The United Nations hailed the agreement in Glion, Switzerland, on Sunday for a prisoner exchange between the warring factions in Yemen as a significant breakthrough, saying that it wanted to build on this positive development to bring about a national ceasefire and a political solution to end the conflict in the country.
Under the agreement, the internationally recognised government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels agreed to release more than 1,000 prisoners during a meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners’ Exchange Agreement formed after negotiations in Stockholm, Sweden, last year.
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said of the agreement that “I was told that it’s very rare to have prisoner releases of this scale during a conflict, that they mostly happen after a conflict… Our overall aim at the moment is to bring about an agreement on what we call a joint declaration, which is a national ceasefire to end the war in Yemen.”
Griffiths added that the prisoner release would be accompanied by other measures to open up ports, airports and roads in Yemen.
The parties concerned both inside and outside Yemen welcomed the agreement, some considering it to be a sign of a breakthrough in the five-year conflict that has left thousands dead, many more injured and millions displaced, with the majority of the population also facing famine and dire health conditions.
This is not the first prisoner swap to have taken place during the Yemen conflict, though it might be the biggest, and the implementation of such agreements has not always been smooth. Even if the present agreement leads to a ceasefire in the conflict, this, too, will not be the first. All such agreements are fragile and vulnerable to twisted interpretations by warring parties to the extent that they may not stand or last for long.
The UN might also be hanging onto straws in its hopes of ending the conflict in Yemen, which has brought with it an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia and the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi are backing the agreement and are both keen to end the conflict, but the Iran-backed Houthi militia are not willing to seriously negotiate a political settlement.
The Houthi rebels have been increasing their attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, along with opening new fronts in South Yemen. They are set to capitalise on the rift between the southern parties, mainly the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Hadi government, which Riyadh had been trying to fix.
The Houthi militia marked what it called “2,000 days of resistance against the Saudi-led Coalition” with a “food parade’ in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Thursday, with a display of stacks of cash, food and other donations presented to its fighters. In the run-up to the parade, the Houthis also increased the number of their attacks with armed drones and missiles on Coalition targets.
In a rare admission of direct involvement in Yemen, an Iranian military spokesman said that his country “has transferred its expertise in defence technology to Yemen, so that the Yemeni people can make missiles and drones by themselves.”
Though he denied sending weapons, it is an established fact for the Coalition, proved by the debris of missiles intercepted over Saudi Arabia, that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are fighting with Iranian weapons. However, the Iranian spokesman said that “we do not send missiles to Yemen, but they can now make them themselves to fire them at their enemies’ heads.”
Some analysts have suggested that the diplomatic efforts coinciding with the escalation of military action are an indication of a possible further breakthrough in Yemen before the end of the year.
But regional developments do not support this suggestion. A settlement in Yemen is becoming more and more intertwined with other conflict areas in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Unless there is a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the situation in Yemen will not stabilise.
As one Gulf analyst put it, all the parties are also waiting for the results of the US presidential elections in November. “Iran wants to keep its intervention in Yemen as a playing card with the US, especially if Trump wins a second term in the White House and a new deal between Tehran and Washington is on the table. If the Democrats win, then Yemen will also be a significant card for the Iranians to play with a Biden administration,” he commented.
However, the fact that America is thought to be “disengaging” from the region counterweighs this argument. Americans on both sides of the political arena want to offload the Yemeni burden by ending the conflict and reaching some sort of settlement, even if a fragile one.
One Oxford-based British commentator on the Middle East said that the US concern was “mainly the result of their support for their Gulf allies on Yemen and not necessarily the plight of the Yemeni people, whether in Houthi-controlled areas, government areas or southern areas” of the country.
Hadi’s government has accused the Houthi rebels of hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of Yemenis. Many areas of the country are in need of essential aid as the Covid-19 spreads and polio reappears in the country. Yemen’s National Emergency Committee has blamed the Houthis for the resurgence of the latter disease in militia-controlled areas of Saada and Hajjah, saying they had prevented polio-vaccination teams from operating there.
Yemen had previously been declared polio-free in 2006.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, the Yemeni president also asked the Houthis to allow a UN team immediate access to an abandoned oil-tanker that risks causing massive environmental damage in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, the UN has warned that international aid to Yemen is drying up, threatening the livelihoods of more than nine million people. UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council last week that famine in Yemen had been averted two years ago because donors had swiftly met 90 per cent of the UN’s funding requirements. But the latest figures show that the current $3.4 billion appeal is less than 38 per cent funded.
The worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen is unlikely to help to bring about a rapid resolution of the conflict in the war-torn country. And meanwhile many Yemenis feel they have been abandoned by allies and foes alike.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.