Fears that an agreement reached by opposing Yemeni parties in Sweden is nearing collapse are growing. Consultations were held under the auspices of the United Nations on 6-13 December 2018. The UN Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, succeeded in setting up a comprehensive political plan after months of negotiations and consultations in the country and around the globe to put an end to a war that has lasted for nearly four years. The Houthis have already failed to follow through on their commitments to hand over the port of Hodeidah and to open a humanitarian corridor between Hodeidah and Sanaa to deliver humanitarian aid. On 29 December 2018, the Houthis announced that they had started redeploying from the port of Hodeidah, in accordance with the Stockholm Agreement, and that they had handed it over to the Coast Guard – but the United Nations questioned this claim, especially as those who took possession of the port were in fact under Houthi command.
International and Local Contexts
The Swedish consultations represented a glimmer of hope to end the war and Yemeni suffering, two and a half years after the collapse of the Kuwait negotiations in July 2016 and the failure to even hold the Geneva consultations on 6 September 2018. These consultations came in the wake of renewed and intensified fighting in the city of Hodeidah and the imminent withdrawal of government forces. International forces exerted increasing pressure on the countries of the Arab coalition, specifically Saudi Arabia, to put a stop to the Battle of Hodeidah because of the unprecedented humanitarian deterioration. After a week of negotiations, the two sides reached agreement on several points. The most important of these was the agreement on Hodeidah and its port, which stipulated Houthi withdrawal within 14 days. An agreement was also reached to allow humanitarian aid to be transferred to the city of Taiz, which has been under Houthi siege for three years.
Internally, the consultations happened at a time when the leadership of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was trying to restore some confidence after the dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Dagher following popular protests in some Yemeni provinces in the first week of October 2018. The government also embarked on a new plan to manage the economy and reinstate the central bank's role in containing the collapse of the currency. This was reflected by the new Prime Minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, who emphasized that his priority is to focus on the economy, humanitarian work and services. Moreover, his government’s ability to function in the interim capital, Aden, was given positive reflection after the Southern Transitional Council cancelled incendiary activities planned for 14 October 2018 in the city. His objections to not being represented in consultations in Sweden have also been less sharp than they had previously been.
These developments have contributed to increasing confidence in the government delegation to the Swedish consultations. This was reflected in the statements made by the Yemeni Foreign Minister and head of the delegation, Khaled al-Yamani, at the beginning of the consultations, stressing the government’s sovereign authority in the administration of Hodeidah port and Sana'a Airport, which under Houthi control has become a solely domestic airport, replaced by Aden as the main international airport in Yemen. On the other hand, assurances given to the Houthis helped convince them to participate in the Swedish consultations. The United Nations met the Houthi conditions of accompanying the delegation and providing it with security and treatment for the wounded.
Regionally, international pressure on Saudi Arabia – especially after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – has increased the chances that Riyadh will seek a political solution to end the war, which has become one of the biggest drains on the Saudi Arabian economy and political arena. The impact of these pressures has been reflected in the flexibility shown by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in dealing with the international envoy’s proposals and allowing the Yemeni Government to proceed with consultations. Britain has submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council to stop the war. This was preceded by a call from the US Secretary of Defense and State Department at the end of October 2018 urging a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days, in the light of criticisms directed at US support of the Arab coalition. In early October 2018 the European Parliament called for a ban on the sale of weapons to the coalition countries and an end to the war, consistent with the movements of the US Senate, culminating in the recent decision to stop the US support for the coalition countries in Yemen.
Terms of the Stockholm Agreement
The main premise of the Stockholm consultations was a ceasefire in Hodeidah, but they soon expanded to include the issues of prisoners and detainees, the siege of Taiz, Sana'a International Airport, and the economy. On 13 December 2018, at the end of a week of negotiations, the government and Houthi delegations reached an agreement. It included three main issues: an agreement on Hodeidah, a mechanism to implement prisoner exchange, and a declaration of understandings on Taiz, with the commitment of both parties to continue consultations unconditionally throughout January 2019 and at a location that would later be agreed upon. The Agreement gained international significance when the Security Council adopted a resolution declaring its support for the Agreement and urging its implementation.
