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Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
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on 15 May, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths announced that military forces loyal to the Huthi (Ansar Allah) movement had withdrawn from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef – in a first step towards implementing the Stockholm Agreement he brokered in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.

Local security forces wait at a checkpoint in Al Jawf Governorate, Yemen, 5 January 2020. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen

Heavy fighting has started again in Yemen after one of the war’s quietest months. Battles on the northern front lines highlight the flaws of the piecemeal approach to negotiating an end to the war – and the pressing need for a coordinated multi-track effort.

The narrow window of opportunity to end the Yemen war that opened in late 2019 may fast be closing. Fighting along key front lines in northern Yemen, along with Huthi rebel missile strikes and the resumption of Saudi-led aerial bombardment, threatens to tilt the conflict toward a major escalation, reversing tentative steps toward dialogue. There is still a chance to break the cycle by expanding newly opened communication channels between Huthi rebels (who call themselves Ansar Allah) and Saudi Arabia to include the internationally recognised Yemeni government and others in order to negotiate a truce on all major fronts. But success will require a coordinated and continuous regional and international effort.

For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The swing from stalemate and de-escalation to shooting war was sudden. On 18 January, after a month that UN Envoy Martin Griffiths described as one of the conflict’s quietest periods, the government alleges that the Huthis launched missiles at one of its military camps in Marib governorate (the Huthis refuse to confirm responsibility). The strike reportedly killed more than 100 soldiers in one of the war’s deadliest single incidents to date. It came amid intensified combat along previously stalemated front lines in al-Jawf, Nihm and Marib between allies of the Huthis, on one side, and of the government, on the other. These battles became still fiercer after the strike, with both sides suffering heavy losses. The Huthis have since fired several more missiles at military facilities in Marib. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has ramped up its air campaign, launching dozens of raids in what the Huthis argue is a breach of a putative cross-border truce. Saudi officials label the fighting a Huthi attempt to take advantage of border ceasefire negotiations under way since October. For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The fighting underscores the limitations of the current piecemeal regional and international approach to ending the war. This approach, in which Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on the key negotiating tracks in the south and on the border, has been as much about firefighting as conflict prevention. The UN is struggling to sustain the year-old Stockholm Agreement to prevent a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is pressuring the government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) to firm up the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that ended fighting over the southern port city of Aden. Many observers, including Crisis Group, had hoped that the parties could thread these two disparate tracks together with the Saudi-Huthi border de-escalation into a single UN-led process to end the war. Progress in demilitarising Hodeida would, under this view, build confidence among the Yemeni parties; the Riyadh Agreement would prevent a war-within-a-war and lay the groundwork for forming a more inclusive government; and the Saudi-Huthi talks would help remove Yemen from the regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. 

Recent events, however, suggest that the piecemeal approach rests on inherently weak foundations: a series of bilateral agreements designed to halt specific parts of the conflict without tackling their underlying causes, something only national multiparty talks can achieve. Left unaddressed is the fighting between government-aligned forces and the Huthis on fronts in the north and south, making the approach’s success or failure vulnerable to events on the ground. The cause of the sudden escalation in the north is contested, with both the Huthis and the government claiming they are taking defensive measures in response to their rivals’ premeditated aggression. In explaining their expanded military activities, the Huthis cite a series of alleged Saudi airstrikes and ground attacks they say took place before the 18 January missile strike. The government says the Huthis had launched a series of small-scale raids on strategic positions, including highways in government-controlled areas, over the course of January before the Marib strike. What triggered the fighting may in fact have been a local dispute over a checkpoint in al-Jawf governorate early in the month that gradually spiralled out of control. 

Regardless, it is clear that both parties had been preparing for renewed hostilities in the north after a long period of stalemate. The Huthis and the government each claimed their rivals were planning major new operations in the weeks and months before the escalation. Huthi fears may have grown in recent weeks as government forces previously based in the south of Yemen were redeployed to Marib as part of the Riyadh Agreement.

The fighting in the north will have a knock-on effect on each of the ongoing negotiation tracks. Saudi-Huthi talks continue but are strained; hawks in both camps have arguably gained traction, and they have come close to scuttling discussions on several occasions. The Riyadh Agreement has also come under stress since the 18 January missile strike, in part because the Huthis’ refusal to claim it encourages speculation about its provenance. 

