When United Nations and Yemeni officials announced that the country’s warring sides had agreed to an “immediate” cease-fire in the port city of Hudaydah, it was hailed as a rare moment of hope in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and put millions at risk of starvation and disease.
But almost as if to underscore the fragility of that hope, clashes erupted last week and continued into Monday on the outskirts of the city, the entry point for most of the food aid into Yemen.
Both the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition behind President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi said they would honor the cease-fire hammered out during peace talks in Sweden, but starting early Tuesday.
Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, confirmed the Tuesday start of the cease-fire and said a monitoring committee set to oversee combatants’ withdrawal was “expected to start its work swiftly to translate the momentum built up in Sweden into achievements on the ground.”
The clashes were a disappointing contrast to “the good news and message of hope” Griffiths had presented to the U.N. Security Council on Friday. And they served as a sign that the agreements — which also include a prisoner exchange and efforts to slow fighting in Taizz, a city besieged by the Houthis — leave plenty of room for snarls in implementation. The deal also leaves out core details vital to ending the bloodshed and starvation in Yemen.
Negotiating a complicated war
Observers held little hope for a breakthrough when the sides assembled at a castle near Stockholm this month for talks meant to pave the way for full peace negotiations. There had been dozens of missed diplomatic opportunities since 2014, when the Shiite Muslim Houthis stormed the capital, Sana, and ousted Hadi’s government.
Those efforts grew more complicated after the Saudi Arabian-led coalition joined the conflict in 2015. With U.S. military assistance, the coalition launched a wide-scale bombing campaign on Houthi-controlled areas and imposed an air and sea blockade to stop what it said were arms coming to the rebels from Iran.
Since then, Yemen, which even before the war was the Arab world’s poorest country, has become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
In addition to tens of thousands killed or wounded in the fighting, an estimated 85,000 children may have starved to death, and 1.2 million people are suspected to have cholera, according to aid groups.
The conflict has become a political millstone for Saudi Arabia, increasing tensions in a relationship with the U.S. already strained by the kingdom’s role in the slaying of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Last week, the U.S. Senate invoked its war powers authority to demand a halt to U.S. participation in the war.
War’s ‘center of gravity’
The cease-fire in Hudaydah was seen as the crowning achievement of the peace talks. Described by Griffiths as the conflict’s “center of gravity,” the town has been the target of a months-long campaign by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The coalition deployed a force comprising thousands of soldiers, tribesmen, mercenaries and Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis to storm the city.
Under the deal signed Thursday, combatants must withdraw from the port area “within days” and out of the city limits and the greater area of the governorate in 21 days, all under United Nations supervision. But much is left unspecified.
Undefined “local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law” are to provide security and grant the U.N. a leading role in inspecting and monitoring shipping.
Griffiths said retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, who had served with the U.N. in Africa, was set to arrive Wednesday to monitor the withdrawal.
The pullback “involves quite a few moving parts between two sides that don’t trust each other,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The cease-fire prevents a bloodbath, but now that the troops plan to withdraw and the U.N. will be managing the seaport, there is a question mark on the management of Hudaydah and issues of local governance,” Fatima Alasrar, a Yemen analyst with the Washington-based Arabia Foundation, said in a phone interview Saturday.
“Who will be exactly accountable for public services in the city? This is unclear.”
Some of that lack of clarity was by design, said Griffiths: “This is a humanitarian stopgap to save lives and turn the tide of war towards peace.”
A question of money
Also unclear is who will receive the ports’ custom duties. The agreement stipulates they are to be “channeled to the central bank of Yemen.” But there are two central banks: one run by Hadi’s government and one under Houthi control in Sana.
The question is an essential one. Millions of civil employees in Houthi-controlled areas where food is available have no money to buy it, said Alasrar. Even people still getting paid have seen their salaries lose more than two-thirds of their value.
Central bank officials in Aden speak of efforts to prop up the rial, including prospective cash infusions to the tune of $3 billion from Kuwait and the UAE that followed a $2.2-billion deposit from Saudi Arabia in January.
But shifting the funds to the central bank in Aden would force employees in Houthi areas to travel cross-country to draw their salary; before the war it would have been a six-hour trip, but now, with a dizzying patchwork of groups running checkpoints, it would take 18 hours.
In what is a more clear-cut part of the agreement, the prisoner exchange will involve 15,000 detainees, with a mass exchange of 4,000 as soon as mid-January, said Griffiths. But even that has families of prisoners tempering their hope with worry about the implementation.
“We’ve seen other prisoner release agreements and they were of no use,” said Fatima Qahtan, the daughter of a prominent member of the Islah opposition party, Mohammad Qahtan, who was arrested in April 2015 by more than a dozen Houthi gunmen.
“When he was picked up, he tried to reassure us, saying he would only be gone two or three days. It’s been more than three years,” said Fatima Qahtan, adding that repeated attempts and high-profile campaigns by groups including Human Rights Watch had failed to bring news of her father.
His name was on the prisoner exchange list, but she wasn’t sure he was even alive.
“With the Stockholm agreement, we’re holding on to hope despite the fact that we no longer believe the Houthis can fulfill their promises,” she said.
The prisoner swap would come too late for Mohammad Dhabiani’s family. Dhabiani, a 32-year-old presenter at the pro-government Suhail channel that broadcasts from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, learned in August 2017 that Houthis kidnapped two of his brothers, Maamoun and Amin, from Sana.
Maamoun was released. But last December, Dhabiani learned 28-year-old Amin had been killed in a coalition strike on the Houthi base where he was held. Dhabiani read the news of his brother’s death in an evening broadcast.
“The Houthis used these people as human shields,” Dhabiani said; he alleges prisoners were tortured, humiliated and had little access to food.
Though Dhabiani said the agreement could bring comfort to the families of those missing, he feared a ploy by the Houthis to obstruct the deal.
“Many of those on the Houthis’ prisoners list aren’t prisoners at all,” he said. He accused the rebels of putting names of militants killed in battle on the list so that when the other side can’t produce the detainees, the Houthis would renege on their side of the agreement.
Doubts and finger-pointing
Both sides lauded the talks, but faulted each other for not doing more.
“We didn’t come out with everything from these talks, but they’re the best talks we’ve been through,” Mohammad Abdul Salam, the head of the Houthi delegation, said in a news conference Thursday. He later blamed Hadi government officials for not offering concessions on reopening Sana airport, the country’s main international gateway.
Hadi government representatives offered a similar sentiment, with many saying it was a step forward but casting doubt on whether the Houthis would fulfill their side of the deal.
“It’s a loose agreement, and it has many clauses that are subject to interpretation,” Mahmoud Shahrah, a media advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Jordan, said in a phone interview Sunday, adding that the Houthis had reneged on no less than 75 local and regional agreements since 2004.