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Crisis Group Yemen Update #4
Crisis Group Yemen Update #4
Crisis Group Yemen Update #3
Crisis Group Yemen Update #3
Hodeida, September 2018. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Crisis Group Yemen Update #4

Below is the fourth weekly update as part of Crisis Group’s Yemen Campaign. This week we look at fighting near the Saudi-Yemeni border and strains on the ceasefire around Hodeida, as well as international developments.

Trendline: The Overlooked Battle for Yemen’s Northern Border

Though the battle for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida is paused until the UN-brokered deal to demilitarise the area succeeds or collapses, fighting on other fronts has intensified, particularly along the Saudi-Yemeni border.

Since the Hodeida ceasefire took effect in December, the battleground has partly shifted to the northern governorates around the Huthi rebels’ heartland of Saada. According to the Yemen Data Project, an independent data collection initiative that tracks airstrikes in Yemen, Saada governorate has faced more Saudi bombardments than any other part of Yemen since the war began in March 2015, with the majority of strikes taking place near the border.

In particular, fighting has escalated in Baqim and Al-Buqaa, towns located along a main highway to Saudi Arabia, and along the internal border separating Saada governorate from Al-Jawf to the east. Here, tribal fighters backed by Saudi Arabia are pushing westward along a highway that runs along the border from Al-Jawf to Al-Buqaa.

Further west, toward Yemen’s Red Sea coast, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place around the Saudi border in Hajja governorate, namely the port town of Midi and nearby Haradh, close to Al-Tuwal, the main border crossing. In recent weeks, tensions have grown between the Huthis and members of the previously neutral Al-Hajour tribe in the Kushar district of Hajja, just 25km east of Haradh. Hostilities started when the Hajour detained Huthi fighters who had entered tribal territory. This incident triggered a series of tit-for-tat detentions and skirmishes, which now reportedly involve Sawdah tribesmen from neighbouring Amran governorate.

The Huthis and the Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi regularly claim major victories against one another in the north while little changes on the ground. But what momentum there is lies with Saudi-backed forces, which have gradually gained territory since late 2016. They have made the most progress in Al-Buqaa, where they have come within 10km of Kitaf, until 2013 the site of a local outpost of Dar al-Hadith, a Salafi religious institute whose members were forced out of Saada by the Huthis in 2014. Some of those fighting the Huthis on the border, and in Hajja and Al-Jawf, are former Dar al-Hadith students. Others come from tribal and military networks affiliated with Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist political party. Although these are not the only forces arrayed against the Huthis along the northern border, their presence has led the Huthis to paint these battles as a sectarian campaign sponsored by Saudi Arabia.

The Huthis are also defending their home turf that holds meaning for all sides: the Hadi government sees military success in Saada as a way to demoralise the Huthis if they manage to “raise the Yemeni flag in Marran”, as President Hadi has said his forces intend to do. Marran is the Huthi family’s hometown, where government forces killed the movement’s first leader, Hussein al-Huthi, in 2004. If the Hadi government is serious, then it is willing to fight in Saada for a long time to come. For its part, Saudi Arabia says it is trying to defend its border from Huthi encroachment, and restore the authority of the Yemeni government in the north.

Bottom Line: If the Stockholm Agreement brokered in December succeeds in preventing a fight for Hodeida, diplomats hope that a broader political process on the country’s future will soon follow. But fighting in the north could undermine that outcome, as both sides see control of the Saudi-Yemeni border as important leverage. De-escalating violence along the border should therefore be a medium-term priority for the UN and international actors. In the longer term, the Huthis, Saudi Arabia and government of Yemen will need to negotiate a lasting security agreement on the border as part of wider political talks.

Further delays and provocations from the parties could cause at least a temporary resumption of fighting around Hodeida.

Political and Military Developments

Lieutenant General Michael Anker Lollesgaard had an eventful first week as head of the newly formed UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA). He convened the Huthi and government of Yemen delegations to the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) he now heads on a boat moored in Hodeida’s harbour, before sailing south to Aden with the government delegation. After meeting political leaders in the Hadi government’s temporary headquarters, he flew to Sanaa with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, for meetings with Huthi officials.

Griffiths and Lollesgaard hope to convince the government and the Huthis to implement a plan put forward by General Patrick Cammaert, the outgoing RCC chair who laid the groundwork for UNMHA, to redeploy front-line forces away from Hodeida city and nearby ports. Both sides appear to accept the proposal. The RCC is due to meet again in the coming days, and initial redeployments from Hodeida and Saleef ports could start shortly after.

