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on 15 May, Special Envoy Martin Griffiths announced that military forces loyal to the Huthi (Ansar Allah) movement had withdrawn from the three main ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast – Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef – in a first step towards implementing the Stockholm Agreement he brokered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

A four-wheel vehicle carries passengers travelling from Aden to Taiz city through the Hajjat al-Abd road, a dangerous detour route linking both governorates. Yemen, September 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Ahmed Basha

A Moment of Truth for Yemen’s Truce

Yemen’s six-month truce is up for renewal on 2 October. The UN and external powers should redouble their efforts to forge agreement on an expanded deal. If those look set to fall short, however, they should propose interim arrangements that avert a return to major combat.

Thanks to a UN-brokered truce, Yemen has enjoyed a lull in fighting for the past six months, the first such protracted reprieve since the civil war broke out almost eight years ago. But with a 2 October deadline for the truce’s renewal fast approaching, Yemen’s warring parties – the Huthi rebels in particular, but also the internationally recognised and Riyadh-backed Political Leadership Council, headed by President Rashad al-Alimi – face a moment of truth. The UN has proposed an expanded truce. But wrangling over a deal to reopen Huthi-controlled roads in and around the city of Taiz – and Huthi demands for salary payments for civil servants in rebel-held areas as an inducement to continue the détente – have pushed the truce to the verge of collapse.

If the parties cannot strike a bargain, the conflict may return to, or even exceed, previous levels of destructive intensity, with the prospects of a negotiated settlement becoming still more distant. UN mediators and outside powers involved should push the parties to compromise, but if the expanded truce looks out of reach, they should prepare options short of that to keep the guns silent – and the belligerents talking to each other – for at least another two months.

Taiz in a Knot

Taiz city – a transport and commercial crossroads linking Yemen’s north and south – has been contested since the war began. In 2014, the Huthis’ coup, which dislodged the internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, left the national army split between units loyal to Hadi’s government and others answering to the country’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had allied with the Huthis. Since mid-2015, army units and resistance fighters tied to the government have occupied the city centre, but the Huthis and former Saleh loyalists (the Huthis killed Saleh in December 2017) have controlled the routes connecting it with the rest of Yemen via two important highways, the north-south N1 and east-west N3. Cutting off access to the highways left Taiz in a state of partial siege, with only one poorly maintained mountain road from the south providing a way in and out of the city. The road closures have severely affected life in Taiz. All-too-frequent traffic accidents cause regular shortages of food and fuel. A flourishing war economy, in which ostensible rivals trade fuel and other commodities across internal boundaries while supposed allies fight one another to run smuggling rackets, serves to deepen insecurity in and around the city.

Map: Yemen Territorial Control 2022

The severing of Taiz’s roads registered low on the international list of priorities until recently. Successive UN envoys to Yemen sidestepped the issue, seeing it as a distraction from their pursuit of a nationwide peace that would render war-related road closures moot. Even when the UN included road access in its peace initiatives, it did little follow-up work. The present envoy, Hans Grundberg, was the first diplomat of his rank to visit Taiz city – he went there in November 2021 – since the war began. Taizis have long felt abandoned.

In April, however, the Taiz issue started to get more attention, thanks to the UN-brokered truce. Shifts on the battlefield, including devastating government losses in al-Bayda, Shebwa and Marib governorate that badly dented Hadi’s wafer-thin credibility, a counteroffensive by United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed forces that halted the Huthi advance, and Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had created a mutually hurting stalemate for both Yemeni and outside parties to the conflict. The UN saw an opening to broker a pause in fighting. To convince the parties to stop shooting, the UN added a series of confidence-building measures to be carried out during the truce. The Huthis’ principal demands included reopening the airport in the capital Sanaa to international commercial flights and increasing the number of fuel shipments entering the port of Hodeida. The Hadi government asked for Taiz’s roads to be reopened – with the UN later scaling back this demand to asking for a commitment to discuss the roads. Five days after the parties concluded the truce, Hadi abruptly announced that he was stepping down in favour of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC).

Since then, the parties have made progress on the first two measures, which has worked to the Huthis’ benefit by increasing the fuel supply in the areas they control and allowing commercial flights to land in Sanaa for the first time since 2016. But the Taiz roads remain closed. 

Taiz Roadblock

Physical roadblocks around Taiz are now a political barrier to sustaining and expanding the truce. Both the Huthis and the government say they are not interested in indefinitely extending the present arrangement. Each wants more concessions from the other in exchange for prolonging the détente. The UN has thus sought to negotiate a broader version of the truce, which it first proposed in June. The upgraded truce would last for six, rather than two months (the current version has already been renewed twice), and would include additional confidence-building measures to lay the groundwork for peace talks. Standing in the way of the expanded truce are government calls for progress on Taiz, the unfulfilled provision of the old deal, as well as the new Huthi demands related to salaries for civil servants. The Huthis say they will not make a new deal unless the government immediately starts paying salaries to those civil servants working in the areas they control, Yemen’s main population centres. In turn, the government says it will not even talk about salary payments until the Taiz road issue raised in the original truce agreement is resolved to its satisfaction. 

