It has been six weeks since the Stockholm agreement, but little real progress has been made according to the deal’s timeline regarding working on a prisoner exchange, ending the siege of Taiz, and while the truce in Hodeida is violated by Houthi militias.
Battles outside Hodeida continue after Houthis carried out a drone attack on Al-Anad Airbase that killed the chief of intelligence and several soldiers during a military parade.
The Arab coalition supporting the legitimate government in Yemen responded with several counterattacks on military positions in Sanaa, which means the military path continues parallel to the faltering negotiations path.
Baleegh Al-Mekhlafi, chairman of the media committee of the government delegation to Stockholm, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Houthis want to undermine the deal by violating their obligations and obstructing the committees formed at the Stockholm talks in December 2018.
Al-Mekhlafi doubts that the Houthis have a real peace plan, based on the expectations of the world community and responsiveness of the legitimate government and Arab coalition.
Rana Ghanem, member of the government’s negotiating team and assistant secretary-general of the Yemeni Nasserist Party, said the delegation made many concessions under international pressure to reposition Houthis on the political scene as a party on the same footing as the government, and not as a rebel group.
However, the Houthis did not reciprocate, as seen in the subcommittees where they procrastinate and refuse to review prisoner lists, for example, presented by the government even though the government made the concession to exchange civilians for military prisoners.
They are also manoeuvring on the Hodeida issue, continued Ghanem, by interpreting the Stockholm text as “redeployment” instead of “withdrawal” and accordingly restructured their military and security forces in the port city to comply with this interpretation.
In Taiz, Houthi militias refused to open the Houban corridor to end the siege ahead of relief work.
Discussing the recent military escalation by the Arab coalition believed to be in response to the Al-Anad attack, Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi told the Weekly these attacks put the military option back on the table.
A new variable is that the coalition can be an incentive to subdue the militias if, for example, ground troops are sent to invade Sanaa.
Pro-government media reported that the coalition will likely send excess troops in the ongoing battle for Hodeida to other locations around Sanaa and continue moving onto Saada, the militia’s stronghold.
The government supports this outlook, especially after the appointment of new military leaders on the outskirts of Sanaa to improve military action on the fronts of Naham, Sirwah and others around Sanaa in preparation for isolating the capital and blocking supplies and communication between these fronts to put the militia under siege and submission and restore pre-21 September 2014 conditions when the Houthis revolted.
Battling parties are trying to impose a new balance of power in preparation for the gradual settlement phase by the UN, which has compartmentalised issues and is dealing with them separately and gradually.
This will increase the duration of each phase until the balance of power is consistent with each party.
Mutual escalation indicates that both sides are preparing new rules of engagement.
The coalition and government front are relying on the military option to pressure Houthis in negotiations, after it became obvious that military might is not enough to resolve the conflict due to international restrictions that prevent military operations similar to those in Operation Golden Victory in Hodeida.
There are also logistical restrictions due to the topographical and demographic composition of Sanaa.
The rebel Houthi front operates with Iranian support to shore up its military position, especially since the Hodeida deal provided them a respite to redeploy and organise ranks.
It is likely that both sides will rely on military escalation in parallel to negotiations, while realising that a move to strategic issues will not happen without accomplishing the requisites of round one.
Keeping negotiations alive is in line with the position of the UN of upholding the deal despite setbacks, and responding diplomatically to violations while ignoring military altercations.
For example, Houthis demanded condemnation of recent coalition strikes, but the UN remained silent, especially since both sides focus on “legitimate” military targets.
Houthis believe the Al-Anad attack was a legitimate military target and the coalition responded by bombing legitimate Houthi targets.
It is likely settlement talks will continue despite stumbling blocks since the UN is persistent in moving forward no matter the level of procrastination or obstacles to implementation.
This was evident when the prisoner exchange committee met in Jordan despite the Houthi attack on Al-Anad.
At the same time, Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani announced the first meeting of the committee on ending the siege of Taiz.
When Houthis attacked the motorcade of UN committee chairman Patrick Cammaert in Hodeida, he moved the meeting overseas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen’s Stockholm test