icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Michael Anker Lollesgaard, Head of the United Nations Mission in support of the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), speaks during a press conference to welcome the handover of the port of Hodeida on 14 May 2019, in the Yemeni port city. AFP

Crisis Group Yemen Update #11

This is International Crisis Group’s eleventh regular update on the war in Yemen. This week, we focus on the first step towards force redeployments in Hodeida and the response of the UN Security Council.

Trendline: Unilateral Redeployment

Five months after the UN brokered an agreement to demilitarise the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, there has finally been movement on the ground. Yet not everyone is happy.

Briefing the UN Security Council on 15 May, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths announced that military forces loyal to the Huthi (Ansar Allah) movement had withdrawn from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef – in a first step towards implementing the Stockholm Agreement he brokered in December 2018.  

But the government of Yemen has called the Huthi redeployments a sham, arguing that they may be in violation of the Stockholm Agreement and Security Council resolutions on Yemen while accusing the UN of being complicit in what it says is little more than a publicity stunt. In response to Griffith’s Security Council briefing, Yemen’s ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al-Saadi, described the UN-monitored redeployments as a unilateral move by the Huthis and, as such, “a violation of the Stockholm Agreement and a free service to the Huthis”. Government-affiliated media outlets have echoed this accusation.

While they were unilateral – the Huthis pulled out without asking for a reciprocal gesture from their enemies – the redeployments were neither unexpected nor a purely Huthi initiative. The Huthis had offered to redeploy unilaterally from the ports in an ostensible show of good faith on several occasions in the past, but the UN had asked them to remain focussed instead on a broader redeployment being negotiated within the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), a UN-chaired body comprising Huthi and government representatives.

But with negotiations stalled after five months of talks, pressure mounting on Griffiths to produce results, and a growing likelihood that the Security Council would reprimand the Huthis for obstructing progress – a move many feared might lead to the Stockholm Agreement’s collapse – the envoy had run out of alternatives. The UN asked the Huthis to redeploy and sought the government and the coalition’s consent, which they reportedly gave. The UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), the body set up to support the city’s demilitarisation, then announced that the redeployments would take place on 10 May.

Stockholm Sticking Points

Although contested, the Huthi redeployment was an important initiative. Since November 2018, Hodeida city has been largely encircled by UAE-backed Yemeni forces, with only one land route in and out of the vital trade hub, the northbound highway, still open. (See Crisis Group Report No 193: How to Halt Yemen’s Slide into Famine.) Under the Stockholm Agreement, the Huthis and the Yemeni government committed to pulling back their frontline forces from Hodeida city and its three ports. The agreement also calls for prisoner swaps and the formation of a joint committee to deal with the fight for the embattled city of Taiz. (See Making Yemen’s Hodeida Deal Stick.) The deal did not clearly define how the rival military groups would be redeployed or the composition of local security forces designated to secure areas that frontline fighters vacate. These details were meant to be worked out by the RCC.

The UN has struggled to broker a consensus on how to implement the deal.

The UN has struggled to broker a consensus on how to implement the deal. For RCC members, who have not met face-to-face since January, the question of local security forces has been the thorniest. The government is pushing for the return of pre-war security forces that report to them, and the Huthis argue for keeping in place security personnel already in the city, who are under their control.

At the most recent Security Council meeting in April, Michael Anker Lollesgaard, a Danish general who heads UNMHA and chairs the RCC, announced that the two sides had agreed to the details of a first phase of redeployments. These would include a Huthi withdrawal from the three ports and both forces pulling back from the so-called “Kilo 8 triangle” on the city’s eastern edge. The UN had hoped that this could happen without the need for an agreement on the local security forces issue. But it has since become clear that the two parties will not complete implementation of phase one until there is agreement on the details of phase two redeployments from the city, as well as an agreement on the local security forces.