On 11 February, Griffiths and Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, issued a joint statement urging the Huthis and government of Yemen to permit access to the Red Sea Mills compound on the eastern edge of Hodeida, which holds around 25 per cent of all World Food Programme (WFP) wheat supplies in Yemen. The WFP evacuated staff from the compound in September 2018 as fighting along the Red Sea coast reached the city’s outer limits. UAE-backed Yemeni fighters now control the mills, and the UN has been trying to arrange for access via heavily mined roads crossing the frontline. Lowcock and Griffiths warned that because the UN was unable to access the compound, food for 3.7 million people for a month was “at risk of rotting”. Four days earlier, Lowcock had issued a separate statement calling out the Huthis for failing to clear a path for the UN to reach the mills from Hodeida city, which they still hold.

Some UN officials saw the statements as an attempt to mollify the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who have shown growing signs of frustration at what they perceive as the UN’s failure to criticise the Huthis for violating the Stockholm Agreement and blocking access to Red Sea Mills – and also as a means of pressuring the Huthis.

The Huthis have done some work on demining the area around Red Sea Mills, but have repeatedly voiced concerns that opening the main Sanaa-Hodeida highway would make them vulnerable to coalition-backed attacks. In the meantime, the WFP negotiated access to the compound via an alternative route that did not entail crossing frontlines; a convoy stood ready to travel from Aden to Hodeida to inspect the facility on 13 or 14 February. But senior UN officials cancelled the journey following the two statements from Lowcock and Griffiths, citing unspecified security concerns. The statements angered the Huthis, who perceive a coalition campaign aiming to paint them as the only intransigent party and diminish their concerns about reopening the highway.

The Huthis saw a communique (see below) issued by the Quad – the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – on 13 February as further evidence of such a campaign. They fear that attempts to shift the public narrative could become a precursor to a renewed coalition assault on Hodeida if the ceasefire collapses, for which they believe they will be blamed.

The Huthis are doing themselves few favours, however, tightening their grip on all aspects of life in areas they control. Security police affiliated with the movement cracked down on banks this past week, detaining senior staff at the Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, one of the biggest private financial institutions in the country. The Huthis take issue with Sanaa-based banks cooperating with the government of Yemen-run Central Bank of Yemen in Aden over access to a Saudi-funded import credit facility, and hope to extract preferential exchange rates in currency transactions by increasing their control over the main banks.

Economic conditions are barely improving. While the Yemeni riyal gained slightly against the dollar in the week prior to 14 February – trading at around 595-597 to one, compared to 600 to one a week earlier – the Famine Early Warning System is forecasting a deeper decline in the value of the riyal over the course of 2019 due to an ongoing shortage of foreign currency. Meanwhile, the government of Yemen announced that it expects to produce an average of 110,000 barrels per day of oil in 2019 and to export 75,000 barrels per day. At current market prices, that would generate around $1.7 billion in revenues this year, which is insufficient to cover imports.

Bottom Line: A key issue for Lollesgaard is closing the huge trust deficit between the Huthis, the government of Yemen and the coalition. If he can at least get an agreement on the first phase of Huthi redeployments from the Red Sea ports, he would ease current tensions a great deal. Conversely, further delays and provocations from the parties could cause at least a temporary resumption of fighting around Hodeida. Diplomats should carefully calibrate their pressure on the Huthis and should be ready to restrain and pressure both sides if violence around Hodeida worsens. If the current stasis continues, the already catastrophic humanitarian situation is likely to worsen.

Regional and International Developments

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a joint resolution spearheaded by Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) on 13 February that directs the U.S. to remove its armed forces from “hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al-Qaeda or associated forces” within 30 days of enactment. The bill now heads to the Senate, which adopted a similar resolution during the previous Congress. Its prospects are unclear, though proponents have indicated they are hopeful for a narrow victory. The White House said on 11 February that it “strongly opposes” the legislation and that it would veto any similar bill or resolution. Trump administration officials have also indicated that they do not believe U.S. armed forces are engaged in “hostilities” for purposes of war powers legislation.

Separately, reports suggest that the Trump administration does not intend to reissue the certification it made to Congress in September 2018 that the Saudi-led coalition is taking adequate precautions to avoid civilian casualties. Absent such a certification, the U.S. is legally barred from resuming the refuelling support that it suspended in late 2018.

