Yemen – How will the UN save the Hodeidah agreement

This article has been published in French on the website lemonde-arabe.fr: https://lemonde-arabe.fr/06/02/2019/yemen-comment-lonu-sauvera-t-elle-laccord-dhodeida/

January 30th, Martin Griffiths is wrapping up his third trip of the month to Yemen and the United Nations Special Envoy is urging the country’s warring sides again to withdraw their troops from the port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of starving Yemenis. With this third visit the British diplomat is trying to save the minimal agreement that he managed to reached with some of the warring parties in December; an agreement which was seen by the international community as a significant achievement after several years of failure to bring the different parties to a negotiation table.

But December’s UN-backed Stockholm talks have to date translated into little change on the ground in Yemen. The nominal ceasefire in Hodeidah holds insofar that the Houthis and Government of Yemen (GOY) have not abandoned the agreement, but sporadic clashes have continued in parts of the city and in the governorate southern districts and increase every week. A UN monitoring team continues efforts to implement the next stage of the Hodeidah Agreement — mutual redeployment away from Hodeidah ports and city — but it has faced accusations of bias from the Houthis, attacks on one of its vehicles, and boycotting of scheduled meetings to determine the details of redeployment.

While the UN Security Council passed a resolution on January 16th authorising the deployment of a 75-member monitoring team to support the implementation of the Hodeidah Agreement, increased international presence is not expected to counter the apparent reluctance to work out details on how to proceed with redeployment. Time is proving of the essence for the viability of the fledgling UN-backed talk as the GOY said it will not proceed with further talks until the Hodeidah Agreement is implemented.

Since its set-up early January, the UN’s Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) — chaired by retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert and tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Hodeidah Agreement — has encountered difficulties in bringing the two sides together to resolve the ambiguity around the mechanism for redeployment. The Houthis have questioned the impartiality of Cammaert, citing bias towards the GOY and the Saudi-led coalition as justification for their non-attendance at an RCC meeting on January 13. There has also been no meaningful redeployment of forces by either side, with details of redeployment and mechanisms for verification remaining absent despite efforts by the RCC to bring the two parties together. Plans for the management and security of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa ports remain unclear and proposals for enhanced roles for the World Food Programme, United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism and other UN-deployed monitors and experts are awaiting approval by the rival parties to the conflict.

In other parts of the country, clashes have continued, or even increased most notably in Ta’izz, which was earmarked as the location for local de-escalation efforts during the Sweden talks. A Houthi drone attack on a military parade in Lahj on January 10th killed six high-ranking GOY officers and officials which, in the context of moving towards a political solution to the conflict, was interpreted as a sign of bad faith in an atmosphere of already-pervasive mistrust. And the coalition retaliated to this attack by conducting 21 airstrikes – targeting military sites and alleged UAV workshops – in 24 hours on the capital Sana’a, a volume of strikes unprecedented during the past 12 months.

More recently, Houthi forces fired at least seven ballistic missiles at coalition forces and Saudi military sites between January 20th and 29th, with missiles targeting the Khalid Ibn Walid military camp in Taiz, as well as military outposts along Saudi Arabia’s southern border districts of Jizan, Asir, and Najran.

In the south, with discontent amongst local populations over the poor economic situation, frail security and persisting presence of international actors such as the UAE and KSA, tensions remain high, often sparking clashes. Over the past weeks, sit-ins and demonstrations have become commonplace across the south, often driven by rhetoric shared by southern political groups. When this reaches the local security units, the dissatisfaction manifests as clashes, particularly between UAE-backed security forces and Hadi government forces who, with opposing political aspirations, need little to generate further violence between them. Finally, there has been evidence of mounting tensions within the anti-Houthi camp during and particularly between UAE-backed groups and other local actors.

While the Houthis have reportedly agreed to meet with a GOY delegation, of the Hodeidah coast to discuss future implementation of the agreement, there is little chance that the situation will improve if the political process is not more inclusive. So far only the Houthis and the GOY have been invited at the negotiation table, while diplomats are using back channels to gather support from the main international actors such as KSA and the UAE. But the War in Yemen currently comprises a variety of interconnected local conflicts involving regional powers competing for influence. The second layer of conflict (the first one opposing the Houthis to the forces loyal to the Hadi government) is linked to a secessionist bid by the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a political organisation established in May 2017 by former Aden governor Aidarus Al-Zubaidi and Salafist leader Hani bin Braik that advocates for the creation of an independent state in southern Yemen. The STC has extended its influence across Yemen’s southern governorate through a vast network of Emirati-backed militias, some of which are fighting against the Houthis in Hodeidah and, occasionally, against Hadi loyalists in several southern and central governorates.

There is little hope that the peace process can be successful if the southern parties are not invited to the negotiation table as they keep a high capacity to disrupt any agreement, including through their regional supports. And at some point, the international community will have to look at the third layer of conflict constituted by the Islamist insurgency launched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS). While both groups currently possess limited operational capacities in the country, AQAP controlled large swathes of territory in several provinces — including Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city — between 2015 and 2016. Often in competition with one another, AQAP and IS have also been reported to fight against the Houthis, alongside pro-government militias, in Al Bayda, Shabwah, and Ta’izz, further complexifying a multilayer conflict.

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