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Crisis Group Yemen Update #6
Crisis Group Yemen Update #6
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
A Yemeni man walks carrying food aid provided by a local charity to families affected by the ongoing conflict, in the capital Sanaa on 14 February 2019. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Crisis Group Yemen Update #6

This is the sixth weekly briefing note in Crisis Group’s Yemen Campaign. This week, we look at how economic issues will affect future peacebuilding efforts.

Trendline: Putting Yemen to Work

Late February brought some hope to Yemen’s embattled population, large segments of which were on the verge of starvation at the end of 2018. The UN announced that it had both raised billions of dollars to pay for its humanitarian work over the coming year and had regained access to the Red Sea Mills, an important food storage and distribution hub outside the port city of Hodeida for the first time in five months. But without a peace deal and, in the longer term, significant economic reform, the most the UN and other organisations can do is arrest the sharp humanitarian decline of the past eight years.

Donors, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), pledged a combined $2.6 billion in funding for the UN’s 2019 humanitarian plan for Yemen on 26 February. This represents a significant sum but falls well short of the $4.2 billion the UN says it needs for the single largest humanitarian appeal in its history. On the same day, the UN completed a long-delayed operation to access the Red Sea Mills, crossing from Huthi-controlled Hodeida city into coalition-controlled territory on the city’s eastern outskirts. UN staff are now assessing the condition of grain at the site for spoilage and residue from unexploded ordinance. The UN had not been able to access the Red Sea Mills compound, where the World Food Programme stores around 25 per cent of its food aid in Yemen, since September 2018. Infrastructural bottlenecks created by the conflict are almost as much of a threat to starving Yemenis as their current economic plight (see Update #2).

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

The huge sums of money the UN requires reveal the sheer scale of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. According to the UN and the World Bank, around 80 per cent of Yemenis now live in poverty, up from more than 50 per cent in 2014, and require some form of aid. This represents a total of around 24.1 million people of whom 14.3 million are in acute need of help. The World Bank estimates that about eight million Yemenis have lost their jobs since the war began in 2015. The official unemployment rate already stood at more than 50 per cent in 2014. It is now likely to be far higher.

Humanitarian aid is necessary in the short term, but is ultimately a very expensive fix for a problem no amount of money can solve: an already weak and poorly managed economy that has atrophied since 2014. “The UN can’t feed 28 or 29 million people for a year, let alone forever”, a senior humanitarian official said. “Until people are earning wages and food prices are affordable, the entire country is going to be below the [poverty] line”.

Economic output measured in GDP has more than halved by some measures, while inflation has soared. The rival authorities in Sanaa and Aden have each struggled to pay salaries for an estimated 1.2 million civilian and military staff employed before the war, whose incomes underwrite the livelihoods of about a quarter of the population.

Equally worrying is that the government is prioritising salary payments to the military and security services, which have been the only employers creating new jobs since the war began. This further incentivises unemployed men to take up arms and creates huge problems for the government in the long term, leaving it with a heavily armed and expensive workforce that it will need to move off the payroll in the future.

WORLD BANK

Citing figures from the ministry of civil service and insurance, the Yemeni Development Champions – a group of economic experts – report that a little over half of the country’s 472,353 pre-war civil servants received wages from the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2018. At the same time, salaries for the military and security services increased. The Hadi government now spends more on defence ministry employees than in 2014, despite high rates of defections (the military payroll was also likely heavily padded by so-called “ghost soldiers”). Official figures for the rival Huthi administration in Sanaa are unavailable, but an official based in Sanaa during the early years of the war said that the Huthis also prioritise payments to fighters. Meanwhile, some of the many Yemeni armed groups on the ground are paid directly by the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE alone pays the salaries of around 40,000-45,000 men in arms in Yemen.

The conflict has taken a sharp toll on subsistence and commercial farming – a huge if unsteady source of work in rural Yemen before the war. Shocks to the oil and gas industry, once another important engine of economic growth, have shrunk the foreign currency reserves the government used to help pay for food imports. The World Bank estimates that 35 per cent of businesses have closed since the war began, most of them citing insecurity and financial constraints. As a result of these economic hardships, household income has plummeted, often to zero, while the cost of living has shot up thanks to reduced trade and a weakened riyal.

The Hadi government hopes that it will be able to pay more wages in 2019 using revenues from oil and gas exports and savings made on fuel imports, thanks to a $60 million monthly fuel grant from Saudi Arabia. Several oilfields in the south have been producing since 2017, and the government is trying to connect other oilfields with export terminals along the south coast. The Hadi government has said it hopes to produce 110,000 barrels of oil a day in 2019 and export 75,000 barrels a day, netting about $1.7 billion in export earnings, a reasonable estimate. France’s Total may also restart a big gas export project in 2019, which would boost that income.