Pro-government news sites and social media have spread an unlikely rumour that either the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the STC, the secessionist grouping aligned with Abu Dhabi, fired the missiles. A number of government officials note that the UAE removed its Patriot missile defence system from Marib in mid-2019, leaving the area vulnerable to Huthi short-range missile attacks. Pro-government media have also used the fighting in the north as an opportunity to lambast the Stockholm Agreement, which they see as an artificial stalemate imposed from outside. The government has publicly threatened to leave the agreement. The renewed focus on Stockholm is in part motivated by concern that Saudi Arabia and the UN are close to negotiating a truce in the north at a time when the Huthis remain dominant on the ground. But it may also portend renewed hostilities along the Red Sea coast. 

At the time of writing, the Huthis appeared to be making the biggest gains on the battlefield, reportedly controlling the important Nihm front north east of Sanaa after several days in which both sides claimed a series of largely symbolic victories while suffering numerous casualties. In a sign of deep frustration and fatigue among ordinary Yemenis, public criticism has turned inward: the Huthis’ tribal allies have criticised the rebels for the high cost of what are likely inconclusive battles, while the government’s supporters have similarly reproached President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for failing to gain ground on the Huthis. Some voices in the anti-Huthi bloc blame Riyadh for providing insufficient support at what they believe was a potential turning point in the war. 

The fighting could spark renewed conflict elsewhere in Yemen. Many in the anti-Huthi bloc see it as an opportunity to attend to unfinished business. The widespread narrative in their ranks is that the Stockholm Agreement forestalled a pivotal battle that would have weakened the Huthis and allowed for a national political settlement on more equitable terms. With fighting already raging in the north and in the southern governorate of al-Dhale, many in the anti-Huthi camp believe they could make a renewed push for Hodeida and reignite battles along the border in a rare, coordinated multifront campaign. Many Huthis suspect such a battle was the Riyadh Agreement’s real aim all along. Hawks in the Huthi camp, meanwhile, appear to relish the prospect of a national showdown particularly if, as seemed to be the case at the time of writing, they have come out on top in the latest round of fighting.

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory.

An expansion of the conflict would be a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war. Senior Huthi officials have staked their reputations on the de-escalation initiative with the Saudis, and would likely lose considerable capital within the movement if it fails. Saudi as well as Huthi military leaders were already sceptical of the de-escalation effort and may decide that the only option now is outright military victory. In addition, developments in the U.S.-Iran rivalry may well have motivated Riyadh’s decision to negotiate with the Huthis, following a missile attack on vital Saudi Arabian oil production facilities in September 2019 that was claimed by the Huthis, but widely attributed to Iran. Arguably fearful of a regional war in which U.S. support was uncertain, Riyadh may have sought to mitigate the risk along its southern border by de-escalating with the Huthis and seeking to drive a wedge between them and Iran. But Saudi officials might also have reappraised this approach (or at least slowed it down) after unrest in Iran, huge protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional asymmetrical war strategy, in early January. 

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory. Crisis Group recommends the following: 

  • The UN Security Council should echo UN Envoy Griffiths’ call for a de-escalation, and urge a truce on all fronts or, even stronger, steps toward a nationwide ceasefire, reiterating the point that the only solution to the Yemen war is a political one. 
  • The U.S. in particular should push Saudi Arabia, and the UN, the EU and Oman should press the Huthis, to continue talks, maintain the cross-border truce and implement further bilateral de-escalation measures. In parallel, the U.S. and the UN should encourage Saudi Arabia to bring the Yemeni government and its allies into negotiations with the Huthis. 
  • The UN should lead the establishment of a national military body, comprising senior military representatives from the government, the Huthi movement, key military officers on major frontlines (as some anti-Huthi commanders like Tariq Saleh on the Red Sea coast do not fall under the direct authority of the government) and Saudi Arabia, overseen by the UN and advised by international ceasefire planning experts. This body would be charged with planning and implementing frontline truces and reopening key roads. It would include political liaisons capable of transmitting proposals directly to their leaders. 
  • International and regional support as well as coordination for such an initiative would be critical. Crisis Group has advocated in the past for the formation of a contact group of key regional and international stakeholders including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, as well as the U.S., UK and EU. Such a grouping could meet regularly and divide labour for outreach, pressure and the provision of technical expertise, taking its cues from the UN envoy. A meeting of such a group should take place as soon as possible, making the formation of a military body its immediate task.

The present scenario is wearyingly familiar: modest advances toward a political settlement undone by local fighting that explodes into a national escalation, driven by overconfidence or miscalculation on the part of key protagonists. There still is time to stop this dangerous slide, but it may fast run out.