The Yemen conflict is raging for the sixth year without real settlement in sight. Over the past years, there have been a number of transitions aimed at resolving the conflict. The signing of the Stockholm Agreement on 13 December 2018 by the government of Yemen and the Houthis under the auspices of the United Nations is one of the most notable developments in the conflict, especially in light of the optimism associated with the signing, following the failure of previous attempts to contain the crisis.
The final outcome, however, two years after the agreement, suggests that the road to peace in Yemen is still replete with hurdles.
The UN counts on the Stockholm Agreement to avert the war in Yemen, according to the statement of the UN Special Envoy in support of the Hodeidah accord, inked on the second anniversary of the Stockholm deal.
The most prominent changes that have taken place in the Yemeni arena since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement can be identified as follows:
First, inoperative understandings: International efforts succeeded in persuading the government of Yemen and the Houthis during the Stockholm negotiations to agree on three critical issues concerning the situation in Hodeidah and Taiz, as well as the prisoner exchange issue between the two sides.
Two years later, achievements on the ground do not meet the expectations for a number of reasons. First, the UN exerted efforts to achieve diplomatic victory and was mainly interested in propaganda at the expense of imposing a true and serious will on the different parties to abide by the agreement. Only the items regarding the formation of the redeployment and observation committees had materialized. This means that the successes achieved were only formal and failed to apply on the ground. Not to mention that the terms and explanations of the agreement have so far remained vague, especially with regard to redeployment.
The agreement, for example, set the stage for a ceasefire in Hodeidah aimed at saving the lives of civilians. It also called for a halt of military rationalization and troop withdrawal from the three ports of Hodeidah. However, this did not happen so far.
Despite the relative on-and-off calm in Hodeidah, the re-emergence of clashes, which escalated in October 2019 in an unprecedented manner, affirms the impasse in the agreement. In this regard, it is estimated that Hodeidah represents one quarter of all deaths and injuries in Yemen, and the number of victims in the same governorate reached about 1,249 casualties since the signing of the agreement.
Although the main items in the agreement stumbled, the prisoner exchange file saw noticeable progress recently. The UN worked on achieving a breakthrough in this file as an entry point to build confidence between the two parties and to bring their viewpoints closer on the rest of the files.
The big breakthrough in this regard was in October 2020. The two sides agreed to release more than 1,000 people in the biggest prisoner swap deal since 2014. However, this approach to settle the crisis is still insufficient, as the exchange of prisoners took place on previous occasions between the two parties, with and without international and domestic mediation.
Second, South Yemen between agreement and disagreement: 2020 witnessed a lull between escalation and calm in the south of Yemen, where the relationship between the Southern Transitional Council and the Yemeni government took different forms of agreement and disagreement.
The Riyadh Agreement was signed in November 2019 with the aim of resolving the conflict in the south and unifying the anti-Houthi front. However, despite its importance, the agreement did not succeed in completely calming the situation. This was due to disagreements over the implementation of the military and security part of the agreement, in addition to the mutual accusations and the lack of trust between the two parties. This led the Transitional Council to overturn the agreement in April 2020, declare autonomous rule of the southern provinces, which means returning to military escalation and imposing a fait accompli using military force.
In order to avoid the continuation of the militarization of the south, a mechanism was set up to speed up the Riyadh agreement and return to previous understandings in July 2020. The government was supposed to be formed by the end of August, but this has not happened yet because of the disagreement over priorities, as the Transitional Council insists on forming the government first, then implementing the military and security component of the agreement. The government opposes this approach.
In the past months, there have been numerous attempts to bring closer views between the parties, resulting in a breakthrough on the understandings on the security and military divide as a prelude to the formation of a new government.
Nevertheless, the continuation of calm and stability in South Yemen is surrounded by a number of challenges. First, the lack of guarantees regarding the Southern Transitional Council’s commitment to future arrangements. Second, the chances that the Transitional Council members give up their weapons may be limited, as the Riyadh agreement is viewed as a stage toward the great goal of the separation of the South. The homogeneity of the government and its ability to fulfill the South’s aspirations is still tested.
Third, Tehran and decision-making: Iran is the first regional supporter of the Houthis. Its support has contributed to the development and strengthening of the military capabilities of the Houthis, as well as providing logistical support to the group, which has contributed to their extension and control over large areas of Yemen. The Houthis have become Tehran’s preferred agent and one of its main actors in threatening opponents and achieving its goal of regional expansion and possessing cards for bargaining in a number of issues.
In October 2020, Hassan Eyrlou was appointed plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador of Iran to Yemen in Sanaa, which confirms Iran’s public support for the Houthis, the will to engage directly in the crisis, and the quest for having complete control of Sanaa’s decision-making.
