The Saudi-led Arab Coalition that has been fighting a Houthi insurgency in Yemen for over five years launched a two-week humanitarian truce 9 April in response to UN appeals to focus efforts on the fight against the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
The initiative, which also opens a window for a return to the negotiating table, came with a large financial relief package, making Saudi Arabia the first donor nation to offer financial aid to the war-torn country at a time when donor agencies, including UN organisations and USAid, have cut back their assistance. The UN, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, the US and many European and Arab countries welcomed the coalition’s initiative and issued statements urging Yemenis to seize the opportunity to work with the UN mission to resolve the conflict.
The Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement has not taken the Saudis up on the initiative, saying they seek, instead, a comprehensive agreement. Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, a Houthi militia commander, said the other side “always sees our proposals as coming from a position of weakness, so they escalate”. He held Riyadh accountable for the humanitarian consequences of the air and sea blockade of Yemen.
Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khaled Bin Salman announced that Saudi Arabia would reopen Sanaa airport to let in humanitarian aid, and that his country “will contribute $500 million to the UN humanitarian relief programme for Yemen in 2020, and an additional $25 million to help combat the pandemic”.
Since the coalition’s unilaterally declared truce went into effect, the two sides have been trading accusations of each violating it. Houthi military communiques claim that pro-government forces violated the truce from the outset and shelled Houthi positions in Hodeida. The communiques enumerated 29 missile and artillery strikes from land and 161 from sea. The forces fighting on the side of the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi charge that Houthi forces have attacked pro-government positions in Sirwah and Hilan in Mareb and that they are continuing to amass fighters along the fronts in Jawf and Mareb. According to pro-government military communiques, the Houthis have also shelled Jebel Al-Han, Al-Sayahi and Wadi Hathran west of Taiz, while pro-government downed three Houthi drones over Sirwah.
Given the current military situation, does the truce initiative stand a chance?
As realities of the five-year-old war have shown, neither side has the ability to attain a definitive military edge that will enable it to impose its options on the other, especially in view of the multifaceted complexities involved in this protracted conflict. As the unfolding battleground map shows, the Houthis still have the ability to expand territorially, even if this ability does not primarily stem from a superior military capacity or favourable strategic balance. But it also unlikely that the coalition and the pro-Hadi government front will accept the outcomes on the ground as they currently stand. So, if such military realities have the final say, the current truce does not offer much hope.
On the other hand, the magnitude of the Yemeni crisis has acquired a dynamism of its own in its capacity as a “compound threat” to which have been added the valences of the war’s catastrophic humanitarian consequences, on top of which now comes the novel Covid-19 virus. The official announcement of the first coronavirus case in Yemen has raised the alarm that this epidemic could spread like wildfire and wreak a disastrous toll in a country in which 95 per cent of the healthcare system is out of service, according to official Yemeni sources. In this framework, therefore, the coalition’s initiative could present an opportunity to all sides to reassess their positions in light of the tolls of an unwinnable war at the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Will they seize this opportunity in a sincere and constructive way?
Even assuming both sides agreed to the truce, it is difficult to picture it holding. One impediment involves the “geopolitical dimension” of the Houthi project. The Houthis have been investing the bulk of their resources in a campaign to dominate the Marib-Jawf front. They have recently scored certain advances along this front and, strategically speaking, they could not afford to sacrifice such progress. For example, on 9 April, just as the truce went into effect, Houthi forces staged a counteroffensive against the strategic Al-Khanjar camp which had previously been recaptured from the Houthis by the pro-Hadi army. The camp, in the northern Jawf province, is located near the Saudi border. Observers believe that the Houthis are unlikely to halt escalation in that area until they gain control of the Mareb-Jawf front which is a geopolitical cornerstone in the Houthis’ irredentist project to revive the Zaydi Mutawakkilite kingdom. This may help explain the current Houthi escalation on a number of fronts in order to diffuse the coalition/pro-government focus, especially in Taiz, a stronghold of the pro-government Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) militia which constitutes the main body of government forces fighting in Marib. However, Marib also has a symbolic value militarily as this is where the coalition’s central command is based. From the Houthi perspective, the conquest of Marib would proclaim the defeat of the coalition’s project to reinstate the internationally recognised Yemeni government and, simultaneously, their success in expanding the areas under their control.
Another major impediment to the truce is that there is no mechanism to monitor the ceasefire in Hodeida. In the past month, Houthi militias have targeted a number of UN ceasefire monitoring stations, forcing monitoring teams to evacuate them. Most recently, Lieutenant General Abhijit Guha, head of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), was forced to withdraw his team from Hodeida due to concerns over the spread of Covid-19.
The Houthis so far appear to regard this epidemic as an opportunity rather than a threat. They have taken advantage of international warnings to bolster their military movements. They have ordered students to the front at the end of the school year in order to compensate for human losses on those fronts and they sustain war tax levies to fund their military campaigns. Therefore, the coronavirus pandemic has so far not motivated the Houthis to halt the war that has claimed more than 100,000 dead over five years. Perhaps they believe that this disease will not claim such a high number, or that such predecessors as the cholera epidemic and Dengue fever were not sufficient to galvanise the international community into forcing the warring parties into ending the war, so why should this?
On the other side of the equation, the priorities of the coalition command may change as they have changed before. Judging by the history of this conflict, the fight against the Houthis is likely to remain an overriding priority for the coalition even if other concerns have surfaced to monopolise attention for a certain period. For example, currently the Saudis want to focus on the situation in southern Yemen in order to avert a breakdown of the political and security situation there where they have encountered some problems in implementing the power-sharing arrangements reached in the Riyadh agreement.
In view of past experiences and the current escalatory trajectory on the ground, it appears Covid-19 will not mark a turning point in the warring parties’ positions. This applies especially to the Houthis who would be unwilling to sacrifice advances they have achieved on strategic fronts. In response, however, pro-government forces would see no reason to freeze military activities and risk losing further ground.
At a diplomatic level, there is definitely a disparity in discourse which could jeopardise this opportunity to end the war in Yemen. The coalition command is reaching out in the name of a humanitarian urgency while the Houthis speak of a “deal” to end a conflict they believe they are close to resolving in their favour. This makes for an impasse in the foreseeable future. Still, the Covid-19 factor has only begun to weigh in. Perhaps the Houthis think they can absorb the pressures at the moment. But things can change quickly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly