The options for Yemen continue to teeter between war and peace. The Stockholm process, now in its fourth month, has yet to translate the agreement struck in the Swedish capital in mid-December into realities on the ground.
Artillery fire continues to reverberate along the battle fronts between the forces of the internationally recognised government and the Houthi militias as mutual recriminations and accusations hurl back and forth between adversaries who, in the absence of mutual trust, cling to the military option.
In an effort to salvage a process that he described as in the “last chance saloon”, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt undertook the first visit to Yemen by an official of this level since the Houthi coup in September 2013.
“The process could be dead within weeks if we do not see both sides sticking to their commitments in Stockholm,” he warned from Aden. “I am here because this is really the last chance for peace.”
In the last round of warfare, the Houthis shifted their focus away from Hodeida, where there has been no progress in implementing the agreement that called for the withdrawal of its forces within two weeks and where they targeted 12 civilians from a single family south of the city, to Hajjah province in order to subdue an insurrection among the Hujour tribes.
Deputy Governor of Hajjah, Nasser Daqin, said that the Houthi militias have expanded their siege on the Kashar directorate in the north of the province, and that they have executed civilians and driven large numbers of the residents from their homes with random artillery fire.
Yemeni observers read this offensive as a declaration of the Houthis’ intent to undermine the peace process and protract the war as they subdue civilian populations under their control in the areas of Houthi influence.
As for government forces, Yemeni Defence Minister Lieutenant General Mohamed Al-Maqdishi, in a statement from military command headquarters in Mareb, announced that the Yemeni political and military leadership was determined to sustain military operations against the Houthi militias.
At the same time, pro-government politicians and media reproached Western powers concerned with the Yemeni situation for their silence with regard to the situation in Hajjah. Khaled Alian, a journalist close to official circles in Riyadh, complained of the lack of any international condemnation or pressure from Hunt during his recent visit or from UN Envoy Martin Griffith concerning the plight of the Hujour tribes.
“It appears that the double-standard approach remains intact towards the situation in Yemen,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from Riyadh.
“Is there now a British plan for Yemen that supersedes the UN and the role of the UN envoy who expresses himself more as a British person than an international envoy? Do those officials have two discourses, one to use in Riyadh when meeting with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and another to use with the Houthis? This is what is keeping the crisis in place.”
These were not the only criticisms levelled against the British role in Yemen. In fact, Houthi leaders were harsher.
Following the Yemeni foreign minister’s ultimatum, during an interview with Sky News Arabic in the UAE, that the coalition will return to war if the Houthis continue to refuse to meet their obligations under the Stockholm Agreement, head of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi said, “Jeremy Hunt should be very aware that the Yemeni people know that Britain is an active accomplice in the aggression against Yemen and that it is using its own weapons to kill. They also know that the British-sponsored resolutions are not for the sake of justice but in order to serve a timid soldier who mutters what the US-Israeli agenda tell him to say in the Security Council.”
Accusing Hunt of no longer being an honest broker, Al-Houthi charged that his statements “expose the policies of Britain and the US which originally gave the signal to Yemeni government forces to start the battle against Hodeida and now want to repeat it.
” The purpose of the British foreign secretary’s “misleading” statements, according to Al-Houthi, was “to improve the image of the US-British-Saudi-Emirati aggression which perpetrates massacres and famine and obstructs peace.”
The barrage of criticism against Hunt from both sides could be a sign of the immanent collapse of mediating efforts. As the Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Madjidi put it, “they are clear messages that the option of a diplomatic settlement has failed, even though the option of a military settlement remains complicated and difficult to attain.”
According to a member of the Yemeni government delegation to the Stockholm negotiations, the British seem particularly concerned with the ports covered by the agreement struck in Sweden: Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Isa. In interview with the Weekly, the source said: “The British, perhaps supported by a number of international powers, believe that the coalition can resume control of the southern ports, especially Aden, but that coalition should not continue the advance up the western coast in order to liberate the ports there.”
He held that this belief stemmed from a perception that if government forces liberated the ports, they would monopolise control over them.
This made him wonder why, instead of plunging into this crisis, no attempt had been made to reach an agreement on managing the ports and channelling their revenues to the benefit of the Yemeni people.
The source added that members of the government negotiating delegation and supporters of the government suspect that international powers intend to circumvent international resolutions in the interest of promoting a new arrangement.
“This is why the president (Hadi) tried to assert a veto against the Stockholm process. But he failed because of the entreaties and promises that Western countries, especially Britain, used to persuade the coalition to proceed with this process.”
Is the forthcoming scenario a return to war, as Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi predicts on the basis of his belief that this is the design of Britain and its allies?
“In fact, it’s not the forthcoming scenario at all. It’s the scenario that is actually in progress,” said a Yemeni government source.“The fighters have had no break. Ultimately, the war will continue as long as there is no breakthrough that can be agreed on and that is backed by the ability to carry out its provisions and accept its outcomes.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen’s last chance?