The Yemeni scene is confusing and far from stable, with questions being asked about the announcement by the Houthi rebels of their withdrawal from the port of Hodeida and the Amman negotiations which kicked off on Monday.
The Stockholm Agreement between the Houthi militias and the internationally recognised government of Yemen, signed in Stockholm on 13 December 2018, is not being fully observed, though the Houthis said they had started to withdraw from the strategic Red Sea ports of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Issa on Saturday.
The UN declared that the “redeployment” operation had started and that it had monitored the exit of military units from the ports as coastguard personnel took over security arrangements in the area. It said that the removal of mines and other military installations would follow.
However, these withdrawals do not mean there is greater trust on the ground. The negotiations are being interpreted by each party as it pleases, and whether or not the Houthi move is a ploy or a genuine attempt at making peace the militia still shoulders the responsibility for prolonging the conflict in Yemen.
The legitimate government had agreed to implement the conditions stated in the Stockholm Agreement, but the Houthis procrastinated when it was time to put it into action. Moreover, the Houthi “relocation” operation is closely connected to political developments in the Gulf.
The escalation in the region has reached its peak with the tightening US sanctions on Iran, and the USS Arlington and a battery of Patriot missiles have joined the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group and bomber task force deployed earlier in the Middle East.
Iran’s response has been to announce a delay of 60 days before it withdraws from the nuclear deal with the West. It has also threatened Israel with long-range missiles.
Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani wrote on Twitter that “what the Houthi militia did is a theatrical play of handing over control of the ports to its own forces [in different uniforms]. This shows its continued manipulation and evasion of the agreement... by adopting a policy of deception.”
He published two photographs of someone he dubbed as Abu Ali Al-Kahlani, head of the “Iranian Houthi militia” in Hodeida, one in military uniform and another in civilian clothes in the port.
British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron said on Twitter that “the Yemeni cynics who criticise everything the other side does even if it is positive and who say the UN are naive seem to be saying the only solution is perpetual war in Yemen. I have more faith in the Yemenis and believe they can live together in peace and security.”
According to the Yemeni Barq website, the tweet caused considerable anger, with many Yemenis saying Aron had disregarded diplomatic protocol by seeking “to impose his views”.
The Houthis’ delay in implementing the Stockholm Agreement has shaken trust in their intentions, including their reported withdrawal from the Red Sea ports.
In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Monday, Aron said that “the unilateral withdrawal of the Iran-backed Houthi militias from the port of Hodeida will put an end to arms smuggling and cut off the financing of the war effort.”
“After the pullout, the United Nations and Red Sea Ports Authority, affiliated to the legitimate government, will assume control of the ports. All the customs revenues will go to the Central Bank once the Port Authority reassumes control, and it will pay the salaries of employees in Hodeida and other provinces in Yemen.”
He said “a meeting will be held with the UN in Amman this week to follow up on the issue.” He “wanted people to wait and see whether the operation was a success before jumping to conclusions.”
Aron later apologised for angering the Yemeni people with his tweet, saying that the UK was seeking the stability of Yemen and the prevalence of peace among its people.
On Tuesday morning Aron said Houthi leaders were present among the coastguard force that took over the security management of the Red Sea ports from which the militia withdrew.
The British ambassador to Yemen stated that the UK was engaged in talks with the legitimate government’s representative in the Regional Redeployment Committee (RCC) Saghir bin Aziz about the government’s fears regarding the Houthis’ unilateral pullout.
Aron supports the Houthis’ withdrawal from Hodeida city, not only from the ports, he said.
He told Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath channel that the UN mission, the World Food Programme and the Yemen truce monitor mission were docked at the ports observing the pullout operation.
Aron stressed the UN will monitor smuggling operations Houthi militias conduct through the ports.
“After the first stage ends, a tripartite monitoring mission will be set up. The Stockholm Agreement contained details that were difficult to implement on the ground. Currently, the gaps are being bridged and Bin Aziz announced that the government was ready to implement the first phase,” Aron said.
The Houthis’ unilateral withdrawal was a decision taken by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, Aron said, adding that the most important condition stated in the Stockholm Agreement was the Houthis’ pullout from the Red Sea ports.
The plan of the RCC head Michael Lollesgaard, the ambassador added, stated that local forces would take control of the city in the third phase and that the Stockholm Agreement didn’t specify the nature of the forces.
Aron said that the internationally recognised Yemen government had the right to object to the presence of Houthis among coastguard personnel.
In a step meant to pressure the Houthis into pulling out of Hodeida, the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY), based in Aden, confiscated $100 million on Monday to end the Houthis’ control over the Cooperative Agricultural Credit (CAC) Bank in the capital Sanaa.
CBY Governor Hafez Miead seized control of the state-owned CAC, which the militia has been exploiting for years and has used to fund the war against the legitimate government and the Saudi-led coalition.
On Monday, the UN held a new round of talks between Yemen’s warring parties in Jordan. Breaking a half-year deadlock, the talks came two days after the Houthis announced the beginning of their withdrawal from Hodeida.
Officials said the talks had focused on “sharing revenues from the three Red Sea ports to help relieve the urgent humanitarian crisis,” Reuters reported.
Hodeida is a lifeline for Yemen through which aid and other goods enter the country.
Yemen’s economy has plummeted as a result of the ongoing conflict. The humanitarian crisis has worsened, and millions of Yemenis are suffering from hunger and illness.
The CBY has not been able to pay salaries to the country’s public-sector workers because of the depletion of the country’s foreign reserves and the corruption that has infested local organisations distributing aid. Some international groups have also been involved in corrupt practices, depriving people of the aid that has been sent to them.
The on-and-off negotiations beg the question of whether the UN and others will now take serious action towards ending the Yemeni crisis, the worst in modern history. Meanwhile, the conflict in the country has led to famine and disease, which are slowly killing the Yemeni people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen negotiations continue