Deep Dive

For Houthis, Yemen truce is just a means to an end

The UN-brokered truce remains the main diplomatic tool and a primary step towards a peace settlement in Yemen. However, given the failure to get the Houthis to reopen roads in Taiz as part of the truce, it is safe to assume that no final negotiated settlement is in sight. Besides, measuring truce compliance only through the prism of cross-border attacks without putting pressure on Houthis to stop their military activity inside Yemen has allowed the group to gain a positional advantage that has affected battlefield calculations and the future of Yemen.

Read time: 11 min.
23.09.2022

The UN-brokered truce between the warring parties in Yemen first came into effect on April 2, 2022 and was extended for a third time on August 2, 2022. The truce was designed to build momentum towards a negotiated political settlement between the Yemen Presidential Council and the Houthi movement, which usurped power from the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbo Manshour Hadi in 2014. 

There were two key elements to the truce: Halting all ground, aerial and naval offensives inside and outside Yemen and freezing  the current military positions on the ground. Confidence-building measures included allowing the entry of fuel ships to Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah – Yemen’s fourth largest city that is home to the country’s principal port on the Red Sea – and another significant government concession allowing people with Houthi-issued passports to fly out of Sana’a airport. In return, the Yemeni government requested the Houthis to open roads in the city of Taiz to enable the entry of aid and ease the humanitarian suffering of the blockaded city. 

Local violence in Houthi-controlled areas, despite the truce, drew UN condemnation and undermined the overall objective of reaching a political settlement. Two weeks before the renewal of the truce, the Houthis attacked a residential neighborhood in Taiz, killing one child and injuring 11 other children, most of whom were under the age of 10. After the renewal, the Houthis continued truce violations in Taiz and brought in reinforcements to the city, sparking condemnation from the international community and leading to the Yemeni government’s withdrawal from talks in Amman. 

The White House has welcomed the latest truce extension, which US President Joe Biden had pushed for during his trip to Saudi Arabia in July.  However, Washington has emphasized the truce alone is “not enough in the long run”, urging Yemenis to move towards comprehensive peace negotiations. The Biden administration took particular interest in Yemen’s crisis, as the President had promised to “end the war in Yemen”. The US had taken some steps to improve the environment for negotiations, such as reversing the Houthis’ terrorism designation,  which the Trump administration had imposed, and appointing a special US Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, as a way to promote diplomacy as a primary tool for resolving the conflict. 

However, it remains difficult for the White House to access the Houthis directly. The group solidified its control over the northern city of Marib and launched terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier this year, causing deaths and material damage. In particular, Saudi critical infrastructure and civilian centers have been subject to Houthi rocket attacks for several years now. Lenderking has recognized Houthis’ military offensives as a “major obstacle to the peace process”. It is clear from this that the Houthis are seen as a serious threat to the stability in the Gulf. Given the Saudi-backed Yemeni government’s commitment to the peace process, there has been an increasing realization about the need to find leverage with the Houthi movement. 

The Houthis, who were responsible for starting Yemen’s civil war in 2014 after they overthrew the government, have extended their grip over most of the northern part of the country, and control 13 of Yemen’s 21 provinces. 

One of the Houthis’ clearly identifiable red lines is their theological beliefs, which stand in the way of effective and fair governance. The Houthis are Zaidis, and believe in the leadership of an imam, a political-spiritual head. Houthis belong to the Jaroudi branch of Zaidism, whose principles state that only a Zaidi descendent of Prophet Mohammed’s bloodline is allowed to rule over them. This is seen as an extremist view by many other Zaidis as it prevents the vast majority of people from sharing power, and concentrates the decision-making process on fundamental issues in the hands of the leaders of the movement. Houthis make deals with non-Zaidis and non-Jaroudis as long as the ultimate affairs of the state and governance is aligned with their vision and does not veer off the commands and guidance of their leader. But this system of governance has been rejected by Yemenis, who endorsed a republic in 1968. 

With the implementation of the truce, there was a significant reduction in violence. Commercial flights were resumed from Sana’a to Amman and Cairo, amounting to 32 flights in total during the four months. The truce also stipulated that 36 fuel ships be allowed to enter the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah; 26 fuel ships entered the port carrying 720,270 metric tons of fuel derivatives with more ships carrying fuel on their way. 

For their part, the Houthis have pocketed all government concessions but refused to fulfill their obligations and lift their siege on Taiz. In fact, they have increased their attacks on the city. The UN has said that children account for about 40 per cent of the casualties during the truce. It is worth noting that Houthis signed up to the truce only after significant pressure from the international community and mediation by Oman, allowing a two-month extension instead of the six-month one that was agreed upon between Yemen’s government and the UN. 

The current truce extension amid the violations raises a question about the efficacy of the process. According to Yemen Truce Monitor, there were 1,806 breaches between April 2 and July 29 this year, with 314 reported fatalities. The Houthis were responsible for 1,680 incidents, mainly through missile attacks, shelling, and artillery barrages. They were also responsible for 95 per cent of the fatalities during this period. The data demonstrates the volatility of the situation and the difficulty in securing a sustainable and implementable peace process.     

However, measuring truce compliance only from the prism of cross-border attacks without putting pressure on Houthis to stop their military activity inside Yemen has allowed the group to gain a positional advantage that has affected battlefield calculations and the future of Yemen. 

