Is this the beginning of the end of the Yemen war?

Summary: talks in Sweden may lead to a ceasefire in Hudayda and allow in vitally needed food and medicine.

Editor’s note: we now expect to issue one more posting, on Syria, before the Christmas break. Events!

Following talks in Sweden a partial and patchy ceasefire has begun in the key Yemeni Hudayda province and port. A Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) with members from the Yemeni government and the Houthis will be chaired by Major General Patrick Cammaert, 68, a Dutch specialist in peacekeeping who has a fine record and has commanded UN forces in Ethiopia/Eritrea and Congo. The peace talks ran ahead of expectations, and the UN secretary general António Guterres is officially described as “breathing down the neck” of officials to make sure that the UN observers are deployed as soon as possible to monitor the ceasefire.

As the first of its kind it is to be expected that the ceasefire will be fragile and may fail. Peacemaking is seldom successful at the first attempt.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

Is this the beginning of the end of the Yemen war?

Signed under heavy pressure, the very brevity and vagueness of the texts of the Stockholm Agreements are a reminder of the  rushed process which brought them about.  An immediate example emerged with the starting date of the Hodeida ceasefire: the Stockholm document explicitly states that  it starts on signature and three days later as fighting was as virulent as ever, the UN announced that it was only due to come into effect on the 18th. While Hodeida has been fairly calm with only occasional breaches since then, air strikes and fighting elsewhere have continued. In the week preceding the talks, there were 450 incidents of armed conflict, one third of them in Hodeida.

Pressure from the international community came first from the US when, in late October both Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo called for a cease fire in Yemen within a month in an attempt to mollify US Congress anger at Trump’s continued support for MBS, following on the Khashoqji assassination. This forced the UN to rush the organisation of a new meeting between Yemeni fighting parties. Second the catastrophic humanitarian situation achieved increased world attention, and top UN officials [from OCHA and WFP among others] were adding their voices to media  reports of mass starvation and death, something which also encouraged the UK to initiate a new UNSC resolution, regardless of objections from the Saudi-led coalition. The UN’s failure to get talks started in September had demonstrated that both considerable external pressure and detailed planning and preparations were essential if for consultations to achieve anything. The first materialised, but the second remained absent, hence the weakness of the agreements reached in Stockholm last week.

Three documents were signed, the least significant concerns Taiz where the parties merely agreed to form a committee including representatives of civil society,  which will meet and establish its terms of reference. The second concerns the exchange of prisoners. Agreed in principle prior to Stockholm, lists of 16 000 prisoners were handed over in Stockholm and the exchange is to be implemented by the ICRC, which will have only 10 days in which to interview and arrange the release starting on 21 January, while the two sides have 40 days to verify the lists and, presumably, ensure access to the detainees. Highly ambitious in scope given the numbers involved, it is fully comprehensive and covers ‘all prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detailed and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest … without any exceptions or conditions.’  The presence of some foreigners and the fact that others may be out of Yemen are mentioned. Although ‘everyone’ is included observers are left wondering whether those held in the Emirati ‘secret’ prisons and torture centres in the south of the country and prisoners of conscience and political detainees will also be part of this exchange. They and their relatives hope so and call on ICRC and the UN to ensure that this is the case. The only names specified are those of the four senior leaders who were taken by the Huthis in March 2015 including former minister of Defence Mahmoud al Subaihi, President Hadi’s brother, and a senior Islah politician. Even with good will it is difficult to see it being implemented within the proposed timeframe, by the end of January 2019.

The third and most important agreement concerns Hodeida governorate and its ports. It is primarily intended to address the humanitarian catastrophe by preventing the Saudi-led Coalition from pursuing its military offensive which had halved the arrival of shipments into Hodeida from an already insufficient level. Fighting in the city had also prevented access to the Red Sea Mills which WFP keeps repeating currently holds wheat stocks sufficient to feed 3.7 million people for a month. As in addition, it prevented access to the areas where the majority of desperate people are located, this offensive was universally recognised as ensuring a dramatic worsening of the suffering of millions of Yemenis.  Hodeida port’s importance for the survival of Yemenis cannot be underestimated:  the country already imported 90% of its basic staple requirements before the crisis, and 70% of that arrived through Hodeida.

The UN’s December detailed food security analysis demonstrated that the crisis is even worse than had been thought, with 16 million Yemenis facing severe acute food insecurity (starvation in plain English) with humanitarian food assistance rising to 20 million without food assistance, confirming the crisis as the worst in the world. In this context, it is frightening to note that the WFP itself is only hoping to reach 10 million people in December, and to increase its assistance to 12 million next month.  Each one of these 15 million is a child, a man or a woman suffering extreme physical and mental distress on a scale beyond the experience and imagination of most of us.

