrender-a-major-port/4838517.html;https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/houthi-comments-to-not-give-up-hodeidah-an-insult-to-un-says-government-official-1.839346.

[5]Reports of instances in which the ceasefire was broken (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-yemen-security/fighting-breaks-out-in-yemens-hodeidah-after-truce-deal-idUKKBN1OD2EE) and impact on civilians in the country at large (https://www.nrc.no/news/2019/march/Civilian-casualties-double-in-parts-of-Yemen-since-ceasefire/).

[6]On Houthi’s alleged violations (http://www.arabnews.com/node/1451346/middle-east) and on the fight in Hajour district (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2019/03/07/Yemen-s-strategic-Hajour-district-A-forgotten-battlefront.html).

[7]On the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/world/middleeast/yemen-saudi-hospital-airstrike.html.

[8]On the UN RCC’s announcement: https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/05/1038461;https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-un/u-n-says-hodeidah-withdrawal-executed-partly-as-agreed-by-parties-idUSKCN1SK1KC.

[9]On the Yemeni government’s accusations: http://yemenonline.info/focus/2089.

[10]On the escalation in the wake of the withdrawal announcement: https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/yemen-a-tragic-battleground-will-get-bloodier-amid-us-iran-tensions-26829;https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/16/new-fighting-in-yemen-threatens-un-deal.

[11]“Five Steps to Save Yemen’s Stockholm Agreement” by the International Crisis Group (https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/five-steps-save-yemens-stockholm-agreement).

[12]On the UN-Houthis quarrel on aid abuse: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2019/05/warns-food-aid-yemen-suspended-190520165737749.html.

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