The holdup appears to be a disagreement over one road in particular. In July, the government accepted a UN proposal to reopen four roads in Taiz province: the main northbound route linking the city with the east-west and north-south highways; two smaller roads in north-western and south-eastern Taiz; and a section of highway leading to Aden on the southern coast. The Huthis rejected the plan. But they had earlier floated schemes of their own in which they suggested reopening all these roads except the first one, the northbound route. The Huthis make not entirely convincing arguments about why talks on Taiz’s roads have not progressed, for example citing fears of al-Qaeda attacks and traffic congestion.

There are reasons to suspect that the Huthis might be more interested in running down the clock on the truce than trying to find a compromise on Taiz.

There are reasons to suspect that the Huthis might be more interested in running down the clock on the truce than trying to find a compromise on Taiz. Some Huthi officials believe the truce, which includes halting cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is a major concession in itself. They refuse to do more unless further climbdowns are linked to a nationwide settlement or at least until the government starts paying salaries in Huthi-run areas. Others in the Huthi camp argue that rebel fighters’ morale might decline if the leaders give up more. But perhaps most importantly, the Huthis perceive that their rivals have been weakened by bouts of infighting in the PLC, which may have tipped the military balance of power further in the Huthis’ favour.

A Divided Leadership Council

Yemen has fragmented into several zones of military-political control since 2015. Before the PLC’s formation, armed factions in the anti-Huthi camp fell into two broad categories: those who recognised the authority of Hadi’s government and those who did not. Hadi came to power in 2012 but fled Sanaa after the Huthi-Saleh coup. He remained Yemen’s internationally acknowledged (if widely disparaged) leader until he resigned the presidency, under pressure from Riyadh, to make way for the PLC shortly after the truce came into effect. 

Before Hadi’s ouster, forces clustered in Taiz, Marib and northern Shebwa, many of them with ties to Islah – Yemen’s pre-eminent Sunni Islamist political party – had placed themselves under the authority of those army units loyal to Hadi. But many other anti-Huthi groups refused to recognise Hadi’s writ, because they rejected either Hadi himself or his relationship with Islah. The latter objection was particularly strong among powerful UAE-aligned factions. Abu Dhabi reviles Islah because some of its members have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Emirati leaders view as a threat on par with al-Qaeda or even the Islamic State (ISIS). Of the UAE-backed groups, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which advocates for an independent southern Yemen, is among the most powerful. 

Hadi’s influence on the ground waned as these new groups rose to prominence. But his continued international recognition arguably acted as a brake on the aspirations of elements of the fractious anti-Huthi coalition to regional autonomy or secession. Over the course of 2018 and 2019, for example, the STC took over Aden, the government’s interim capital. But the STC, which hopes to gain international support for southern independence, met stiff resistance from diplomats working in Yemen, who continued to back Hadi and his government. The Hadi government worked hard to differentiate between STC “militias” and its own “state forces”, and Riyadh later pressured the STC into allowing government officials to return to work in Aden as part of a deal that froze the STC-government conflict but did not resolve it.

When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi … installed the [Presidential Leadership Council], they appeared to have been trying to … unify the anti-Huthi camp.

When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi eventually pushed Hadi out and installed the PLC, they appeared to have been trying to overcome all these divisions and unify the anti-Huthi camp. They hoped to present the Huthis with both a credible interlocutor for negotiations and a more formidable foe on the battlefield. But instead of fostering unity, the PLC’s formation has created even more space for rivals to jostle for power and led to speculation in Yemeni and regional media that the divisions extend to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The PLC folded the leaders of key anti-Huthi groups, including the STC, into a new executive headed by Alimi, a former interior minister. The confusing new dynamic evened the playing field for the various anti-Huthi groups. “Now everyone is legitimate, and no one is legitimate”, a Yemeni journalist said of the anti-Huthi armed factions, adding that the PLC made it easier for anti-Islah forces to attack their rivals, even those who had been part of the pre-PLC military or security services, which the PLC is meant to be combining with other forces under its command.

That is precisely what happened. In August, UAE-aligned forces took over Shebwa governorate. In doing so, they forced what were widely described by Yemeni media outlets as “Islah” forces – but who were also in the main members of the pre-PLC state-run military and security forces – out of Shebwa. Shebwa’s UAE-aligned governor later accused what he termed “Brotherhood” forces of sedition. Shortly afterward, the STC seized the eastern half of neighbouring Abyan governorate, after negotiating the takeover with Hadi’s local military allies, who had been cast adrift by his ouster. 

