One sided and incomplete, Yemen’s truce faces implementation hurdles as extension deadline nears

The U.N.-sponsored truce of April 2022 between the government of Yemen, the Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels remains very fragile. Yet it is the longest pause in fighting Yemen has experienced since the Houthi armed rebellion broke out in September 2014 and the Saudi-led coalition forces intervened six months later. The signing of the truce this spring was welcome news both inside and outside Yemen. Locally, it brought relative relief for the Yemeni population, even if many viewed the temporary de-escalation with hope rather than optimism given the last seven years of indecisive war, the collapse of all previous ceasefires, as well as the known implementation challenges. Regionally, the truce froze Houthi cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, which had totaled more than 1,300 drone, missile, and boat strikes since 2015. It also came against the backdrop of regional rapprochement efforts between Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, in a bid to de-escalate tensions and develop a new framework to manage the respective countries’ differences and protect or advance their interests. Internationally, the sharp reduction in Houthi strikes on Saudi oil facilities decreased the risks of disruption to global petroleum and associated supply chains — a particularly crucial consideration amid the Russian war against Ukraine, which has further pushed up energy and food prices, resulting in a projected global inflation rate of 6.7% in 2022. The United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, viewed the consequences of Houthi cross-border attacks with great concern given their interest in reducing international energy prices; and they have repeatedly urged Saudi Arabia to increase oil production toward that end. Notably, on June 30, the Houthis reportedly launched a drone attack on Khamis Mushait, which affected airport traffic at Abha Airport, but Saudi Arabia neither confirmed nor denied the incident.

In short, there is strong external interest in extending the Yemeni truce given the scale of turmoil in the global arena. And yet credible progress remains lacking and should not be overestimated. The Yemeni government’s newly established Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which took over the powers of the former office of the president and is headed by long-serving statesman Dr. Rashad al-Alimi, made significant concessions to support the truce. However, the Houthis have failed to reciprocate. The original two-month truce called on all signatories to freeze military operations, permit the resumption of two weekly flights to and from Sanaa International Airport (SAH), allow the entry of 18 fuel shipments into Hodeida port, and recommence talks to open the roads in and to Taiz and other cities. Yet as of June 2, when the ceasefire deal was extended for another two months, progress was made on only the first three of those agreed-to points.

What has the truce accomplished?

Broadly, the immediate internal benefits of the truce included the ability of Yemenis to again fly from Sanaa, a significant reduction in civilian causalities and displacement, and a revival of direct communication between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. Nevertheless, the truce remains a work in progress — and progress made largely as a result of the government of Yemen’s and the Saudi coalition’s concessions, which have thus far been met with high levels of Houthi inflexibility in at least four key areas.

First, the internationally recognized government of Yemen permitted Houthi-issued passports — a sovereign measure long rejected — to be used for travel to and from SAH. While this step eases travel for the Yemenis living in areas under the Houthis’ control, the policy allows the Houthis to weaponize passport issuance, facilitating travel under assumed identities for wanted individuals and foreigners tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This causes a legitimate security risk for destination states and explains why flights from SAH to Cairo, for instance, have experienced aviation permission delays and disruption. Since reopening, an estimated 21 commercial flights have traveled to and from Sanaa, carrying more than 8,000 passengers. The number of passengers and the list of destinations could easily be expanded if security considerations were adequately addressed. It is worth noting, however, that the Houthis have employed their own criteria to restrict civilians’ access to travel. They have, for instance, blocked several civil society activists from using SAH to attend meetings or conferences, including U.N.-sponsored consultations in Amman. Denying Yemeni citizens freedom of movement between their home and the outside world undermines their basic human rights as per Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a reflection of the tight control the Houthis exert in Sanaa beyond political and civic rights.

Second, the amount of fuel that entered Hodeida port in 2022 increased by approximately 53%, from 23 ships collectively carrying less than 470,000 metric tons in 2021 to 26 tankers carrying a total of 720,270 metric tons during the months of the truce, as of July 21. The disbursement of revenue from the oil derivatives flowing through Hodeida remains a contentious issue. The government of Yemen has long demanded that the Houthis use this money to pay the salaries of civil servants residing in their area of control. But since the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, the Houthis have not honored their commitment and instead used the port revenues to finance their war effort; nor have they maintained funds in the so-called joint U.N. account toward that end. Hans Grundberg, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, could increase his and his office’s credibility by developing a suitable mechanism for collecting fuel revenues to pay the salaries of local civil servants.

Third, the Houthis have refused to make any concessions regarding lifting the siege on Taiz governorate, to the point of refusing all road-opening proposals put forward by the U.N. special envoy in May, June, and July. As negotiations between the delegations of the government of Yemen and the Houthis resumed in June, ambitions declined. Although the Houthis offered a gradual, phased reopening of the blocked roads, they eventually backed off and instead proposed the opening of a very minor road historically used for transporting livestock. This small half step effectively maintained the siege on Taiz, thus continuing to deny the area’s estimated 3 million residents the right to move freely and safely. To date, there has been no progress on the opening of the main roads into and out of Taiz. Against this backdrop, the European Union — in a rare move — criticized the Houthis over their “rejection […] of the latest proposal by the UN Special Envoy (UNSE) on road reopening notably around Taiz”; the French, British, and Americans simultaneously delivered their own condemnations.

