After nearly four years of war in Yemen, opposing parties in December 2018 reached an agreement on a ceasefire in the governorate of Hudaydah. Now a new round, or rounds, of negotiations are attempting to end the war that has been raging for four years.
The talks – held between the delegation of the internationally-recognized government backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition and the delegation of the government led by the Houthi group controlling the Yemeni capital Sanaa and large parts of the country – came at a time when the battles had intensified on several fronts. The humanitarian situation has developed into the most serious famine crisis in the world. More than 20 million Yemenis, which is two-thirds of the Yemeni population, are suffering because of the lack of food security, with 1.8 million Yemeni children suffering from malnutrition.
The negotiations were held on 6-13 December 2018 in the Rainbow District in Stockholm upon the invitation and sponsorship of the United Nations (UN) and through the UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths. The talks focused on confidence-building measures between the two sides and reaching an understanding to resolve the critical humanitarian situation as a necessary prelude to another round of talks that will address root causes related to policy and governance issues and the chances to end the war and achieve peace.
Unlike the five rounds of negotiations that were held between the two sides in past years and that ended in failure and lack of progress on the subjects of negotiations, the Stockholm talks were held amidst a positive atmosphere between the negotiators. The two sides showed some flexibility, particularly the Houthi group, and the negotiations eventually resulted in understandings labeled “the Stockholm Agreement.”
The most important element in the talks was the agreement on an immediate ceasefire in the Governorate of Al-Hudaydah, which is home to the main sea port in Yemen, in addition to two other ports, namely Salif and Ras Issa. The agreement included the gradual and reciprocal withdrawal of the two parties’ forces from the three ports and from the city of Al-Hudaydah – the capital of Al-Hudaydah Governorate – under UN supervision and provided that the UN monitor through a joint coordination committee the parties’ compliance with their commitments.
In order to end the Houthi group’s full control of the ports of Al-Hudaydah, the agreement assigned the UN a leading role in all management and inspection measures at these ports. The agreement also withdrew responsibility for the security of the three ports from the Houthis and assigned it to local security forces. The agreement also provided that the revenues of these ports must be transferred to the Central Bank of Yemen to contribute to the salaries of government employees, which have been suspended for more than two years. The agreement was arranged to be time-bound, with the ceasefire being immediate (it took effect on 18 December 2018); the redeployment in the three ports and vital parts of the city was to be completed within two weeks after the ceasefire goes into effect; and the redeployment to be complete within a maximum period of 21 days. Four weeks later, however, no tangible progress was made, as the Houthis’ interpretation of the agreement is to hand over the port to the pre-war port authority, while the Hadi government is demanding the complete withdrawal of Houthis from Al-Hudaydah.
Ta’izz and Prisoners
The two parties discussed their vision for handling the situation in the Ta’izz Governorate, which has been experiencing fierce fighting for three years and, as a result, suffering because of the Houthi siege. The two parties came up with what they labeled as “the Declaration of Understanding on Ta’izz,” which stipulates the formation of a joint committee comprising the two parties and should include civil society representatives, with the participation of the United Nations. The UN envoy explained that the committee would work to ease the situation in the governorate and discuss the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage of goods and individuals, mitigate the fighting, start the de-mining processes and exchange prisoners.
The two parties agreed on an implementation mechanism to activate a previous agreement on the exchange of prisoners and are expected under the agreement to exchange the release of more than 15,000 prisoners and detainees.
Failures of Negotiation
The negotiators have failed to reach agreements on other confidence-building issues concerning the negotiation agenda; namely, the Sanaa Airport and the status of the Central Bank of Yemen. The Houthis remain adamant in their demand to reopen Sanaa Airport, which has been closed since March 2015 by order of the [Saudi-led] coalition countries. The government delegation proposed the re-opening of the airport for domestic flights only and that the Aden airport controlled by the legitimate government be officially recognized as the international airport in Yemen, in which international flights coming from or heading toward the Sanaa Airport should land in Aden to undergo inspection procedures and for granting arrival or departure visas before continuing their journeys.
However, the Houthis have rejected this, keeping this issue on hold, in addition to the issue of the Central Bank, which the legitimate government had transferred from Sanaa to the temporary capital of Aden in September 2016. Furthermore, the government continues to demand the Houthis pay the revenues of governorates under its control as a precondition for paying the salaries of employees in these governorates. According to Griffith, the two parties agreed to resume the meeting at the end of January 2019.
