Yemen, truce renewed

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 1 Jun 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly keeps up with the latest in war-torn southern Arabia.

Yemen, truce renewed
People gather for a demonstration demanding the end of a years-long siege imposed by Houthi rebels in Taez (photo: AFP)

 

As of writing, the current round of UN-sponsored Yemen talks in Amman, Jordan have not yielded results. Intended to renew the truce between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels since the first of Ramadan and is due to expire on 1 June, the talks have nonetheless demonstrated that both sides are eager not just to renew the truce but to extend it for a longer period than the last one, according to Yemeni sources.

Even though the Houthis have sustained assaults along the fronts in Mareb and Hodeida in particular, the Yemeni Presidential Council continues to exercise restraint while its negotiating delegation works to secure more favourable conditions in a new agreement.

One current stumbling block in the talks concerns alleviating the Houthi blockade of Taiz. The government insists that the main Al-Hoban highway should be reopened while the Houthis have proposed alternative routes. The inhabitants of Taiz and by extension the government reject the proposals on the grounds that alternative routes are unpaved. They also believe that the Houthis’ insistence on keeping the main roads closed betrays the militia’s intent to tighten the blockade by other means.

After the last negotiating round failed, the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg visited Aden, the current seat of the Yemeni government, in an attempt to promote a breakthrough on the Taiz question. The envoy’s proposals of graduated incremental steps have been greeted favourably by the government, according to remarks by the Yemeni foreign minister. The Houthis, by contrast, appear resistant to his suggestions.

Yemeni media outlets also reported there have been demands that the Houthis replace the head of their negotiating delegation, Mohamed Abdel-Salam, and that Grundberg may have conveyed this demand in a previous meeting in Muscat. According to these sources, the Houthis have, indeed, appointed a new delegation leader, Hassan Al-Ezzi, the deputy foreign minister of the Houthi government in Sanaa.

Yet, contrary to expectations of a more flexible negotiator, Al-Ezzi has turned out to be more hardline, judging by his remarks. Not only does he reject the idea of reopening the main roads to Taiz, he has also added new conditions. For example, he proposed reciprocal redeployments of government and Houthi forces, a proposal he claims the government has rejected. The government, in turn, made a counterproposal involving the gradual reopening of roads which Al-Ezzi interpreted as a deliberate attempt to obstruct negotiations. Yet, according to sources, Grundberg himself was the original author of the latter proposal which he put to both delegations.

If the Houthis, as many sources allege, are deliberately hampering progress on the Taiz question, one reason may be because the chairman of the Presidency Council hails from Taiz. The point would be to prevent him from scoring political points in his home town. As observers point out, there is a longstanding feud between the Houthis and Taiz which was at the vanguard to the overthrow of the Zaidi Mutawakkilite Kingdom in northern Yemen in the 1960s.

In addition, Taiz is the stronghold of the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political facade the Congregation of Reform, or Islah Party, which has a long history of antagonism towards the Houthis. Nevertheless, this factor may no longer carry as much weight, since the newly restructured Yemeni government has significantly reduced the Muslim Brotherhood influence in government, at least compared to the dominant position they held under the Presidency Council’s predecessor, former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

In contrast to the impasse over Taiz, talks appear to have made headway on another issue, the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s blockade of Sanaa Airport. Last week, Egypt announced that it would resume flights to Sanaa more than seven years after flights to northern Yemen stopped following the Houthi coup.

This step, which followed a phone call between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, is indicative of a shared desire to promote a peace settlement in the war-ravaged country. The primary purpose of the flights is humanitarian, enabling the ill and wounded to be flown out of Yemen for treatment in Cairo or other destinations. It may also signal a greater role for Cairo in an eventual peace process, especially given that Egypt is an immediate stakeholder. The Houthis have already shown the potential for threatening maritime safety in the Red Sea.

Significantly, US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking has re-emerged in the picture. Commenting on recent developments he said that Washington is keen to transform the truce into a comprehensive political process leading to a durable ceasefire. So far the Yemeni belligerents are not of the same mind.

The Houthis have gained considerable advantages from the truce. For one, it enables them to legitimise the status quo. For example, travellers departing from Sanaa Airport will be able to complete procedures on the Houthis’ official website and embark using passports issued by Houthi authorities in Sanaa and not just by the internationally recognised government based in Aden. The truce has also enabled the Houthis to evade mounting popular discontent over economic straits and repressive policies in the areas under their control.

According to UN sources, the truce has partially facilitated humanitarian relief operations in the country suffering the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. More than half of Yemen’s population live below the poverty line and three quarters of them require permanent humanitarian assistance. Yet relief programmes have been unable to receive more than a third of the funds pledged to relief, according to statements in a recent donor conference. The war in Ukraine has diverted international attention and funds from the Yemeni plight.

But the Yemeni government and its forces have also benefitted from the truce, despite the Houthi violations they reported. It is an opportunity for the newly formed Presidential Council government to restructure the army which was loosely formed from contingents fighting in Mareb, others on the western coast and Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces now that their various commanders have been brought on board the Presidential Council.

The Saudi-led Arab Coalition to restore legitimacy has also benefitted. The Houthis have halted attacks against Saudi Arabia which is manoeuvring to withdraw militarily from Yemen and close this chapter of military intervention which has cost Riyadh dearly in the past seven years. Riyadh has received encouragement on this from the US which did not actively support Saudi Arabia in this war.

In fact, differences on how it was conducted formed one of several sources of tension between Riyadh, as coalition leader, and Washington for some time. For Saudi Arabia, in particular, the truce offered an opportunity to strengthen its border defences. There is no guarantee that calm will continue to prevail on the Saudi-Yemeni front. Recently, Houthi commanders have appeared in televised speeches in military uniform, which is uncustomary for them, to warn that they would resume operations against Saudi Arabia and the UAE in response to their failure to abide by terms of the truce.

According to unconfirmed reports from Yemen, the Houthis have begun to redeploy missile platforms along the borders with Saudi Arabia. The reports, if true, may be exaggerated since Riyadh appears to have shrugged them off and the Houthis remain focused on the truce renewal talks regardless of the failure of the first round.

Despite the current hurdles, the likelihood is that the truce will be extended given how it serves the interests of all sides. Militarily, all belligerents need a “warrior’s rest” after seven years of nearly continuous fighting while, politically, no progress has been made in restoring the legitimate government to the capital, Sanaa. In fact, observers believe that the major battle lies ahead.

The government is restructuring its forces to deliver a debilitating strike while the Houthis are redeploying and bolstering their forces to fortify their hold on the areas they control and, perhaps, to launch a new offensive against Mareb despite their inability to take that province from pro-government forces during the past two years.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

 

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