How long can Yemen’s fragile ceasefire hold?
The two-month truce in Yemen’s long-running conflict is set to expire at the end of May. There are several reasons to hope that the warring parties will extend the agreement – not least a recent decrease in violence in the country and the resumption of flights to and from Sanaa airport. However, the situation is fragile and there is still a risk that the truce could collapse, particularly if the Houthis are unwilling to reciprocate the concessions made by their opponents.
The political momentum behind the truce increased with the Saudi government’s announcement on 10 April 2022 of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s resignation and the formation of an eight-member Presidential Council. The international community has long seen Hadi, who is now under house arrest in Riyadh, as the legitimate representative of Yemen, even if he was increasingly detached from developments on the ground. But his removal was one of the Houthis’ preconditions for peace talks.
Rashad al-Alimi, former minister of interior in the Saleh government, heads the new council. He has publicly acknowledged that the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has failed to achieve its key goals, promising to bring peace to the country through a more comprehensive process. This signals that the Yemeni government and its backers in the Gulf have markedly changed their approach to the peace process, reflecting Saudi Arabia’s desire to withdraw from the conflict.
One of the main elements of this new approach is an attempt to unify the long-divided anti-Houthi coalition on a military and strategic level. The formation of the Presidential Council creates a more prominent role in the country’s internationally recognised government for figures from former ruling party the General People’s Congress, who are close to the United Arab Emirates. Although the UAE has been heavily involved in the military intervention in Yemen, Emirati leaders were reluctant to support the Hadi-led government because it worked closely with the Islah party, which is widely regarded as the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. This caused a deep divide in the coalition, with Riyadh backing the internationally recognised government while the UAE supported non-state armed groups that attempted to hold and govern territory, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
To be sure, there will continue to be divisions within the government, particularly between members of northern-dominated General People’s Congress and southern groups linked to the STC. However, with the Islah party marginalised, the UAE will likely align with Saudi Arabia by throwing its weight behind the Yemeni government. This could allow for a more pragmatic and effective approach to ending the Gulf military intervention.
In light of these developments and the Houthis’ cross-border attacks on vital oil industry infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier in the year, the Arab coalition has now made a series of concessions to the Houthis as part of the truce – steps that it was previously unwilling to make. The Arab coalition implemented several key trust-building measures that could lay the groundwork for a nationwide ceasefire. These include clearance for several oil tankers to dock at al-Hodeidah port, which has allowed desperately needed energy supplies to enter Houthi-controlled territory. On 6 May, the Saudi government released 163 Houthi prisoners. Ten days later, the coalition met another long-standing Houthi demand: to reopen Sanaa airport to commercial flights after six years. With the coalition having ceased all airstrikes on Houthi positions, the Houthis have refrained from launching further missile or drone attacks across the Yemeni border.
But, while the Arab coalition and the Yemeni government have signalled that they are ready to shift gears in the peace process, the Houthis have not responded with the same level of compromise. And the Houthis have yet to implement some components of the truce, such as their commitment to reopen roads, particularly those in Taiz. This industrial and commercial hub is besieged by the Houthis and largely cut off from cross-country transport links, heavily restricting commercial and private mobility. In the last few years, there have been numerous failed initiatives to reopen roads in Taiz. After commercial flights through Sanaa airport resumed, the Houthis named negotiators for talks on reopening roads. The Houthis’ genuine engagement with this issue would be an important signal of their commitment to extend the truce. However, they have continued to battle forces of the internationally recognised government on key front lines, including in Marib – an oil-rich province east of Sanaa that the Houthis have long been trying to seize.
So long as the Houthis are ambivalent about the peace process, there will be a risk that the Arab coalition’s concessions and political manoeuvring could backfire, potentially resulting in further military escalation. The war has reminded the Houthis’ dominant military wing of just how much they can gain through violence, leaving peace negotiations as merely part of a strategy to make more gains rather than to compromise. For instance, the Houthis have sometimes used truces as an opportunity to rearm while benefiting economically from oil shipments through ports or the imposition of taxes on residents in areas they control. Therefore, the Arab coalition will be watching carefully to see whether the Houthis are willing to make reciprocal concessions.
If the Houthis are willing, this could create an opportunity for warring parties to begin constructive talks over a wider and more sustainable ceasefire, as well as a long-term political settlement. The truce shows that the most effective peace efforts will come from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Accordingly, it is vital that Iran, the Houthis’ main backer, and other countries that maintain dialogue with them support efforts to move towards peace negotiations.
However, after almost eight years of conflict, it is clear that neither the Yemeni warring parties nor their regional backers have much interest in protecting the interests of the Yemeni people. If the ceasefire is to hold and expand, the negotiations between the belligerents will need to include representatives of the Yemeni civil society actors and communities who have been shut out of the conversation for too long. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg will also need to focus on this area as he builds the regionally driven process – an effort that deserves the full support of the European Union and its member states.
This article was republished with permission from the European Council on Foreign Relations. ECFR does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.