At around the same time, talk of a multipolar conflict within the Houthi movement and the emergence of a current seeking independence from Tehran was mounting. This means that Tehran was aiming at regaining control of the situation.
Furthermore, the military background of Eyrlou and his association with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps demonstrates Tehran’s desire to make military solutions prevail over diplomatic and political means, which could complicate the matter even further.
Fourth, the hefty economic and humanitarian cost: The reemergence of conflict in Yemen has been reflected in the economic and humanitarian conditions. According to the World Bank’s estimates — the ongoing assessment of Yemen’s needs — in December 2020, reconstruction and the elimination of the effects of war in Yemen may require $25 billion in 16 Yemeni cities. This means that the total cost of the construction of the rest of the cities could exceed these estimates. In addition, since the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the GDP losses in Yemen have exceeded $90 billion, according to the Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations.
The conflict has led to heavy humanitarian losses as well. Yemen clashes led to the death of about 233,000 people, including 131,000 killed because of the lack of food, healthcare services and others. The situation is expected to worsen due to the lack of funding for humanitarian support. The UNICEF said it needs about $576.9 million to effectively deal with the humanitarian situation in Yemen in 2021. Compared to the estimated needs in 2020, it may be difficult to provide the necessary funding, as the provision of humanitarian aid in 2020 required about $535 million, and UNESCO received about $237 million of the whole sum, rendering a financing gap of nearly $300 million.
Based on the above, it seems difficult to predict the course of events in Yemen. However, there are variables that may significantly alter the scene, such as:
First, the new US administration: There is no doubt that the Yemeni crisis may depend in some way on the limits of the potential US role, especially as Joe Biden pledged during his election campaign to reassess his country’s support to the war in Yemen. However, an intense engagement of the new US administration cannot be expected, as domestic issues will become the new administration’s top priority at the expense of foreign interactions at least during Biden’s first year in office.
The new US administration is not expected to push for radical changes in Yemen, just as the Trump administration did. It may seek the preservation of its strategic interests by reducing terrorist threats, ensuring freedom of navigation, trade, and oil movement without directly engaging in the crisis.
It may also push the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen toward a comprehensive settlement that starts with mediation between the two parties to activate the ceasefire. It may also attempt to mobilize the international community to respond to the humanitarian situations in Yemen. As it may try to exploit the possible Iranian-American rapprochement, the US administration might press the Houthi movement to accept the calm and then start serious negotiations between the two parties. It may also impose restrictions on arming the main parties to the conflict.
Second, the Houthis: A number of recent reports have shown the US administration’s readiness to designate the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization in light of Trump’s efforts to maintain maximum pressure on Iran and its allies before leaving the White House.
In the event this variable occurs, it shall significantly affect all interactions on the Yemeni arena. It is estimated that designating the Houthis as a terrorist group is a pressure card against it, which may deny it political legitimacy and future recognition.
On the other hand, the majority of analysts believe that this classification will further complicate the scene, as the Houthis may be motivated to expand their military activity at home or toward vital goals in the Gulf countries, thus prolonging the war and hindering settlement efforts. Moreover, this classification could be reflected on humanitarian conditions, as humanitarian organizations may refrain from providing assistance in areas under the Houthis’ control for fear of sanctions, and this may therefore contribute to raising the humanitarian cost and causing further harm to civilians.
Third, the Stockholm Agreement: All attempts to implement the provisions of the Stockholm Agreement appear to be ineffective, as in the case of other previous attempts, like the Geneva negotiations of 2015 or the Kuwait negotiations in 2016. A number of calls for withdrawal from the agreement have recently been echoing.
According to the Yemei Minister of Foreign Affairs, Muhammad Al-Hadhrami, the government expressed the difficulty of adhering to its pledges in the Hodeidah Agreement in light of the intransigence of the Houthis.
Meanwhile, in September 2020, 28 deputies in the Yemeni parliament called for the cancellation of the agreement, saying the Houthis exploited the agreement and the government’s commitment to the ceasefire to achieve gains on the ground and expand in other fronts, such as in Marib and Al-Jawf. Therefore, they believe that continuing to be part of the agreement means more losses in return for the Houthis’ reinforcement of their bases and proliferation in a number of governorates. Hence, there is no point in committing to a fragile peace process that is in the interest of the Houthis, the Yemeni parliamentarians opined.
In conclusion, over the next year, escalation indicators may outweigh the calm factors, and a comprehensive settlement of the conflict may be difficult to achieve. In addition, conflict management and resolution will be as reliable as possible under a number of variations and contradictions in the positions of the main parties to the conflict, whether in the broader conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, or within its narrow borders between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council.