As the U.S. government struggled internally to define the boundaries of its participation in the Yemen conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at the Quad meeting in Warsaw, where a related conversation was taking place. Beyond boilerplate diplomatic language welcoming recent UN Security Council action on Yemen and expressing support for Griffiths, Quad members issued a communiqué on 13 February. The Quad accused the Huthis of creating bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented the UN from setting up its monitoring mission in Hodeida and interfering in the banking sector. The Quad also discussed efforts to “reduce illicit fuel imports by the Huthis” from Iran and, citing a new UN Panel of Experts report made public the same day, accused Tehran of supplying the Huthis with money, ballistic weaponry and other advanced weapons systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Quad made no mention of allegations by CNN and Amnesty International earlier in February that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have supplied advanced weapons systems to their local allies, which have reportedly ended up in the hands of jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and leaked into the local arms market. The coalition issued a standard denial of the CNN report on 9 February, with the UAE saying it takes all reports of arms leakages “seriously”.

Meanwhile, even as they reaffirm their determination to end the war through diplomacy, UAE officials repeat that their forces are positioned to resume hostilities in Hodeida in case redeployments do not progress. In briefings in late January, coalition officials said they saw the Stockholm Agreement as a stepping stone toward a political process to end the war, so the uptick in bellicose language may well be a means of maintaining pressure on the Huthis. This tactic could backfire, however, if the Huthis respond with bellicosity of their own.

While the UAE and Saudi Arabia are pressing UN Security Council members to be more forceful in their public criticism of the Huthis, the UN sanctions committee for Yemen, composed of Security Council member states is due to renew the sanctions regime on Yemen by 26 February. Members do not expect major changes to the sanctions regime, but worry that the U.S. could attempt to insert new language on Iran.

Bottom Line: Actions and statements by the U.S. Congress and the Quad ended up balancing each other out, apportioning blame to the Huthis and coalition equally for delays in implementing the Stockholm Agreement and the ongoing human suffering in Yemen. Outside players need to keep pressing the Huthis and coalition to end the war, and Congressional action is helpful in this respect.

IDP camp in Yemen, 2018 CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Crisis Group Yemen Update #3

This is Crisis Group’s third weekly update published as part of our Yemen Campaign. The trend we identify in this edition is new hope for a political compromise to end the four-year-old civil war and ease the country’s grave humanitarian crisis.

Trendline: A Shift to the Political in 2019?

After a year of unrelenting military pressure along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, there are some indications that the Saudi-led coalition may be pivoting toward a greater recognition that a political compromise is needed to end the war. Military pressure succeeded in bringing the Huthis to the table, the coalition argues, but a different toolkit will be needed to end the war.

The language marks a shift from the rhetoric of mid-to-late-2018, when United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia officials argued that the only way to end the war in Yemen was by removing the Huthis from Hodeida port and city by military force, sparking fears of a battle for Hodeida that could cut off the flow of some 70 per cent of all goods shipped into the heavily import-dependent country.

Opinion within the coalition is not uniform and not all signals point in this direction. UAE officials express particular concern that Huthi ceasefire violations are wearing down trust and straining the forces it backs on the ground. One UAE official signalled that coalition patience could run out by late March or early April, if the current impasse on mutual redeployments from Hodeida cannot be overcome. Still, the pivot appears to be at least partially credible, and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem to have concluded that the Stockholm Agreement serves their interests better than military action in Hodeida – for now.

The shift comes as the result of a combination of factors. International outcry from humanitarian organisations in late 2018 highlighted the risk of famine. The U.S. and other coalition allies increased their scrutiny of Saudi behaviour after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul in early October. And UN negotiations in Sweden reached a deal that served the coalition’s primary objective in Hodeida of removing it from direct Huthi control. Under the Stockholm Agreement, Huthi and rival coalition-backed Yemeni forces are meant to pull their main frontline units back from the vital Red Sea trade corridor, including a redeployment of Huthi forces from Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef ports.

The coalition and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appeared reluctant backers of the Stockholm Agreement. But Saudi and Emirati officials have since come to play up its importance as a potential game-changer in the war. In an optimistic telling, both countries’ officials say they hope the agreement’s implementation would lead to a cascade effect accelerating broader negotiations between the Huthis and the Hadi government, and then a widely inclusive political process.

