Yemen: further problems for the Riyadh Agreement

Summary: The Riyadh Agreement signed 5 November 2019 was supposed to merge  Yemeni government and Southern Transitional Council (STC) security forces in Yemen under the auspices of Saudi Arabia but thus far little progress has been made.

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.

If anyone was inclined to forget about the war in Yemen, last weekend brought a stark reminder of its ongoing brutality.  On Saturday evening, more than 110 soldiers and civilians were killed by a missile strike on the mosque where they had just finished praying. They were members of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Presidential Guard undergoing training in Marib prior to deployment in Aden in implementation of the Riyadh Agreement. The Houthis have denied involvement but, regardless, the Hadi government has accused them of responsibility; the alternative would bring into the open the possibility that this horrific attack was part of the struggle over control of the South between it and its Saudi supporters on one side and the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) on the other. The Minister of Transport has called for an investigation which is unlikely to take place.

This attack fits into a pattern in which single events cause massive loss of life, as they are on sites where men congregate. Most have remained unclaimed. Specifically in the South, the overwhelming majority of victims have been natives of Abyan governorate, President Hadi’s home area, with the notable exception of the 1 August 2019 attack which triggered the STC occupation of Aden, killing an STC leader and 40 of his troops, mostly from Yafi’.

The Marib attack took place in the context of increasing difficulties in the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement between the STC and President Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG), revealing the complexity of the issues, discussed in detail in a new ECFR policy paper.  As predicted in our posting of 13 November 2019 delays are impressive and difficulties abound, with a current focus on the most sensitive military elements. Following a series of military confrontations between these two groups to control more territory and bases in the midlands of Abyan and in Shabwa governorates in December, ceasefires were arranged and were followed by weeks of procrastination and STC military actions to prevent the Saudi forces from enforcing coalition decisions in Aden.

This stalemate was broken on 9 January when a new Saudi led committee agreed a further 20 days extension for the completion of a withdrawal to pre-summer positions of IRG forces from Abyan and Shabwa and of STC forces from Aden and a handover of all weapons to sites under Saudi control. Everywhere, the replacement forces are intended to be local and supervised by the Saudi military. Depending on the identity and extent of STC-related elements in the local forces concerned, this might change the balance of power. Well into the 20-day timetable, there is little doubt that the Saudi team is attempting to achieve a reasonable balance between the two, but there is far more doubt as to its likely success.  After early reports of progress, within days the government side protested that the STC had earlier removed operational materiel out of Aden into its strongholds of Lahij and Dhali’ in violation of the agreement.

The Riyadh Agreement had called for ll forces in the south to fall under the authority of Saudi forces until the formation of a government of national unity due to take place once the military aspects have been implemented. According to Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, former Prime Minister and Advisor to the President who heads the IRG team in these committees, the president would appoint a new governor and a new security chief for Aden, to be followed by the formation of a government of technocrats by 22nd of January! As Prime Minister Abdul Malik Ma’een said, the implementation of the Agreement requires a lot of “wisdom, patience and skill.” He could usefully have added the even greater need for willingness to compromise and give a minimum of consideration to the suffering of Yemenis, something which all Yemeni leaders have blatantly failed to do for the past five years at least.

As the Riyadh Agreement’s success seems increasingly remote and in doubt, other diplomatic interventions in the Yemeni crisis are showing equally limited progress. The Stockholm Agreement of December 2018 called for the  exchange of 16,000 prisoners. Thus far, only a few hundred have been released through tribal mediation, with technical support from the Red Cross, entirely outside the UN system. With respect to the STC-IRG conflict, its intensity or lack thereof is demonstrated by the exchange of 53 prisoners in Abyan and Shabwa earlier this month while the only visible sign of life of the Saudi-Houthi negotiations has been the release and return of six Saudi prisoners on 1 January.

Direct peace negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia appear to be at a standstill though the dramatic reduction of coalition air strikes on Yemen has continued with 80 in October, 39 in November, and only 18 in December. For their part, the Houthis have only launched one cross-border missile strike on Saudi Arabia in early January, possibly as an indicator of dissatisfaction with the lack of negotiations progress. However fighting on the Nehm front has flared up, including coalition air strikes. Up to now the dramatic worsening of the US-Iran crisis with the assassination of Qassem Suleimani has not been echoed in Yemen: the Houthis have neither carried out any actions on their own, nor, as yet, claimed any in retaliation. It appears that most parties seem to want to keep Yemen out of this conflict, but this situation may change at any time. Clearly, Iran’s strategy is to lower the risks of further US attacks, while its unpredictability keeps its enemies on alert.

Yemen’s Houthi ambassador to Iran Ibrahim Muhamed al-Deilami conveying condolences and presenting a Yemeni dagger to the family of Qassem Suleimani (credit:@WilayahFollower)

At the January UNSC meeting, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths made bland statements of progress, unsupported by any evidence, leaving all those present with an increased awareness of the UN’s marginalisation in the crisis. Since then he has published standard appeals following each major murderous attack and still claims to work towards peace negotiations this year. By contrast, in the past two weeks, the EU Ambassador to Yemen, accompanied by his French and Dutch colleagues, has visited both Aden and Sana’a at length and can be presumed to be working on new peace building moves.

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