Progress on the reopening of roads in Taiz governorate may require negotiations to zoom out to encompass al-Dhale’a, Marib, Lajh, al-Bayda, Hodeida, and other Yemeni governorates as well. But to ensure a credible trust-building process, serious pressure must be applied on the Houthis to cooperate, especially given that their initial demands have been met to enter direct talks. For now, Yemenis face an absurd situation in which thousands can buy expensive airline tickets to fly to Amman, Cairo, or Sanaa, while the 3 million residents of Taiz governorate cannot purchase a bus ticket to travel 10 minutes from al-Hawban to Taiz city due to the ongoing Houthi siege.

Fourth, the relative calm in the military sphere does not necessarily mean that another escalation is not possible, nor has it prevented over a thousand ceasefire breaches, including small-scale offensives, mobilizations of forces, and the expansion of frontline trenches. Rather, the relative calm brought about by the four-month-long truce has meant that the breaches did not result in a significant change in territorial control or a major death toll from combat. Although the fragile ceasefire continues to hold, provocations and signs of renewed escalation are growing. Of the 1,700 truce breaches between April 2 and July 22, recorded by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s “Yemen Truce Monitor,” the Houthis were responsible for 93% (1,578), 1,139 of which were missile, shelling, and artillery attacks and 140 of which were drone assaults. In May, the Houthis effectively disregarded Islamic traditions and ethics of war by launching a drone attack in Taiz while local residents and children were celebrating Eid al-Fitr at a nearby park. In June and July, Houthi forces redeployed heavy arms and forces to Taiz, and even launched a missile strike on a residential neighborhood, resulting in 12 casualties, during the visit of the U.N. envoy’s military advisor to Taiz. They launched small-scale offensives west of Marib on June 26-28; besieged and shelled the village of Khabzah, in al-Bayda’s Quraishyah district, using medium and heavy arms; and employed drones to attack the UAE-backed Joint Forces on the coast of Tihama, in addition to digging new trenches across the front line.

On the mobilization front, the Houthis have used the truce period to attract new military recruits and further indoctrinate Yemeni children in areas under their control through systematic radicalization programs known as “cultural” or “summer courses.” In early May, so-called Houthi Social Committees launched local fundraising efforts for summer schools, including by collecting food and beverages, stationary, and money from businessmen and small merchants. According to the Houthi-controlled version of Saba News Agency, the Houthis organized more than 500 summer centers in Sanaa with a capacity of 30,000 students to instill “faith identity,” and in July they inaugurated the training of 2,500 newly recruited young fighters under the so-called “Support and Backup Battalions.” Their allegiance, as per the ideologically oriented ceremony, is to Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi insurgency. The U.N. Security Council Panel of Experts’ 2022 Yemen report documented Houthi use of summer schools as an integral means of recruiting fighters; at least 1,406 children were killed in 2020 while fighting for the Houthi cause.

The signs of a looming escalation in the coming months are clear and must not be overlooked. The Military Coordination Committee, which has met three times as of July and encompasses representatives of the Yemeni government, Saudi-led coalition, and the Houthis, will eventually need to expand its role beyond tactical de-escalation work.

Moving forward

Despite the quantifiable progress and benefits of the truce, forward momentum appears largely one-sided, with the Houthis again benefiting from the international pressure on the government of Yemen to hold to the ceasefire. Clearly, understanding the broader international attitude, and in light of the “long-stated goal” of Washington and Riyadh “to end the war in Yemen,” as expressed in the July 15 Jeddah Communique, the Houthis followed up on President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia by publicly rejecting another extension of the truce. The move seems designed to secure further concessions in the back-channel talks happening in Muscat. Given the earlier progress made on reopening flights and fuel entry, headway on lifting the siege in Taiz will be a test not only for the international community but also for the Houthis regarding the compromises they could offer were comprehensive talks to resume tomorrow. “If they cannot concede to open a road, can we expect them to make concessions on bigger issues? It is hard to imagine peace in this way,” Riyadh al-Dubai, a human rights activist, told the author. As much as the truce has been unprecedented in its duration, it will be more impactful if the benefits are felt by millions rather than just thousands of people.

Most recently, the Quint — a diplomatic grouping that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S., the U.K., and Oman — and the EU declared public support for extending the truce for six months, and the U.N. special envoy expressed a desire to see it expanded in scope. While the truce since April has not led to a breakthrough on Taiz, it is unclear how the proposed six-month extension will be used to exert pressure on the Houthis rather than on the government of Yemen. Were the truce to be extended and expanded, it is expected that the list of travel destinations would be enlarged; but it remains unclear whether important issues such as landmines, one of the leading causes of civilian casualties during the truce, would be included as well.

The extension of the truce as a temporary de-escalation measure cannot continue indefinitely. The truce should be a means to an end — that is, a comprehensive political settlement — not an end in itself. The warring parties, especially the Houthis, are preparing their ranks for further fighting. Any truce renewal must be tied to a broader political process and, most importantly, be accompanied by credible pressure from the international community on all actors benefiting from the goodwill of their counterparts. Were the Houthis to accept an extension of the current truce, regional actors might use this success as justification to reduce their military footprint in Yemen, while the international community seems to treat the Yemen peace process as a box-ticking exercise. One looming fear among many Yemenis is that, under such a situation, the cycle of violence would resume in a more internalized manner, especially along the Marib front. In that event, two questions would arise: whether these revived hostilities would constitute the end of the truce, and whether the Saudi-led coalition would be willing to re-employ air power to prevent the fall of Marib. The answers to both questions will have consequences for the lives and livelihoods of millions of Yemenis.

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