For their part, the Huthis remain suspicious of the coalition’s intentions, believing that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are more interested in changing perceptions and public narratives than the conflict’s trajectory. The group has been the major proximate barrier to implementing the agreement and helping open a humanitarian corridor, but Huthi insiders argue that the blockages are either misunderstood or being deliberately misrepresented. With no agreement on which “local forces” will control the ports and eventually Hodeida city within the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) it is functionally impossible for the Huthis to redeploy, they argue, beyond replacing frontline fighters with Huthi-aligned security forces (a distinction that is hard to make or verify). And the group’s military leaders are leery of reopening the Sanaa-Hodeida road to the east of the city, as they believe doing so will make them vulnerable to coalition attack. The group alleges that coalition-backed forces have violated the ceasefire as many times as the Huthis – a claim that, absent a full UN monitoring mission, is impossible to judge.

In implementing the Stockholm Agreement, the UN should remain alert to the risk of spoilers and ensure that any newly arising political questions are addressed through diplomacy.

What happens next will be defined, at least partially, by the outcome of discussions that took place on a ship anchored just off Yemen’s Red Sea coast between 3-6 February. Representatives of the Huthis and Hadi government to the RCC gathered on board to find a way forward in implementing the Stockholm Agreement’s demilitarisation of Hodeida. The UN announced on 7 February that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle, but that their political masters would need to give the go-ahead. If Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard, the newly-installed UN chair of the RCC, can convince the parties to at least partially break the deadlock in the coming days and weeks, UN officials and diplomats argue that the progress could serve as a bridge to a broader political process. The redeployment plan is expected to be finalised within the coming seven days.

Bottom line: If the Stockholm Agreement can be made to stick and Hodeida demilitarised, there will be increasingly little territory for the coalition to fight for with game-changing consequences. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as the government of Yemen and the Huthis, should reiterate their support for the UN process and work to properly implement the ceasefire if they do not wish to prolong the conflict indefinitely at growing cost for Yemen’s people. And in implementing the Stockholm Agreement, the UN should remain alert to the risk of spoilers and ensure that any newly arising political questions are addressed through diplomacy, rather than scuffles behind the scenes.

Political and Military Developments

Gen. Patrick Cammaert, the UN’s point man in Hodeida, handed over his responsibilities to his successor and the head of the newly-constituted UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA) Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard on 5 February with talks over the port and city at a crucial juncture. Cammaert had arranged for the Huthi and Hadi government delegates to the RCC to meet on a World Food Programme vessel moored in the Red Sea. (After two initial meetings in Huthi-controlled territory, the Huthis refused to cross the frontlines into coalition-held areas. This forced Cammaert to shuttle between the two, a process that yielded diminishing returns.) His plan was to negotiate a compromise that would keep the Stockholm Agreement alive by having both parties redeploy forces, the Huthis from Hodeida, Ras Issa and Saleef ports, and the government from key positions to the east of Hodeida city and around the main Sanaa-Hodeida highway. If a deal can be brokered, UN officials expect it to translate into almost immediate movement on the ground.

Lollesgaard’s next task will be to deploy the people he needs for the newly-initiated UNMHA, including a team of up to 75 monitors and support staff. Beyond the usual logistical constraints, this will also require the Huthis to show more flexibility on visas to UN staff and UN movement around Hodeida than they have done to date.

Meanwhile, the prisoner swap agreed as part of the Stockholm Agreement is “hanging in the balance”, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Huthi and Hadi government delegations met in Amman on 5 February, with the ICRC struggling to verify the lists of up to 8,000 detainees provided by the two sides. Each says it has a “significantly lower” number than listed; further complicating matters, the ICRC does not have full access to detention centres in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where detainees are held.

Beyond Hodeida, the often-ignored competition for control of state institutions – and the legitimacy they bestow – between the Huthis and the Hadi government heated up this week with a series of tit-for-tat moves aimed at demonstrating control of Yemen’s House of Representatives. On 1 February, the newly-appointed head of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) in Huthi-held Sanaa announced plans to hold elections to fill “vacant seats” in the House of Representatives.

The Huthi move came in apparent response to Hadi’s long-rumoured attempts to convene the House of Representatives in Aden. Hadi insiders claim that he has enough MPs to pass new laws, including an extension of his presidential term. On 3 February, Hadi announced that he was relocating the SCER headquarters to Aden in an apparent attempt to undercut Huthi manoeuvring.