Security Council Pressure

The unilateral redeployment was in no small part a product of pressure on the UN to show some progress on implementing the Stockholm Agreement, given that consensus on local security forces and finalising the details of phase two redeployments will still take time. Five months had already passed since the meeting in Sweden and Security Council members had come under mounting pressure from the Yemeni government and its backers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to censure the Huthis for blocking implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. Such a move, however, would have been more likely to enrage the Huthis than pressure them into compliance, particularly since they have not been the only obstructionists. With a Security Council meeting scheduled for 15 May, Griffiths opted for what was possible: a UN-monitored Huthi withdrawal from the ports, which Crisis Group has consistently recommended. (See Update #9.)

While both the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government gave the green light for the move, the latter is now objecting to what it views as a fait accompli to permanently install Huthi supporters in critical positions at the ports with the UN’s blessing. Coast Guard units from Huthi-controlled areas have taken over security, leading the government to claim that the Huthis have simply “rebadged” their fighters – with UN complicity. The government objects in particular to what it says amounts to the UN dropping the requirement of a tripartite verification process that both sides established during RCC-led negotiations earlier this year. It argues that the Huthi move was unilateral and, as such, a breach of the Stockholm Agreement and subsequent Security Council resolutions, although none of these documents specifies the details of monitoring or prohibits consensual unilateral redeployments.

Distrust between the Huthis on the one hand and the government and the Saudi-led coalition on the other has deepened since the Stockholm Agreement owing to an intensification of fighting on other frontlines, Huthi attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure deep inside the Kingdom on 14 May, and Saudi airstrikes in Huthi-held areas (see below). The government’s reaction to the redeployments – the first time Huthi forces have pulled back from territory they hold through a negotiated settlement since the war began in March 2015 – risks heightening longstanding Huthi fears that the entire redeployment process has been rigged from the start to provide public justification for a military assault on the city.

The weaknesses of the Stockholm Agreement – its vague language and lack of detail left it too open to interpretation – and ongoing gamesmanship between the parties have placed Griffiths in a near-impossible position. Absent progress on the ground, there was a real likelihood that the Security Council would single out the Huthis for obstruction, potentially scuppering the whole process. But when, under huge time pressure, the envoy convinced the Huthis to redeploy their forces – largely on the basis of an operational plan agreed within the RCC – and received sign-off from the government and coalition, he came under attack for his efforts nevertheless. Yet the process has not collapsed, and if the Security Council endorses it, as it should, it could set the stage for further redeployments.

Bottom Line: Griffiths had few options to preserve the Stockholm Agreement, and took the most logical step forward. While it should not be mistaken for a major breakthrough, his achievement is significant and should be warmly welcomed. The government’s reaction may chiefly reflect a tactical move – an attempt to maintain pressure on the Houthis and the UN to ensure its interests are not forgotten – rather than a genuinely negative position. UNMHA should work to reassure the government and the Saudi-led coalition that the redeployments were sincere and that the arrangements at the ports after these unilateral redeployments do not set a precedent for the rest of the process in Hodeida and beyond. The government will anyway be given the chance to assess the redeployments either now or as part of the overall process.

UN Security Council members should back Griffiths’ approach, and maintain pressure on the Huthis, the government and the coalition to find a solution to the local security forces issue for Hodeida. They should also push for ports revenues to be used to pay for state salaries (as per the agreement), and for progress on the prisoner swaps agreed in Sweden. Both measures can keep this important process alive and inspire hope for talks on a wider political process.  It has become clear that implementing Stockholm will be a marathon rather than a sprint. But the collapse of the agreement would only lead to more bloodshed, a more acute humanitarian catastrophe and further postponement of a long-awaited peace process.