WORLD BANK

In a new state budget, the government forecasts that it will spend 3.1 trillion riyals ($5.6 billion) in revenues in 2019, set against estimated earnings of 2.1 trillion riyals ($3.9 billion), already indicating a deficit of more than $1.7 billion. How the state will finance this budget gap is unclear, given little domestic or international appetite to extend credit to the Yemeni government. A government official acknowledged that both budgeted spending and revenues are “unrealistic”.

Even if oil income increases, the government is still likely to keep suffering from poor economic management, a troubling prospect considering that economic grievances played a central part in the 2011 uprising and 2014 Huthi takeover of Sanaa. The country already faced successive fiscal and currency crises before the war, caused in no small part by its overreliance on oil exports, huge fuel subsidies, a massive public sector wage bill and mounting dependence on imported basic goods such as food. Simply replicating these policies only means storing up the problems of yesterday for tomorrow.

Once the war is over, Yemen will need more work opportunities to absorb ex-combatants and provide livelihoods, but how those will be generated remains unanswered. Local and international organisations have been trying to create jobs at the local level to get money into the hands of the poorest through cash transfer programmes. These kinds of projects are important and have impressive track records. The Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS), founded in 2005, estimates it helped create and sustain around 75,000 agricultural jobs in 2017 and 2018, and believes it can increase the scale of its work rapidly. The World Bank says its cash transfer programmes reach about 1.45 million households and help support 9 million people. But absent a growing economy and new avenues for employment, it is unclear how Yemen will be put back to work in the event of a peace deal.

Bottom Line: Getting Yemenis back to work is a crucial task, especially the tens or hundreds of thousands of ex-combatants who will be out of work in the event of a successful peace deal. Simply replicating the failed economic policies of the pre-war years could sow the seeds of future unrest. Donors should already be thinking about a mix of future initiatives, ranging from local job creation schemes to international support for the state budget and infrastructure development, to help Yemen’s transition to peace.

Political and Military Developments

The issue of force redeployments in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida and two nearby ports, Ras Issa and Saleef, still looms large. After agreeing on a plan for a first phase of redeployments on 17 February, the government of Yemen, Huthis and the coalition quibbled in public and private over details. The December 2018 Stockholm Agreement did not stipulate who would ultimately control the Red Sea trade corridor, only mentioning “local forces”, so Huthi and government of Yemen representatives are each trying to impose their interpretation of the deal. This has been a recurring theme since December.

Having agreed to postpone discussions of which “local forces” will secure Hodeida city and the three ports once frontline forces have been redeployed away from the area, the government of Yemen subsequently backtracked, telling Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard that they would not implement their part of the deal until the issue had been resolved. Lollesgaard, who chairs the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) – a joint Huthi-government of Yemen working group formed to hammer out details of the agreement on the ground in Hodeida – and heads the UN Mission to Support the Stockholm Agreement (UNMHA), was forced to undertake yet another round of last-minute negotiations along with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen, to prevent the deal’s collapse.

Then the Huthis raised their own objections. Their main issue is who will control the so-called “Kilo 8 triangle”, an industrial zone on the eastern edge of Hodeida that is currently one of the main frontlines. As part of the first phase of redeployments, the Huthis are meant to pull back 300 metres west from the area, and government of Yemen and coalition-backed forces are meant to pull back at least one kilometre east from the Red Sea Mills wheat storage and processing facility adjoining the industrial area. The Huthis want the area to be a “neutral zone” with no Yemeni security presence, but the government wants policemen loyal to Hadi to secure it, according to a government official.

The Huthis are also worried that the Yemeni government will try to renege on its part of the deal during the first phase of redeployments. They have asked Lollesgaard for more clarity on how a planned “monitoring mechanism” will confirm to the government’s satisfaction that they have redeployed their forces from the port. They also claim that if talks over a second phase of redeployments begin before the first has been completed, the government will use the discussion as a pretext to delay pulling back its forces. The UN is hopeful that it will be able to break the impasse by 1 March.

Though Huthi and Yemeni government officials have been engaged in a public spat over who is to blame for the delay in redeploying forces, they are not incapable of cooperation.

Though Huthi and Yemeni government officials have been engaged in a public spat over who is to blame for the delay in redeploying forces, they are not incapable of cooperation. On 26 February, the UN travelled from Huthi-controlled Hodeida to the Red Sea Mills compound on the outskirts of Hodeida, which is controlled by the government of Yemen. For this to happen, the Huthis had to demine a section of the Sanaa-Hodeida highway leading to the Kilo 8 triangle. They had resisted doing this since the Stockholm Agreement was signed, arguing that reopening the road would allow their rivals to retake Hodeida. UN officials say that they were surprised that the UN team, which was sent to assess damage to the facility and the volume and quality of grain stored there, was able to enter and leave with little difficulty, the most encouraging signal rival forces have sent since December.