The Yemeni riyal, which had regained some steam at the end of 2018 after falling to a record low of YR800 to the U.S. dollar in September-October, has started to decline again, falling this week to YR600 to the dollar. Crisis Group contacts blame a mix of currency market manipulation by traders and an ongoing spat between Hafez Mayad, the head of the powerful Hadi-appointed Economic Committee, and Mohammed Zammam, the Central Bank of Yemen governor. The decline of the riyal, coupled with ongoing logistical constraints – particularly access issues around Red Sea Mills (see Crisis Group Update #2) – is likely to edge the humanitarian situation closer to famine.

The Huthis continue to crack down on civil society and non-governmental organisations in northern Yemen, meanwhile, detaining Awfa al-Naami, the country director of Saferworld, a peacebuilding NGO, on 28 January, after a series of threats against her. This tracks a wider campaign of intimidation.

Bottom Line: As the chances of UN-led political dialogue in 2019 increase, political and institutional manoeuvring between the Huthis, Hadi government and other political and military players is likely to become more pronounced, as are efforts to control territory (see Crisis Group Update #2) and the public narrative. The UN and international diplomats, who will make a critical contribution to the success or failure of a political process in the longer term, should show they take these machinations seriously by seeking to prevent further gamesmanship of this kind in the coming months.

Regional and International Developments

Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, was in the U.S. last week, meeting with U.S. officials, Congress, UN officials and others in Washington and New York. Gargash was clear in messaging that the UAE position has changed, that the UAE sees Stockholm as a turning point, and that if implemented it will mean a “transitional 2019” that sees the war give way for a UN-led political process. A touted end to major Saudi and UAE combat operations in Yemen would not necessarily mean an end to the conflict: other local battlegrounds could be revived, and neither country has any intention to stop backing the – often competing – armed groups they have been cultivating since 2015.

Meanwhile, the UN was active in the Gulf. On 29 January, the Resident Coordinator of the UN in Yemen, Lise Grande, held meetings in Riyadh with Saudi and Emirati aid authorities to discuss aid distribution and access concerns. On 30 January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss Yemen. The Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent a letter to Guterres on 31 January reiterating support for the Stockholm process while asking the UN to expand its reporting on ceasefire violations to include attribution of responsibility.

Scrutiny of coalition activities in Yemen continues unabated. On 4 February, Amnesty International and CNN both ran stories on the UAE and Saudi Arabia supplying arms and other materiel to allied Yemeni armed groups, which subsequently have leaked into the local and regional arms market, and at times have ended up in the hands of the Huthis.

In New York, the UN Security Council published a press statement on 4 February stressing the importance of implementing the Stockholm Agreement, including redeployments around Hodeida and prisoner swaps, and expressing concern at ceasefire violations. Council members told Crisis Group that the statement reflected frustration at the agreement’s slow pace of implementation, and growing pressure from the coalition on the UN Secretariat to identify the parties breaking the ceasefire and blocking implementation. With Lollesgaard now in place, and UNMHA scheduled to issue its first report on 14 February, it is possible that the UN could take a more critical line in the coming weeks.

Negotiations on the renewal of the Security Council-imposed sanctions regime in Yemen are due to begin soon, with a renewal scheduled by the end of February. Members of the Council’s sanctions committee on Yemen have largely endorsed the latest UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, but the U.S. and others are likely to attempt to add language on Iran. 

In Washington, Congressional activity around Yemen is once again gathering momentum. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on 6 February on U.S. Policy in the Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen was a principal topic of debate. The committee discussed a resolution introduced by Representative Ro Khanna aimed at using the War Powers Resolution to force a removal of all U.S. forces from a direct or indirect role in Yemen, and agreed to pass it out of the committee for discussion among all House members, in a vote that broke down along party lines, 25-17. It is unclear when the full House will act on the bill. The Senate passed a similar bill in December but a vote was not held on the legislation in the House of Representatives before the new Democratically-controlled House was seated in January. The Yemeni parties, meanwhile, will keep a close eye on a U.S.-organised meeting on the Middle East in Warsaw on 13-14 February, which will reportedly focus on Iran’s role in the region and will be followed by a discussion by the Yemen “Quad”: the U.S., UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Bottom Line: With negotiations over Hodeida finely poised, statements by the UN Security Council, White House and Congress can have important knock-on effects on the ground in Yemen. Congress in particular has an important role to play in maintaining pressure. All efforts should be concentrated on seeing the Stockholm Agreement implemented.