Political and Military Developments

On 14 May the Huthis announced that they had launched multiple attacks on an oil export pipeline that links the east and west coasts of Saudi Arabia. Seven Huthi-controlled drones carrying explosives reportedly detonated at oil pumping stations in central Saudi Arabia. Huthi representatives said that the attacks came in response to coalition “aggression”, in particular a recent intensification of fighting along key frontlines in Hodeida governorate and near the Yemen-Saudi border, and the ongoing struggle for control of the economy, which the Huthis claim has led to fuel shortages in territory they hold. Earlier in May, the Huthi-controlled Supreme Economic Committee in Sanaa had accused the coalition of using the economy as a tool of war, in particular by blocking fuel imports into Hodeida. On 16 May, the coalition launched airstrikes in Sanaa in apparent retaliation for the drone attacks. Multiple civilian deaths were reported.

Elsewhere in Yemen, battles between UAE-backed southern forces and the Huthis continued in al-Dhale, Abyan and Lahj governorates (see Update #10) while fighting along the northern border with Saudi Arabia also reportedly intensified, particularly in the Abs district of Hajja governorate (see Update #7). Durayhimi district, to the south of Hodeida city, also is seeing regular and often fierce clashes; the area is technically subject to the governorate-wide ceasefire agreed in Sweden. As with the other fronts, the rival parties blame one another for the fighting.

Sanaa-based members of Yemen’s historical ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), announced that they had held elections for the GPC’s ruling body. Among those named as members were Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the son of the GPC founder and former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Awadh Aref al-Zuka, the son of Aref al-Zuka, the former GPC assistant secretary-general and a longtime Saleh ally. The party has been riven by divisions since Yemen’s 2011 uprising, a trend made worse by the Huthi killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017. Multiple factions now claim to represent the GPC’s popular base – the party has won the most votes in every major poll in Yemen’s history – but the most prominent (if not the most influential) are those clustered around the Sanaa leadership, Ahmed Ali Saleh (based in Abu Dhabi) and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the current president. The addition of Saleh and al-Zuka to the ruling council has been interpreted by some as a broadside against the Hadi faction by the Sanaa and Abu Dhabi factions amid attempts to build internal consensus.

Tensions between the Hadi government on one side and the UAE and the forces it backs on the other have become more visible in recent weeks.

Tensions between the Hadi government on one side and the UAE and the forces it backs on the other have become more visible in recent weeks. Local media reports in May claimed that a large contingent of UAE-backed forces had landed on Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea and a flashpoint for UAE-Yemeni government tensions in the past. In response to these reports, Interior Minister Ahmed al-Maysari said the government had asked the coalition to help liberate Yemeni territory, “not administer it”. Minister of Transport Saleh al-Jabwani accused the coalition (specifically the UAE, which is dominant in Aden) in early May of preventing the transport ministry from increasing the number of flights by state-run Yemenia to Aden during Ramadan. Local media also reported that members of the Hadi-loyalist Presidential Guard had clashed with UAE-backed forces in al-Dhale, after travelling to the frontlines in order to fight the Huthis.

On 5 May the UN’s World Food Programme surveyed conditions at the Red Sea Mills wheat storage and milling facility on the outskirts of Hodeida for the first time since February. Staff assessed the conditions of the facilities and the wheat, and concluded that around 70 per cent of supplies at the mill were salvageable.

Bottom Line: While Hodeida carries the lion’s share of headlines, political, economic and military competition continues unabated in the rest of the country, and has accelerated since December. The UN special envoy’s office is already at maximum capacity, but intervention to de-escalate along key frontlines and improve the flow of goods into all parts of the country is needed to improve the overall picture. As Crisis Group has noted before, Griffiths is in direct contact with the Huthis, the government of Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition, and should push for a de-escalation as part of confidence-building measures that go beyond Hodeida and support future peace talks. A de-escalation agreement could include a freeze on or reduction of cross-border attacks, airstrikes and offensives aimed at seizing new territory.

Regional and International Developments

Rising tensions between Tehran and Washington – which increasingly sees Yemen as another front in its regional “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran – are visibly affecting discussions about Yemen. Some Saudi-aligned commentators have argued the Huthis’ 14 May attack on oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia was coordinated to coincide with attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman two days earlier. Anonymous U.S. officials have speculated this second attack was perpetrated by Iran.

