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Inertia on the Red Sea coast: Will Yemen’s political process collapse?

It has been three months since representatives from Yemen’s internationally recognised government and Houthi-backed authorities in Sanaa signed the Stockholm Agreement. The product of multinational, UN-backed talks, the agreement is in many regards one of the most significant diplomatic breakthroughs in Yemen’s conflict. Building on months of shuttle diplomacy by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and an investment of significant diplomatic capital from a range of Western and Middle Eastern actors, the tripartite deal demonstrated tangible, albeit tentative, progress towards peace. It potentially set the stage for the kind of de-escalation in the conflict unseen since the previous rounds of talks in Kuwait and Switzerland. Key measures such as those on de-escalation around Hudayda and prisoner releases were designed to build confidence for further rounds of talks, which would focus on core political issues.

Nonetheless, the post-Stockholm order remains fragile. Speaking in Aden on 3 March, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commented that the deal “could be dead within weeks”, arguing that the coming period provided one last chance to save it. Yemen’s warring parties have not yet implemented the Stockholm Agreement’s measures on prisoner exchanges and de-escalation around Hudayda. Unless they do so – likely under sustained international pressure – the whole edifice could come crashing down and prompt a return to the worst of the fighting.

The Hudayda agreement

The first and most substantive component of the Stockholm Agreement focuses on Hudayda. Home to a key port that international aid organisations describe as “Yemen’s lifeline”, the city was – along with Yemen’s Red Sea coast – the focus of an 18-month military campaign by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition that backs the Yemeni government. Most international actors involved in negotiations on the Yemen conflict feared that a battle for the city would dramatically intensify the country’s humanitarian crisis.

The Stockholm Agreement has both facilitated humanitarian access to the Red Sea Mills and led to meetings of de-escalation committees, with Danish general (retired) Michael Lollesgaard replacing the initial head of international monitoring forces, Dutch general (retired) Patrick Cammaert. Yet phase one under the deal – involving the withdrawal of forces from Ras Issa, Saleef, and Hudayda ports, as well as from the Kilo 8 Triangle, a front-line area near Hudayda city – has not yet begun.

This is partly due to disagreements over the meaning of the often vaguely worded Stockholm Agreement. For example, there has been significant discussion of the types of “local forces” that are meant to fill the void following coalition or Houthi withdrawals. The Houthis have interpreted the phrase as signalling that their local allies can stay where they are, while many foreign officials have said that the “spirit of the deal” calls for neutral actors to take their place. Pushing for a broad Houthi withdrawal, Yemeni government officials have compiled exhaustive lists of alleged Houthi violations of the deal.

Contacts familiar with Houthi movement state that it is reluctant to grant pro-government forces an opportunity to establish a foothold in Hudayda lest the peace process collapse, or to withdraw in a manner that will set a precedent for future talks (regardless of assurances to the contrary). Thus, a lack of trust has made it increasingly difficult to implement key aspects of the Stockholm Agreement. “It’s the fundamental politics,” remarked one Western official closely involved in the talks. “The [internationally recognised] government wants their people in and the Houthis don’t.”

The prisoner exchange agreement

The second component of the Stockholm Agreement covers the exchange of as many as 16,000 prisoners. These prisoners include several prominent political and military figures who Houthi-allied authorities have held since before the launch of Decisive Storm, the coalition military intervention that began in 2015. Contacts involved in prisoner exchange negotiations generally describe them as being productive, noting their technical focus and praising the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been tasked with facilitating the process. However, while there is broad agreement on the exchange process – prisoners will be released in alphabetical order and transported, by helicopter, to separate reception points in the provinces of Hadramawt and al-Jawf – a series of largely political and technical issues have stymied the effort. Thus, no prisoners have been released.

The Taiz Agreement

While arguably the least substantive of the Stockholm Agreement’s three parts, the Taiz Agreement is still significant in that it focuses on one of the areas of Yemen that the conflict has hit hardest. Diplomats familiar with the Taiz Agreement – which calls for the establishment of a joint committee made up of coalition and Houthi representatives, as well as members of civil society groups based in the area – see it as clearing the way for more substantive negotiations as the political process develops. Although its representatives have been named, the committee has yet to meet owing to disagreements between its members.

“The Spirit of the Deal”

Many recent international efforts to end the Yemen conflict – not least Hunt’s high-profile shuttle diplomacy – have focused on preserving the Stockholm Agreement through tangible progress on the withdrawal of forces on the Red Sea coast. Yet it remains unclear whether its signatories are committed to making the sacrifices the deal requires or merely attempting to avoid blame for its potential failure.

All this comes amid growing activity by Yemeni political groups. Leaders and representatives of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council – which has been excluded from the formal peace process – have engaged in an extensive tour of European capitals for the first time. Simultaneously, efforts to convene parliament under the auspices of the internationally recognised government have continued, albeit without making a clear breakthrough. And some of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s internal rivals have attempted to outflank him to his right, by taking a harder line on the Houthis.

There are ongoing battles between the coalition and the Houthis in some parts of Yemen. Both sides have accused each other of engaging in ceasefire violations in and around Hudayda. The Houthis killed several soldiers in a brazen drone attack targeting senior Yemeni military officers. And there has been a flare-up in violence in Hajour, in Hajjah province – where tribal tension with the Houthis spurred an all-out revolt – and in al-Dhale province. So long as the Hudayda deal continues to hold together, a frail hope of de-escalation remains. But the more time that passes without significant progress in implementing its terms, the greater the risk that the wider political process will collapse.

AFP.

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