The agreement on Hodeidah is considered the most important outcome of the consultations. The parties agreed to declare an immediate ceasefire in the city, the joint redeployment of forces from its ports outside the city and the removal of all armed military manifestations in the city. They also agreed that the Redeployment Coordination Committee will supervise re-deployment and monitoring operations and de-mining operations in the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa. There was to be a UN leading role in supporting the Yemen Red Sea Ports Corporation in management and inspections at the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras al-Isa, to include enhanced UNVIM monitoring in the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa. They also agreed to a strengthened UN presence in the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa. Another article stipulated that revenues from the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa were to be channeled to the Central Bank of Yemen through its branch in Hodeidah as a contribution to the payment of salaries in the governate of Hodeidah and throughout Yemen. Finally, the security of the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa were to be the responsibility of local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law. The joint committee was to implement the agreement in stages, redeploying from ports and important parts of the city within two weeks, and the full joint deployment of all forces from the city of Hodeidah and its ports within 21 days of the ceasefire’s entry into force.
Prospects for Implementing the Agreement
From the outset the Houthis did not appear to be serious about complying with the terms of the agreement. They withdrew their gunmen from the port of Hodeidah and replaced them with the Coast Guard in an attempt to circumvent the agreement. General Patrick Cammaert, chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, warned that any redeployment will have credibility only if all parties and the United Nations are able to supervise and verify that any action is in conformity with the provisions of the Stockholm Agreement. The individualistic behavior of the Houthi movement is a preliminary indication of its lack of seriousness, and the difficulty of convincing it to relinquish control over Hodeidah.
The siege of Taiz, which has suffered the most destruction and has seen the most civilian casualties, has been enforced by the Houthi – Saleh alliance for more than three years. During the consultations it was agreed that a joint committee comprising representatives of civil society and the participation of the United Nations would be formed to oversee the entry of humanitarian assistance to the city. The UN were to specify the date and venue of the first meeting of the Joint Committee, its working mechanism, and the joint committee should submit a report on its work to the upcoming consultations. But nothing has been done so far. The siege of Taiz does not seem to garner as much attention as the siege of Hodeidah.
No agreement has been reached on the salaries of employees and other economic issues that should be resolved, such as the export of oil and gas, the supply of revenues from Hodeidah port and other revenues from areas under the control of the Houthi movement to the central bank in the interim capital of Aden. President Hadi ordered the government to pay the salaries of the state administration employees in the province of Hodeidah starting in December 2018, a move that coincided with the chief UN observer starting work on redeployment and monitoring the cease-fire in Hodeidah.
Reading the Results
The events in Sweden can be summarized in the following points:
- Despite the combined efforts of the international and regional powers to coax the Yemeni government and the Houthis to the negotiating table, the results of the limited consultations do not reflect a genuine seriousness about ending the war and implementing Security Council resolution 2216.
- The United Nations considered the Stockholm consultations successful, reflected by the presence of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, at the closing session. The government and the Houthis were both able to reach agreements on the issues of prisoners and detainees and the city of Hodeidah. Yet these consultations have revealed the mutual distrust between the Yemeni parties. This was reflected in a statement by the Yemeni Foreign Minister and head of the government delegation, at a press conference where he stated that the conclusion of the consultations on the city of Hodeidah and the exchange of prisoners remain “hypothetical agreements”
- The results of the Swedish consultations put the Houthis in a position on par with the government. They came out with an agreement to stop the war in Hodeidah, avoiding military defeat. They preferred having their ports under the supervision of the United Nations rather than under the control of the government, which contradicts their discourse rejecting any moves that undermine Yemeni sovereignty.
- The consultations failed to reach any solutions on Sana'a International Airport due to the Houthis’ rejection of proposals and insistence on retaining their positions. This has also been the case in the other unsolved issues where only ‘understandings’ rather than final agreements could be reached, the most prominent of these being the siege of Taiz and employee salaries; that is, the humanitarian issues.
Although local, regional and international contexts supported the consultations in Sweden, the progress achieved has fallen short of expectations, with indications that implementation of partial agreements reached around Hodeidah and its ports may have failed. Furthermore, there are no indications that implementation of Security Council resolution 2216, which provides for the end of the Houthi coup and the return of the legitimate government to Sana'a, will be possible. The consultations, in legitimizing the Houthi movement in an equal counterpart to the government, have changed the focus from the implementation of United Nations resolutions to practical negotiations between two sovereigns and two powers. That is, it is reflecting reality on the ground and not the implementation of international resolutions. The war rages on at the other fronts.
Despite the limited results, the United Nations is optimistic about its success in reaching a comprehensive peace agreement this time. The round of consultations in Sweden has at least succeeded in scheduling consultations for a next round and has opened the door to the possibility of stopping a war that has lost any justification to continue.
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