While Saudi and Emirati officials have been broadly positive about the Hodeida redeployments announced by the UN in contrast to the Yemeni government, they have warned that further cross-border attacks could undermine attempts to implement the Stockholm Agreement. Some U.S., Saudi and Emirati officials believe that they need to apply fresh military pressure on the Huthis if the latter are to implement the remainder of the deal and engage constructively in a political process, and also to push back against Iranian influence in Yemen. They suggest that such pressure – which they say is justified by the cross-border attacks – would most likely come from a new offensive in or near Hodeida. 

At the time of writing the Security Council was discussing a potential statement on Yemen. While the five permanent council members – the U.S., UK, France, China and Russia – are said to be broadly positive about the redeployments, Kuwait, a non-permanent member, has criticised the way they were carried out, citing the need for tripartite verification. Some council members are also likely to want to condemn the Huthi attack on Saudi oil infrastructure (but not the airstrikes in Sanaa).

Bottom Line: Regional developments make implementation of the Stockholm Agreement and the start of a UN-led peace process in Yemen all the more urgent. As Tehran and Washington ramp up their rhetoric, there is a real danger that Yemen could come to be seen in both capitals as just another front in their regional competition for dominance. Diplomats working to bring peace to Yemen should redouble efforts to make the redeployments in Hodeida stick as an indispensable first step toward a wider ceasefire and talks to end the war.

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths makes a speech during the UN Security Council meeting on Yemen at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States on 14 December 2018. Atilgan Ozdil / Anadolu Agency

Crisis Group Yemen Update #9

This is the ninth briefing note in Crisis Group’s Yemen Campaign. Notes are published fortnightly. This week, we return to the UN’s efforts to make the Hodeida agreement stick.

Trendline: Holdup in Hodeida

It is almost a year since an anticipated battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida became the centre of gravity in Yemen’s civil war, as well as international efforts to end it.

In June 2018, Crisis Group described the conflict as having reached an inflection point. Along with other observers, we feared that a bloody battle between Huthi fighters in Hodeida and UAE-backed forces outside it would push the war into a new, more perilous phase and likely trigger a devastating famine. We argued instead for a UN-brokered deal to prevent the fight and, possibly, to lay the groundwork for a nationwide peace process.

The good news, ten months later, is that the battle for Hodeida has not occurred. But the threat of renewed fighting still looms. In December 2018, UN-sponsored talks in Sweden between the northern Huthi rebels, who prefer to be known as Ansar Allah, and the internationally recognised government of Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi put the battle on ice, shifting the focus of fighting elsewhere in Yemen as the UN struggled to implement the terms of the Hodeida ceasefire and military redeployment there.

Some pronounced the December Stockholm Agreement as a breakthrough deal. Following two years of no talks and no agreements, in some ways, it was. But from the start it was clear that turning the agreement to demilitarise Hodeida and the Red Sea trade corridor into reality on the ground would be an uphill battle (Crisis Group’s analysis of the deal is here). One challenge has been ambiguities in the deal itself. The agreement was brokered in a rush, with the Huthis and Hadi government accepting it at the very last minute and under intense international pressure. As a result, the language is vague on some crucial details and the two parties have radically different interpretations of its meaning. A UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), made up of Huthi and Hadi government representatives, meanwhile, was tasked with turning the accord’s “mutual redeployment of forces” into a technical agreement on who would move what, when, where and in what order – a huge task in and of itself.