The Hodeida agreement includes a cease fire, the withdrawal of all military forces from the city and ports, and prevents reinforcements on either side. Its enforcement is to be implemented by a redeployment committee formed of three nominees from each side supported by UN monitoring. In addition the UN is to take a ‘leading role’ in the management of the ports while the fighting parties are to ‘facilitate’ freedom of movement for people and humanitarian aid. A further clause states that port revenues will be channelled to the Hodeida branch of the Central Bank and used for the payment of salaries of civil staff throughout the country. Each of these elements has the potential for conflict including among others the allegiance of the security forces, the siting of the withdrawal lines, the management of the Central Bank and beneficiaries of the salary payments. These caveats assume that the cease fire itself holds which is uncertain given the coalition and Hadi government determination to take control of Hodeida, which they see as an essential step to obtain concessions from the Huthis, or even to defeat them.

While the UN has nominated a senior retired military officer from the Netherlands, Patrick Cammaert, to chair the redeployment committee, his team of 30 will be unarmed, and its final deployment is partly dependent on the UNSC Resolution recently submitted by the UK which ‘requests’ the UN Secretary General to submit by 31 December proposals to UNSC on how the UN will support the monitoring process. As there is resistance to the resolution in the Council, it is uncertain whether it will be approved this week, or indeed at all. In a context where the US questions UN peace keeping roles worldwide, the fate of this small monitoring mission may depend on factors  with at best indirect connections with Yemen such as post Khashoqji  Trump administration-Congress relations and hostility to Iran.

The horrific humanitarian crisis should suffice to ensure compliance with the Hodeida agreement. However neither side has shown compassion in the past four years, so there is little doubt that external political pressure will be essential to bring about progress. For the UN, having received USD 2.37 bn or 80% for its 2018  Humanitarian Response Plan,, demonstrating political and humanitarian success was essential when appealing for USD 4 billion for 2019. This explains the direct involvement of UNSG Guterres in preparing and implementing the Sweden talks. Although these sums are vast,  and Saudi Arabia has contributed more than USD 500 million to humanitarian relief in 2018, it is worth remembering that it spends between USD 4 and USD 6 billion per month on perpetrating this war.

There is no doubt that Stockholm is a positive development in the Yemeni crisis. It is important to recognise that this had limited objectives as a ‘confidence building measure.’ Achievements were higher than expectation, even though much of the agenda remained unsolved, namely the  re-opening of Sana’a airport, economic issues including that  of the Central Bank of Yemen and discussion of  Special Envoy Griffiths’; ’framework peace plan.’ The combined international pressure on Saudi Arabia and the dramatic worsening of the humanitarian disaster led to the holding of the Sweden meeting and some achievements,  whose limitation is confirmed by the explicit statement that the agreement ‘shall not be considered a precedent to be referred to in any subsequent consultations or negotiations.’

However there are plenty of causes for concern. In addition to the vagueness of the agreements and the consequent issues which will arise during implementation, it is worth remembering that in the past 15 years, the Huthis have signed 75 agreements and implemented none of them, thus casting doubts on their commitment to this one.  While there is reason to believe that things may be different this time, a year after the killing of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh , when part of the Huthi leadership is aware of the fact that their military and political position can only weaken in future, if gradually. However others may only note the movement’s rise of the past 15 years and look forward to more victories.  Similarly the internationally recognised government, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, has until now, been uncompromising on its three references and only halted its offensive on Hodeida under considerable pressure from its main coalition partner.

Even if all the agreements are fully implemented, and the humanitarian crisis alleviated through payment of salaries and imports of sufficient basic foods and fuel, the civil war and the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition continue.  The political problems which remain are numerous and enormous.  Just to name a few: these agreements do not address most of the military fronts [Al-Baidha, Nehm,  Saada and coastal Hajja].  Most importantly Yemenis are not only suffering a drop of living standards beyond imagination, having started the war as the poorest country in the region, but now more than ¾ of them barely survive in a state of emergency and lack the basic food and medication for survival.  The country’s social and political fragmentation has worsened and now includes a wide range of vocal, if largely unrepresentative,  separatist movements in the South and beyond. What little remains of the country economic structure is a mafia-like ‘war’ economy. Even with the good governance Yemen lacked for decades,  massive challenges remain: water scarcity, climate change and the major post war constraint  of  its future dependence on external financial aid forcing  the adoption of neo-liberal development models.

Regardless, this first step in negotiations after an interruption of 27 months, is a moment allowing Yemenis to enter 2019 with more hope than last year.

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