Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
Crisis Group Yemen Update #9
A Moment of Truth for Yemen’s Truce
A Moment of Truth for Yemen’s Truce
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.

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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