Elsewhere in Yemen, UAE-backed Security Belt forces said they pushed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) out of a key stronghold in Wadi Omran, in the Mudiya district of Abyan governorate. This and other recent operations are discomfiting groups affiliated with the government and not aligned with the UAE. The Security Belt and Elite Forces the UAE backs in the south are nominally under the command of the Hadi government, but in reality operate independently and have clashed repeatedly with Hadi loyalists, most notably during the January 2018 battle for Aden between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the government (see Update #5). The Hadi government and Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, which holds sway over tribal areas in the north, worry that there is a bigger agenda at play, with UAE-backed secessionist forces now pushing into border zones that once divided north and south. The day after the Wadi Omran operation, Hadi’s transport minister Saleh al-Jabwani said on social media that the government should bring lawsuits against “militias and mercenaries”, in what local media described as a clear reference to the UAE-backed troops.

Fierce clashes continued in the north between the Huthis and al-Hajour tribesmen in Hajja governorate. Some observers had predicted that the conflict, now a month old, might lead to a tribal uprising against the Huthis but thus far, the fight has not expanded significantly beyond Hajja. The Huthis meanwhile claim to have fired several ballistic missiles into Asir and Najran on 24 February, targeting Saudi troops near the border.

Bottom Line: The Stockholm Agreement has survived another week, but not without challenges. Ongoing delays in implementation are frustrating but restoring UN access to Red Sea Mills was an encouraging development. Meanwhile, ongoing tensions and clashes on the northern border and in the south are a reminder that the Yemen war is about much more than Hodeida.

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

Regional and International Developments

Donors pledged $2.6 billion toward the UN’s 2019 humanitarian relief plan for Yemen, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia promising $500 million each. This is in addition to the $250 million they had both announced in November 2018, meaning that the two Gulf states are funding more than half of the UN appeal.

The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement on 22 February once again requesting that the Secretary-General report on non-compliance with the Stockholm Agreement and noting that the council stands ready to consider further measures against violators. The statement came after concerted pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to condemn Huthi ceasefire violations and delaying tactics. However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were both angry that Lollesgaard reportedly apportioned equal blame to the forces the UAE controls in Hodeida for ceasefire violations during his 22 February oral briefing to the Security Council, also suggesting that the Yemeni government delegation to the RCC was impeding progress (Lollesgaard’s briefing was held during so-called closed consultations, and there is no public record of his comments). In other news from New York, on 26 February, the Security Council extended its Yemen sanctions regime by one year and the mandate of the Panel of Experts reporting to the sanctions committee until 28 March 2020. The Council also asked the Panel to next report on sanctions implementation and violations by 28 July 2019. 

In Washington, a joint resolution passed by the House of Representatives, which would direct the U.S. to “remove its armed forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except U.S. armed forces engaged in operations directed at al-Qaeda or associated forces” within 30 days of enactment, had its status as a privileged bill revoked because of last-minute amendments. The bill has been remanded to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where it is unlikely to be brought to a vote anytime soon. Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy plan to push legislation with similar text in the Senate, but that bill would then have to return to the House for action. This means a bill is not headed to the President’s desk for signature or veto in the near term.

The EU and the League of Arab States (LAS) held their first-ever summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on 24-25 February. In a joint declaration, the EU and the LAS gave their full support to the UN special envoy for Yemen and called for the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. In November 2018, Germany’s ruling coalition rejected licenses for future arms exports to Saudi Arabia and imposed a temporary moratorium on deliveries of previously approved equipment to Saudi Arabia after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. This moratorium will expire on 9 March. Germany is under pressure from Britain and France to exempt big defence projects from its moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Reacting to a recent jihadist attack in Iran by Jaish ul-Adl, which the Islamic Republic claims to be backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Sadollah Zarei, the head of the Iranian Qods force’s think tank, warned that those two countries “should know that if hurting Iran from Pakistan’s soil is a ‘good opportunity’, Iran has better access to the ‘good opportunity’. If it is needed, Iran can be present in a friendly country to hurt the many Saudi and Emirati forces there and make them leave that country,” a comment that would appear to reference Yemen.

Bottom Line: The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been less vocal this week about their frustration on the slow pace of implementation of the Stockholm Agreement, either because they have been sufficiently mollified or because they recognise the limits of what Security Council members are willing to say – and the dangers of demanding that ceasefire violators be named and shamed. Bellicose rhetoric from Iran is a reminder that the alternative to slow, painful implementation of the agreement could be a more violent conflict in which Tehran is more openly involved.

Click here for the latest CrisisWatch entry for Yemen.

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.