Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
Crisis Group Yemen Update #11
What Next After U.S. and UK Strikes on the Houthis?
What Next After U.S. and UK Strikes on the Houthis?
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on 15 May, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths announced that military forces loyal to the Huthi (Ansar Allah) movement had withdrawn from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef – in a first step towards implementing the Stockholm Agreement he brokered in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.

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