The main political sticking point for both sides has been the question of the “local security forces” meant to secure Hodeida port and city, along with two nearby ports at Saleef and Ras Issa, once redeployments are completed. The Hadi government generally sees the agreement as stipulating that these forces should be drawn from pre-2014 police force and coast guards and fall under their interior ministry’s supervision. The Huthis’ interpretation is that current security forces – which include many of their supporters – will remain in the city and ports, with minimal changes, once military forces have been removed. They view discussion of changing the local security forces as a Trojan horse – a way for the Hadi government to use the cover of agreed-upon military redeployments to claim sovereignty over the city and prejudice any future peace settlement. In fairness, both readings of the written agreement are defensible. That said, many who were present in Stockholm say the spirit of the agreement was to prioritise military redeployments, not sovereignty questions, which are to be addressed later, during national political negotiations.

A series of holdups over the past four months have seen the early euphoria of Stockholm dissolve into deepening impatience among international and Yemeni players.

Over the past four months, the RCC’s two chairs, Patrick Cammaert and his successor Michael Anker Lollesgaard, have worked to resolve technical disagreements over redeployments by working with the military-security representatives of the two sides on the committee, while Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy, pushes the political leadership to reach a deal on the local security forces issue. Some progress has been made within the RCC. In February, they agreed to the outlines of the two-phase redeployment plan. Phase one, step one involves Huthi redeployment from Ras Isa and Saleef ports; phase one, step two involves simultaneous redeployments from Hodeida port and an area called Kilo 8; and phase two involves mutual redeployments from the city and its surroundings, with the local security forces taking over control. On 13 April, the RCC finalised technical details of phase one almost to the metre. Yet the thorny issue of local security forces remains unresolved.

The announcement of agreement on the details of phase one redeployments at the 15 April UN Security Council meeting buys time, but frustration is growing. A series of holdups over the past four months have seen the early euphoria of Stockholm dissolve into deepening impatience among international and Yemeni players. In a Security Council meeting on 15 April, the UK’s Permanent Representative Karen Pierce channelled this sentiment, describing the lack of follow-through as “very worrying” and warning of “stronger measures” the next time the Council meets if the impasse persists.

Diplomats working on Yemen face a dilemma. They are searching for new ways of pressuring the Yemeni parties, particularly the Huthis, over whom they have the least leverage, to compromise. But they have a limited toolkit at their disposal for doing so and do not want to inadvertently cause the collapse of a process that, while painfully slow-moving, has yielded progress since December. They also understand that the Hodeida plan’s failure would have far-reaching consequences, including renewed hostilities between the Huthis and their rivals in Hodeida and on other fronts, rapid deterioration of what is already the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and a return to the political paralysis that plagued the peace process between 2016 and 2018. 

In recent weeks, diplomats, some UN officials and even some leaders of the Saudi-led coalition had come to quietly acknowledge that the best-case scenario for the Stockholm Agreement in the medium term is that the first phase of redeployments comes off as planned. This minimum achievement would stave off the threat of a battle for Hodeida. It could precede a much slower march toward agreements on the second phase and the composition of local security forces, with the latter likely becoming part of a broader political process.

Yemen's Red Sea trade corridor: Hodeida port and city, Ras Issa and Saleef Ports. CRISISGROUP

But there is no trust between the Huthis and the Hadi government, and neither side is willing to move forward without greater clarity on what comes afterward. The Huthis worry that they will be militarily vulnerable after the redeployments’ first phase, which will leave the Red Sea ports and Kilo 8 triangle on the eastern edge of the city undefended, patrolled only by UN monitors, while the city would still be encircled by the numerically and technologically superior UAE-backed force. The Huthis do not want a gap between the phases, which they fear that their foes could exploit to seize the ports and city. For its part, the Hadi government, fearful that the process could leave Hodeida under effective Huthi control, wants to resolve the local security forces issue before implementing redeployments.

The technical plan for the redeployments’ second phase, which would be even more intricate than the first, could take months, as could talks about local security forces. Thus the parties and international officials will either have to wait even longer for any movement on the ground, or ram through initial redeployments that would leave the UN monitors forced to act as a de facto security cordon between rival fighters on either side of the Kilo 8 triangle. This is something the Huthis are unlikely to trust as it provides no guarantee against their rivals exploiting the vulnerability in their defences created by the first phase of redeployments. Guarantees that the international community will not allow this to happen may be needed.

