During negotiations in Stockholm, Sweden in December 2018, the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of Yemen, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, agreed on a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah.
With 70 per cent of goods entering Yemen through Hodeidah, the ceasefire effectively prevented 22 million people from starving. Experts and rights groups also championed the negotiations for laying the blueprint for more ambitious talks in the future. However, all progress could be lost if the ceasefire collapses.
So far, there are several reasons to be concerned. Just hours after the truce commenced at midnight on 18 December, there were reports of clashes between the Houthis and coalition fighters. Violations continue, yet the United Nations (UN) insists that the truce is still holding because neither side has tried to seize territory.
That said, the extent of the clashes were unclear since a UN monitoring team, which the Security Council approved in January 2019, is still not fully in place. Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-profit in Belgium providing conflict analysis, noted that the major issue with the Stockholm agreement is that there was no consensus on the rules of the ceasefire.
‘Unlike most ceasefire agreements, this one did not include technical details on the scope, nature or duration of the halt to hostilities; definition of breaches; or mechanisms for quickly stopping fighting if it breaks out anew,’ Salisbury wrote in an ICG report published in January.
Salisbury also argued that the Houthis are the biggest obstacle to preserving the ceasefire since the terms of the agreement required the Zaidi Shiite militia to first redeploy their forces from three major Red Sea ports. Only then can a series of redeployments take place between coalition forces and the Houthis, effectively demilitarizing the city.
Many Yemenis are reportedly sceptical that the Houthis will actually redeploy, as they promised to do. Their fears are rooted in events in September 2014, when the Houthis had just seized the capital Sanaa and other northern provinces. They nonetheless signed a peace and national partnership agreement requiring them to withdraw to the mountains, which they never did.
The militia instead argued that the men at checkpoints in Sanaa were not their fighters but Houthi supporters from autonomous ‘popular committees’, wrote Salisbury.
The UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee (RDC), headed by Danish general Michael Anker Lollesgaard, is nonetheless tasked with overseeing withdrawals. On 16 and 17 February, the RDC made a major breakthrough when it met with Yemeni government officials and Houthi representatives.
The sides finally agreed to implement phase one of the Stockholm agreement, which would see the Houthis withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa. The government would then redeploy from the eastern suburbs of the city. A UN source also reportedly said that the main roads connecting Hodeidah to Sanaa and the city of Taiz would be reopened as part of the deal.
Martin Griffiths, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Yemen, also told the UN Security Council that withdrawals would take place within two weeks. If they did not, the council warned that it would take punitive measures against any party that violates the terms of the ceasefire.
Neither side has taken the threats seriously. On 19 February, two days after the sides met with RDC, eight people were killed and ten wounded after an artillery shell hit a market in the Tuhayta district of Hodeidah. Three days later, the Houthis attacked coalition forces near the 22 May Hospital in the east of city. A witness said that a man and two women died in the clashes.
“The Houthis launched a big attack targeting our sites controlled by our fighters in al-Khamseen Street, using heavy weapons, artillery, mortars and RPGs,” a coalition commander told The National, an Emirati state-owned news outlet.
“These attacks are unconscionable,” declared Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. “The country is facing the worst food security crisis in the world and yet the killing continues. Parties to the conflict are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians.”
Rather than do so, both sides continue to deflect blame. The spokesman for the Houthis, Ali Shaabi, recently told al-Hurra TV that some analysts in Houthi-controlled Sanaa were ‘sceptical’ about implementing the Stockholm agreement. He did not elaborate, except to say that clashes had to stop before anyone withdraws.
Meanwhile, Saudi and Emirati-funded media unequivocally blame the Houthis for violating the terms of the ceasefire. On 25 February, the Saudi-funded Asharq al-Awsat newspaper blasted the Houthis for delaying the implementation of the Stockholm agreement.
In an interview with the paper, al-Hassan Tahir, the governor of Hodeidah, said, “Houthis did not respect a deal stipulating that militias withdraw their forces five kilometres from the ports of Saleef and Ras Isa as part of the first phase of implementing the Stockholm agreement.”
Despite the setbacks, Salisbury argued that this is the UN’s last shot at brokering peace in Yemen. In January, he noted that the former US Defence Secretary James Mattis made a ‘last gasp’ phone call to persuade Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to accept the terms of the ceasefire.
But the new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears less willing to pressure Riyadh in the future, especially since he views Yemen through the prism of battling Iran. The Houthis are nevertheless the ones obstructing the implementation of the Stockholm agreement. And if they do not retreat soon, Saudi and Emirati patience could wear thin.