by International Crisis Group
Yemen witnessed a rare moment of international coherence and focus in December 2018 when a UN-brokered, U.S.-backed accord prevented a battle for the Red Sea port city of Hodeida and staved off a likely famine. Seven months on, UN-led attempts to demilitarise Hodeida and two nearby ports are at risk of running aground, in turn preventing long hoped-for political negotiations to end the war. Beyond Hodeida, fighting is intensifying on other front lines. Cross-border attacks by the Huthis (also known as Ansar Allah) into Saudi Arabia and Saudi airstrikes inside Yemen are enmeshing Yemen ever more deeply in regional tensions between the U.S. and Iran. If a collapse of the demilitarisation process is to be prevented and Yemen is to be firewalled from regional rivalries, international stakeholders in the crisis should urgently revive diplomatic efforts to achieve a realistic implementation plan for Hodeida so that broader peace talks can begin, and urge Saudi Arabia and the Huthis to negotiate an end to reciprocal cross-border attacks.
A weakened UN diplomatic effort in Yemen is in dire need of an international shot in the arm to remove obstacles to implementing the Stockholm Agreement, of which the subsidiary agreement to demilitarise Hodeida city and ports forms the core. In May, faced with the parties’ inability to work out a mutually acceptable process, the UN endorsed unilateral Huthi redeployments from Hodeida, Ras Issa and Salif ports. Yemen’s internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi reacted angrily, calling the Huthi redeployments a sham and accusing UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths of bias, even briefly cutting off contact with him. The Hadi government has yet to back down from its maximalist interpretation of the accord: that all Huthi personnel are to be replaced by government forces, a claim the Huthis reject and the UN says does not reflect what was agreed in Sweden.
Amid this worrisome picture is some good news. In June 2019, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) withdrew the bulk of its forces that led the assault on Hodeida and continue to support anti-Huthi Yemeni fighters along the Red Sea coast, easing the threat of a return to major fighting. But this development should not lull policymakers into a false sense of security. Front-line fighting has moved to other parts of the country. Anti-Huthi forces still see Hodeida as a target and may yet resume hostilities, with devastating consequences. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN describes as the world’s biggest, has not deteriorated significantly since December 2018, but neither has it improved. A renewed battle for Hodeida would almost certainly tip the country into widespread famine. Plus, continued efforts to revive the faltering Hodeida agreement are consuming all available diplomatic bandwidth at great cost, preventing a turn to national-level peace talks.
At the same time, Yemen is at increasing risk of becoming the trigger for a wider regional confrontation. Escalating Huthi drone attacks and missile strikes into Saudi Arabia since May have injured dozens of civilians and killed one person. Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have also intensified, routinely causing civilian casualties. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia use increasingly black-and-white language in their portrayal of the Huthis as an Iranian remote-control proxy just as the crisis in U.S.-Iran relations has further intensified. Senior U.S. officials now say that they consider all Huthi attacks as Iran-directed, while some Huthi officials say they see a “great war” across the region as all but inevitable. It is not hard to imagine a particularly lethal Huthi attack prompting military action by the U.S. and its allies against Iran, or drawing the U.S. deeper in to the Yemen war.
Reviving the Hodeida agreement and preventing an escalatory spiral of cross-border attacks from plunging Yemen further into a regional quagmire are urgent priorities. They will require successfully pushing on two mediation tracks: one between the Huthis and the Yemeni government over Hodeida and the other between the Huthis and Riyadh over escalating fighting between them.
As for the first track: optimally led by the UN and supported by the P5, talks should aim to clarify the minimum steps necessary to stabilise the situation in Hodeida and allow for the onset of broader Yemeni peace talks. Closing the remaining gaps on Hodeida will entail addressing the thorny issue of the composition of local security forces that are to provide security following Huthi redeployment from the city and ports; if a full resolution proves unachievable, then the UN should aim at a minimum for a satisfactory compromise that allows discussions over the city to take place in parallel to more comprehensive peace talks. This in turn will require pressure by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on both sides and their respective regional backers.
As for the second track: Saudi Arabia and the Huthis should engage in discussions aimed at halting cross-border attacks. The U.S. is best-placed to encourage Saudi Arabia to reestablish meaningful communication with the Huthis in pursuit of such an agreement.
The more time passes without either a workable Hodeida arrangement or a freeze in cross-border attacks, the greater the threat of the Stockholm Agreement’s unravelling and of a wider regional war. The more remote, too, any prospect of a national political settlement and end to the Yemeni conflict. The international community mobilised once before to prevent an attack on Hodeida. With the stakes now even higher – for both Yemen and the region as a whole – such mobilisation is needed again, as urgently as ever.
Republished, with permission, from the International Crisis Group.