The final conundrum for international policymakers is that of leverage.

The final conundrum for international policymakers is that of leverage. Western diplomats acknowledge that they can apply only calibrated pressure on the Hadi government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They have fewer tools available to them when it comes to the Huthis, and there is a perception that the northern rebels came to the table in December only because they were on the verge of losing Hodeida – an assertion the Huthis dispute. In effect, a Western diplomat says, international actors’ main source of leverage with the Huthis is the implicit threat that they will allow the Hodeida assault to go ahead – something that would cause international outcry and further convince the Huthis that the UN and Western powers are working against them and cannot be trusted.

Although both the Hadi government and the Huthis have delayed the negotiations with regular nitpicking, many Western diplomats perceive that the Huthis are the proximate barrier to progress. It is true that the Huthis are required to move first in the first phase of redeployments. But both the Huthi and government delegations at the RCC seem to be taking turns raising issues they know their rivals will find unpalatable.

Under mounting pressure from the Hadi government and the coalition to acknowledge the perception of Huthi stubbornness, and have the UN do so, some Western embassies are now tempted to push for public statements calling the Huthis out. But while doing so may satisfy diplomats and the coalition, it is unlikely to help turn the Stockholm Agreement into a reality. Indeed, it could cause backlash from the Huthis and be used as a pretext by Hadi or the coalition to declare the process dead. At the same time, failure to apply pressure in the face of further delays is likely to undermine the credibility of the UN, confidence among the parties and faith that the international community is capable of brokering a solution to the Yemen war.

Bottom Line: Progress of some kind on Hodeida is needed – and fast. But full implementation of the Stockholm Agreement is some way off. Ideally, the two sides would reach agreement on phase two redeployments and the local security forces within the next few weeks, so that implementation could start and proceed as a package. More diplomatic pressure on the Hadi government from the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and on the Huthis from Oman is probably necessary if the difficult issue of local security forces is finally to be resolved. But if past is precedent, negotiations may drag on, risking renewed violence and the agreement’s collapse. If negotiators see this happening, one option could be to focus on unilateral Huthi redeployment from Saleef and Ras Issa ports at a minimum (and possibly Hodeida port as well), something the Huthis have offered in the past, before returning to the thornier issue of the city and local security forces. Something needs to happen on the ground to build at least a little trust that the agreement still stands.

Political and Military Developments

The Hadi government and the Huthis both made plays to demonstrate their political legitimacy this week, with the government inaugurating a parliamentary session in the eastern city of Seiyun and the Huthis describing this meeting as “illegitimate”, while holding parliamentary elections in the territory they control. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which had threatened to derail any attempt by the Hadi government to host parliament in the southern city of Aden, also criticised the meeting. 

Some 141 members of the 301-member House of Representatives met in Seiyun, where they nominated a new speaker and deputy speakers, and ratified a budget for 2019. Those present elected Sultan al-Barakani, a senior member of the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s historical ruling party, and a long-time loyalist of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as speaker. Members also discussed a proposal to name the Huthis a terrorist organisation.

Parliamentary elections were last held in 2003, and since then an estimated 34 elected members have died. The government argues that a parliamentary quorum, the minimum number of members needed to debate and pass legislation, is therefore now 134 members. The Huthis, who have held sessions of parliament in Sanaa and in 2015 announced a “constitutional declaration” that they say overrides the authority of parliament, dismiss this argument. By holding elections for vacant seats, they believe they have further undermined the Hadi government’s claim to parliamentary legitimacy. The STC vice president, Hani bin Breik, also described the meeting as illegitimate, going on to say that the Hadi government held it in “Islah-held” southern territory that is yet to be liberated. (Islah is a predominantly Sunni Islamist party, which encompasses Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.) As Islah is a political force nominally backing Hadi, some in the Hadi government regarded this remark as a veiled threat that STC-aligned forces might be sent to attempt a takeover of Seiyun.