Another sign that the Houthis lack the political will to cooperate as part of the truce is the military parade they held in Hodeidah. The parade drew denunciations from the UN mission deployed to oversee the Stockholm Agreement, which was signed by the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement in the Swedish capital in 2018. The mission called on the Houthi leadership to “fully respect their obligations under the agreement, particularly as it pertains to keeping the city free of military manifestations”.

More recently, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Gundberg, pointed to the difficulty of conducting the negotiations as both the Houthis and the government of Yemen put forward proposals to open roads in Taiz and other governorates. Trying to compromise with all parties, the UN merged the proposals, but the Houthis rejected them. According to the UN, its latest proposal “included three paths put forward by Ansar Allah [the Houthis] and one advocated for by civil society. The government accepted this proposal, but Ansar Allah did not”.  

As an armed actor, the Houthi movement risks losing its power and influence if it chooses to relinquish violence, as its political and religious dogma dictates that it adheres to its faith, which favors the Zaidi sect over others. This gives the movement control over resources. Throughout the war, whenever the Houthis have sought to actively engage in peace initiatives, they’ve had three goals: (i) safeguarding territory they hold and countering military threats that could undermine their gains; (ii) adopting a strategy of deterrence by attacking Saudi Arabia and the UAE to try and force them to abandon their Yemeni government allies; (iii) an expansion policy, often after ceasefires, which allowed them to rebuild, recruit and regroup. This pattern was also evident in the six ‘Saada Wars’ against the government of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh; in the 2013 National Dialogue Process; and after every UN-led initiative. 

An illustration of the Houthi strategy can be seen in the Stockholm Agreement. The rushed deal stipulated an immediate ceasefire in Hodeidah just as their opponents had prepared for a ground battle to push the Houthis out of the port city, which would have severed their access to the Red Sea and limited their territory to Sana’a, and a few other areas in the North. However, within months of the Hodeidah ceasefire, the Houthis redeployed their troops to solidify their grip over Hodeidah and expanded deeper into government territory in Al Jawf, Dhale and started a brutal offensive in Marib. This led to the displacement of millions and reversal of the gains of Yemen’s government since the start of the conflict. 

Unfortunately, the multiplicity of actors in Yemen’s war and their contested legitimacy have made direct negotiations between the warring parties difficult. Meanwhile, other major political parties and movements like the Yemeni Congregation for Reform – the Muslim Brotherhood party in Yemen better known as Islah – and the Southern Transitional Council reject talks with the Houthis. The new government negotiating on behalf of Yemen, known as the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), has demonstrated a willingness to seek a diplomatic solution but is unlikely to establish direct lines of communication with the Houthis, who are contesting its authority. It is worth noting that none of these bodies, whether the PLC or the Houthis, are elected. 

Gunderberg has been transparent in discussing the obstacles in implementation that would affect the outcome of the truce. He has also taken significant steps that his predecessor was reluctant to take, such as visiting the conflict-prone city of Taiz and expressing clear concerns about Houthi violations. According to sources in the Yemeni government, there was general positivity towards the level of interest the UN was taking in resolving critical issues and monitoring violations on the ground. However, the concern is that a reasonable political settlement is still far from reach because there is no evidence of good faith on the ground. The Houthis’ initial unwillingness to extend the truce following President Biden’s visit to the region is a case in point – they are using every opportunity to increase the ceilings of their demands. 

Yemeni political parties do not believe the Houthis will fully comply with the terms of the truce without making more gains than anyone else in this process. These conditions make a peace settlement not only tricky but worrisome. The fear is that the UN will continue to push for any settlement, taking whatever little the Houthis offer in return for significant concessions from the Yemeni government, most of whose members reside outside the country and have lost the ability to fight fairly and credibly for the millions of Yemenis who are trapped in a cycle of violence. Moreover, Yemenis have criticized the government negotiating team’s failure to push for critical issues that concern them and their inability to develop a framework that would provide a vision to end this conflict. 

It is unclear if there will be a re-evaluation of the current truce to focus on accountability and to have all the warring parties respect their obligations. So far, the UN and the White House have commended the Yemeni government and the Coalition for respecting the truce, and condemned violations by the Houthis. But no effort has been made to ensure Houthi compliance. 

The UN, driven by its mandate, will most likely continue to prolong the truce and move towards a political settlement regardless of the current conditions or truce violations. However, an effective approach towards fair and successful peace talks means that the UN has to re-evaluate this third renewed phase of the truce based on the parties’ progress, and avoid pushing for a political settlement if the Houthis continue to refuse to cooperate. Should the UN intend to push for peace talks in the current conditions, there will be an imbalance in implementation that could undermine the trajectory of peace as the Houthis will sense an enabling environment to deepen their control and enforce their uncontested authority over most of Yemen for years to come. 

The truce remains the main diplomatic tool and a primary step towards a peace settlement. However, given the failure in getting the Houthis to reopen the roads in Taiz, it is safe to assume that no final negotiated settlement is in sight. But to avoid political impasse, the UN will need to sort out a mechanism to implement the truce, hold the parties accountable for violations, and ensure that incursions and military expansions do not happen during and after the truce period is a start.

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