An Unwelcome Distraction

If the PLC’s formation was meant to present the Huthis with a single credible negotiating partner, it has thus far backfired. The infighting has deflected attention from the truce, thrown efforts to unite the military factions into disarray and undermined the PLC’s credibility. It has also raised questions about whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE are on the same page. Lastly, it has put President al-Alimi, who was born in Taiz, in a tight spot. The PLC chairman’s credibility is already tarnished: he repeatedly demanded a halt to the Shebwa battles and forbade the STC from entering Abyan, but to no avail. The Huthis likely recognise that his authority will erode further if government negotiators agree to a deal that delivers little or nothing there. Should the truce expire with no deal, meanwhile, the Huthis would presumably press their military advantage and fully encircle Taiz. Islah-linked armed groups in Taiz and Marib – where the war’s main front lies at present – look increasingly vulnerable. They are surrounded, by the Huthis on one side and their UAE-aligned frenemies on the other. 

The Huthis may also be banking on Saudi Arabia’s desire to exit the war to allow them to avoid making concessions. With the PLC in freefall, Riyadh may calculate it is better to get a bad deal on Taiz, pay salaries in Huthi areas and edge Yemen toward a final settlement than to risk further territorial losses. What is clear is that none of these considerations have much to do with the technical details of the UN’s proposals on which roads to open. The current Huthi position appears to be about extracting the maximum possible benefit from the negotiations without giving much of anything up in return.

The Cost of Failure

If, indeed, that is the Huthis’ calculus, it may prove mistaken. The rebels are under increasing pressure in areas they hold to address an economic crisis that has not eased since the truce began. While more fuel flowed into Hodeida, easing shortages at the pump, rising prices on world markets made fuel, food and other basic goods more expensive. Partly for this reason, the Huthis have been laser-focused on obtaining salary payments as a precondition to an expanded truce. The rebels are hardly likely to collapse any time soon, but if they return to fighting, they will need to present people in areas they control with economic benefits to justify more years of wartime privation.

The Huthis are better prepared for renewed battle than the forces in Marib and Taiz.

As for PLC officials, they should not overplay their weaker hand, either. Frustrated government officials say they should not have to swallow a more limited agreement on Taiz than the UN proposal they already accepted, as that would reward the Huthis for intransigence. They demand that the UN and world powers lean on the Huthis to reopen the roads as per the current truce’s terms. But the PLC should not allow the truce to fall apart to prove a point. The reality is that, given the infighting in the south and discord on the presidential council, the Huthis are better prepared for renewed battle than the forces in Marib and Taiz, a vulnerability the rebels will be keen to exploit. While some in the government may think that ending the truce would be a moral victory, and proof that they will not make endless concessions for no return, it could also prove to be a hollow one. Claiming the moral high ground could cost the government more territory in Marib and maybe even the last open road out of Taiz city. Already in August, the Huthis moved on al-Dhabbab, the district this road passes through. That offensive failed, but they could easily make another attempt.

Averting a Collapse

Time has not yet run out on hopes of expanding the truce. The best bet for Grundberg is to short-circuit negotiations. The envoy travelled to Sanaa on 28 September to meet Huthi leaders. It is not clear if he met Abdulmalik al-Huthi, the rebels’ reclusive leader, in person. But it is to Abdulmalik he must speak. A single word from the Huthi leader can put a stop to his lieutenants’ gamesmanship in the Taiz talks and ideally get the Huthis to commit instead to opening the northbound road that is the crux of the stalled negotiations. Grundberg could also entreat the government to call the Huthis’ bluff on Taiz, accepting their offer to reopen three of the four routes mentioned in the UN proposal in order to expand the truce and keep negotiations going, while making clear that other roads are to reopen in later phases.

Ideally, the parties would agree on the UN’s expanded truce option, but if not, a middle-ground arrangement that buys the UN a little breathing room may be the least bad outcome available to Grundberg. The parties could agree to a two-month rollover of the truce, or a more limited expansion of its terms and length. Such a deal would at least go some way toward keeping violence at bay. It would, nonetheless, bode ill for larger prospects for peace, illustrating that the parties have little interest in converting the truce into a lasting ceasefire, let alone comprehensive political talks. It might also indicate that the UN is locked into a cycle in which it expends energy addressing piecemeal issues, like roads and salaries, rather than a wider political settlement. If 2 October indeed passes without an expanded truce, the UN and the countries backing its initiative should redouble their efforts on Taiz’s roads and the question of salaries in order to keep the option of an expanded truce alive. More broadly, though, Grundberg should explore ways to break out of the above cycle, pressing his case for a political process beyond the truce by clearly laying out his plans for negotiations to end the war.

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