Violence continued around Hodeida, with the Huthis reporting repeated attacks on the eastern side of the city and the coalition alleging Huthi attacks in Durayhimi district to the south. Fighting has also escalated up and down the Red Sea coast, in particular in Tuhayta and Hays districts. Elsewhere, heavy fighting has been reported in Hajja governorate, continuing a recent trend, and along the border and in al-Jawf governorate. A number of coalition airstrikes hit Sanaa on 10 April, causing what is reported to be the highest number of civilian casualties in the capital in over a year.

Bottom Line: As the Stockholm Agreement falters, the power struggle that has consumed the country continues unabated elsewhere. While the push for political legitimacy could be seen as a positive signal that Yemen’s power centres see a political process in the offing, in practice it may trigger renewed violence among purported allies in the anti-Huthi camp.

Hodeida port and city: Key frontlines, roads and infrastructure. CRISISGROUP

Regional and International Developments

On 16 April, President Donald Trump announced his veto of a joint resolution of Congress that would have directed the removal of U.S. forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen, with certain exceptions relating to counter-terrorism operations. 

In his veto message, the president suggested that U.S. support for the coalition helps protect U.S. nationals in Saudi Arabia and other coalition countries that have been subject to attack by Huthi insurgents in Yemen. He also suggested concern that the resolution would, among other things, tread on his constitutional prerogatives as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, damage U.S. bilateral relations with coalition participants and embolden Iran in “malign activities” in Yemen.

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signalling that he will not pursue an override of the president’s veto, the question is what additional measures Congress may take in an effort to curtail U.S. support for the war. In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer issued a response to the presidential veto message stating that “the fight is not yet over, and the House will explore further legislation and conduct rigorous oversight”. It is not clear, however, what this might entail. Because of procedural challenges in pursuing stand-alone legislation, the best path forward for enacting legislative restrictions on U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict may be to include them in must-pass legislation like the annual defence authorisation legislation. Whether or not this is politically feasible, however, remains to be seen.

For Crisis Group’s comprehensive assessment of U.S. involvement in the Yemen war – both the origins of that involvement and how it has evolved under the Trump administration – see our new report, Ending the Yemen Quagmire: Lessons for Washington from Four Years of War.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the Security Council issued a press statement on 17 April underscoring its “grave concern” at the lack of progress in Hodeida. The Council welcomed the agreement on a first phase of redeployments and called for the parties to implement the plan as quickly as possible and “not to seek to exploit the redeployment process” – a slightly opaque attempt to address the Huthis’ concerns that they could be attacked in the period between the two redeployment phases. Diplomats say that the Security Council will be forced to take some kind of action if no progress has been made in one month’s time, although it has limited options beyond public criticism and perhaps the threat of new sanctions, which members like Russia are likely to reject.

The debate around military sales and assistance to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen continues to rage in Europe. Germany's National Security Council, consisting of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her chief ministers, has reportedly approved shipments of weapons parts to countries directly involved in the war in Yemen. The approvals come two weeks after the German government extended a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. On 15 April, France-Inter and Disclose revealed classified information from the French Military Intelligence Directorate that seemed to confirm the use of French military equipment and weapons in the war in Yemen – something Paris denies.

Bottom Line:  While advocates of the war powers legislation had hoped that President Trump’s non-interventionist tendencies might lead him to overrule his advisers and sign it into law, his veto ended any such hope. The question now is twofold: first, whether the administration will use the Congressional action to persuade its Gulf partners that, while the president protected them, domestic anger at the war is growing and thus the time has come to end it or, alternatively, lend its support to more aggressive coalition action against the Huthis in the name of countering Iran. And, second, whether Congressional opponents of the war will be able to find a new vehicle for applying meaningful pressure on both the administration and the coalition to focus their efforts on bringing the conflict to an end.

Click here for the latest CrisisWatch entry for Yemen.