Significant developments in the Yemeni conflict

Summary: a truce is announced and a president resigns so does this mean that the war in Yemen, after seven brutal years of fighting, may finally be drawing to a close? 

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. Her book Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War, published by Verso, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

Ignoring possible disbelief due to the date, UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg announced a two months ‘truce’ in the Yemeni conflict on April 1. As the first successful attempt at halting fighting in six years, this alone is a significant event. But there is more: first the truce also involves some important measures which will improve living conditions for the Yemeni people, specifically the partial opening of Sana’a airport to civilian flights (two a week are initially planned), as well as the desperately needed docking of up to 18 fuel ships in Hodeida port. He also announced agreement to start discussions for the opening of closed roads in Taiz and other governorates.  Between them these moves, largely respected in their first ten days, are a major step towards reaching some kind of agreement to end the fighting. They also represent significant concessions to Houthi demands, given that the previous stumbling block of the issue of sequencing of ceasefire and ending the blockade have been sidelined in what was the obvious way, by doing both simultaneously, and all sides can express satisfaction.

Hans Grundberg in Oman
UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg with the Houthi negotiating team in the Omani capital Muscat on April 10 [photo credit: @abdusalamsalah]
After 7 full years of fighting and six years since the last temporary national ceasefire, long-suffering Yemenis and observers may wonder why this one is succeeding and whether it will lead to negotiations between the warring parties. One likely reason is the belated recognition by leaders on all sides, within Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition, that no breakthrough is possible in the military stalemate in Marib.  While military standstills elsewhere are simply taken for granted, Marib is of particular importance: known as the internationally recognised government’s (IRG) last stronghold in the ‘north’ it is – due to the fundamental conflict between the southern separatist STC and the IRG – effectively the IRG’s last stronghold full stop. Two years of Houthi offensives have failed to dislodge IRG forces despite extremely heavy human losses. Late in 2021 when the Houthis appeared to be on the verge of success, the coalition demonstrated its determination to defend Marib by bringing UAE-supported forces from the Red Sea coast area (thus abandoning much of the southern Tihama to the Houthis). They reversed Houthi gains in Southern Marib governorate, ensuring the IRG retained control of Marib city and the oil/gas producing areas of the governorate.

A second reason has been the increasing frustration of the international community, and in particular the Saudis and Emiratis at the failure of their Yemeni partners to function as a unit and seriously seek a solution. This was manifested in the very low response to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan’s appeal in early March, which raised pledges under a third of the amount called for (US$ 1.3 billion vs US$ 4.2 billion.) All UN agencies have already been significantly reducing their support, in some cases halving their food distributions. This not only affects the population at large, but also the ruling factions whose income from taxation and other exactions consequently dropped, affecting their treasuries and popular perceptions of their governance capacity throughout the country, not only in the Houthi-controlled areas.

Third, the skill and determination of the new UN Special Envoy played a role. It helped both that Grundberg is an EU citizen (unlike his British predecessor) and that during his earlier tenure as EU ambassador to Yemen he had demonstrated a more objective and principled approach than his predecessors. He initiated an ongoing process of discussions with the different parties, intended to form the basis for a negotiation process. This process forced the leaders of all concerned Yemeni parties to face their responsibilities beyond personal and factional ambitions. Hopefully these discussions will bear fruit in coming weeks.

In a separate development, the Riyadh intra-Yemeni dialogue has produced a ‘presidential council’. The Riyadh meeting, convened by the GCC administration was, of course and predictably, rejected by the Houthis who would not meet in the capital of the state responsible for launching the air war in Yemen. Transformed into a meeting of the anti-Houthi forces it was widely perceived as an opportunity to bring together the diverse and largely mutually hostile factions of the anti-Houthi front in the hope that it would produce a new Yemeni leadership. The outcome was a surprise: both president Hadi and his vice-president Ali Mohsen have been removed from the scene. Yet again, it seems that Saudi strong-arm tactics have intervened in Yemen.

On 7 April, Hadi, reading from a prepared script, reminiscent of Lebanese PM Hariri’s forced resignation in 2017,  announced his own withdrawal and replacement by a Presidential Command Council, (PCC) of eight men [zero women]. Other than advisory bodies or transitional ones (e.g. Libya,) Yemen is the only country in the world to have ‘presidential councils’ with executive authority. This is the third one and they have a pretty abysmal record. The first, in the PDRY ended, when two of its three members were killed, leaving the third in charge. The second, set up in 1990 at unification with five members, did not survive the separatist civil war of 1994, leaving Saleh as sole President.

This third one doesn’t look as if it will break the trend. It certainly covers the terrain, including the leaders of the main warring factions, who are mutually hostile, when they are not actually involved in military conflict with each other. This PCC formally creates a single entity responsible for negotiating with the Houthis, an explicit requirement in the Decree announcing its creation.

Between them, these developments mark a significant change and possible progress towards bringing the fighting to an end. There is no doubt that Grundberg will pursue his efforts to bring about negotiations between all these parties. Whether the new PCC will help or hinder his efforts is an open question. More likely than not, he will benefit from tacit, if not explicit, support from the IRG’s allies. The special envoy will probably try to expand the participants to negotiations to improve the gender balance and to include influential individuals from civil society and other entities, people who have manifested greater concern for human rights in the broadest sense. This is essential if a ‘sustainable’ peace is to be achieved, namely a regime responding to the needs and ambitions of the 30 million Yemenis for equal rights, equal opportunities and acceptable living conditions. While the likelihood of an agreement ending the fighting within months has significantly increased thanks to the events of the past week it will take a lot more than negotiations between the current factions to achieve a peace that is ‘sustainable’.

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