Al-Hudaydah – The Most Important Breakthrough
The main breakthrough achieved in the Sweden talks was the part related to Al-Hudaydah, which has been controlled by the Houthis for three years and is a main theme of the Yemeni crisis. Al-Hudaydah is a central sticking point in the ongoing conflict and the source of growing international focus because of its three ports and strategic location on the Red Sea and because it is a lifeline for the humanitarian program on which millions of Yemenis depend in the current conditions of war.
The legitimate government and its allies in the Arab coalition have repeatedly accused the Houthis of exploiting the ports of the governorate to receive weapons from abroad, especially from their main ally Iran. The Houthis were also accused of obstructing the arrival of humanitarian aid through the Red Sea, and even looting it, in addition to posing a threat to international navigation in the region.
Because of the exceptional importance of Al-Hudaydah, the legitimate government and its allies declared their plan to liberate the governorate and concentrated their military operations in 2018 on achieving that goal. Some military successes of the legitimate government’s forces, backed by the aircraft and forces of the Arab coalition in the recent months, seem to have been a key factor in pushing the Houthis to the negotiating table and forcing them to make concessions on this file as a “less bad” option than losing control of the governorate entirely in battles.
In general, it seems that the Houthis are participating in these negotiations with a weaker position than in previous rounds of talks, because of the noticeably growing military pressure on the group in Al-Hudaydah as well as in the Houthis’ stronghold in the Governorate of Sa’dah. Moreover, the Houthis’ power has weakened because of the end of their partnership with former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih and his forces, some of which started fighting the Houthis instead. This is in addition to the ongoing international isolation facing the group and the worsening humanitarian crisis and economic collapse that Yemen has been facing after four years of war.
However, the internationally-recognized government is not better off. It came to Sweden for negotiations under growing international pressure applied on it and the Saudi-led Arab coalition, particularly after the assassination of Saudi writer and journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That incident has drawn attention to the practices of the Saudi government in the war on Yemen, which has claimed the lives of 60,000 people and resulted in the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to confirmations by the United Nations.
Affirming the international community’s interest in the Sweden talks and the need to ensure their success, UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt made a visit to the negotiators at a critical stage of the talks. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also witnessed the last day of the negotiations and ambassadors of the countries sponsoring the political process in Yemen, in addition to the permanent members of the UN Security Council and ambassadors of Gulf countries (except Qatar), were present as well. Following the end of the negotiations, members of the UN Security Council on 21 December voted unanimously on a draft UK resolution on Yemen confirming the international organization’s support for the Sweden agreement and stressing the need for all relevant parties to abide by it. The agreement stipulates that international monitors must be deployed in Al-Hudaydah as part of the implementation of the resolution.
However, the most sensitive political issues in the Yemeni file have been postponed and remain pending for one or more rounds of negotiations, depending on the implementation of what has already been agreed-upon with respect to confidence-building measures. The two parties stopped at a point on a framework agreement on issues presented by the UN envoy and agreed to discuss the agreement in the next rounds of talks.
The framework agreement is based on three terms of reference: the Gulf Initiative signed by the Yemeni parties to the conflict during the Arab Spring in 2011; the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference held in 2013 and 2014; and relevant UN Security Council resolutions, including UNSC Resolution 2216, which affirms the international organization’s support for the legitimacy of Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi and calls on the Houthis to withdraw their forces from government departments, the capital of Sanaa and all other areas they seized and to stop all acts that fall under the powers of the legitimate government in Yemen.
For the time being, the situation remains as it was: the Houthis are still in control of most of the northern parts of Yemen and some coastal areas, including Al-Hudaydah, while other parts of the country are nominally under the control of the government of President Hadi, who has lost most of his support among the population, making a sustainable solution more difficult.
While Yemenis hope the disputing parties will abide by the agreement negotiated in Sweden, the outstanding issues and subsequent actions remain the most difficult and complicated ones, not least because the crisis has complicated political and sectarian dimensions and is directly related to long-standing regional conflicts. Restoring the lost peace continues to be fraught with obstacles – and remains far-fetched for now.