Watch List 2019; Yemen at an Inflection Point

Yemen enters 2019 with two paths open to it: a tentative road to peace, or a new phase of war that could plunge the country into the worst humanitarian crisis of a generation. A UN-brokered deal between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and Huthi rebels in Sweden last December – known as the Stockholm Agreement – gave rise to rare optimism about prospects for peace. But the UN is struggling to implement its terms, and backsliding by either party – already evident – could hamper discussions on larger issues, especially finding a framework for negotiations to end the war. If combat, particularly around Hodeida, re-erupts in earnest, it could take political negotiations off the table for a long time to come. All sides should ensure that small setbacks do not escalate and unravel attempts to prevent famine and end the war.

In this context, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

Hodeida in the Balance

The momentum of Yemen’s conflict shifted toward the Red Sea coast in 2018, with United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Yemeni forces pushing up from the south. By June, those forces were nearing the outskirts of Hodeida, the entry point for 70 per cent of all goods shipped into Yemen. The UAE saw capturing the port as a way to force the Huthis to a compromise: only by depriving the rebels of sea access and customs revenue would the Huthis show any genuine willingness to budge, they argued. But humanitarian groups and other organisations, including Crisis Group, already reporting famine-like conditions across the country, warned that a battle for the port would cut off the crucial flow of supplies to Yemen’s densely populated north. An international outcry over these concerns, helped halt the initial UAE-led offensive, offering the new UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, a first opportunity to broker a way out of the impasse.

Griffiths’ intensive shuttle diplomacy did not end the contest over Hodeida. After the Huthis failed to attend planned peace consultations in Geneva in September, UAE-backed forces began a second push toward the port, partly encircling the city. But the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist, at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, prompted a wider backlash against Riyadh’s policies. Members of the U.S. Congress increasingly linked Khashoggi’s assassination with the Yemen war’s catastrophic humanitarian toll, and redoubled efforts to legislate an end to U.S. military support for the coalition. On 30 October, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo separately called for a de-escalation of hostilities and a resumption of political talks. Griffiths leveraged this momentum to reorganise consultations, which finally took place in Stockholm in early December.

These efforts culminated with the so-called Stockholm Agreement, which included a commitment to a prisoner exchange and to demilitarise the Red Sea trade corridor (Hodeida city along with Hodeida, Ras Issa and Salif ports). The parties agreed to continue discussions on the contested city of Taiz and meet again in January 2019 to discuss a framework for peace talks. Of particular note, under the deal the Huthis are to transfer Hodeida port, Yemen’s largest, to UN management and reopen a humanitarian corridor to the north. But the parties failed to agree to reopen Sanaa’s airport or unify the Central Bank, the latter being a vital step toward addressing Yemen’s economic and humanitarian woes.

Peace at Peril

Spoilers abound on all sides. Four years into the conflict, the Huthi movement is internally divided and fearful of making a move that would leave its forces exposed. Its field commanders retain a high degree of autonomy and may be less inclined to compromise than political leaders. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, has created its own obstacles to progress, making maximalist demands and unwilling to consider future power-sharing agreements. Both sides are reluctant to relinquish the authority they have attained through fighting and via the war economy. The Saudi-led coalition, for its part, could seize on a setback as a reason to escalate their military campaign. UAE-backed Yemeni forces remain poised to advance toward Hodeida. Even in the best case scenario, a battle for the port would starve hundreds of thousands of Yemenis within weeks; a prolonged fight could kill up to a million, with many more pushed further into destitution and hunger.

Despite cautious optimism after the Sweden talks, the months ahead are fraught with risk. Both sides have used the agreement’s overly broad and imprecise language to interpret it according to their views and cast doubt on each other’s good faith. In the weeks since the ceasefire came into effect, the Huthis and coalition have exchanged recriminations, accusing each other of hundreds of ceasefire violations in Hodeida, while the Huthis have launched a series of attacks on the government of Yemen and coalition positions outside of Hodeida using ballistic missiles and drones. The Huthis accused the coalition of launching more than 130 air strikes in the same period before a wave of aerial attacks on Sanaa on 19 January.  

It is also unclear whether the U.S. will be as active as it was in the run-up to and during the Stockholm talks: Defense Secretary James Mattis played an important part in preventing an assault on Hodeida throughout 2018 and in securing tentative agreements in Sweden; his departure in early January raises questions about future U.S. policy and whether his successor will be as effective at wielding influence with increasingly frustrated Gulf allies, who feel they are being asked to give up a great deal in order to mollify a Huthi movement they believe to be uninterested in compromise. To prevent backsliding, the UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee tasked with implementing the ceasefire and demilitarising Hodeida will need to clarify the terms of the ceasefire, get the parties to agree to a mechanism for verifying redeployments, and ensure the Huthis withdraw from the Red Sea ports.

Even assuming the agreement holds, the UN special envoy will still have a huge task before him. He will need to halt fighting in the battleground of Taiz, an important step toward freezing the overall conflict. Secessionists in Yemen’s south credibly argue that a genuine political settlement requires their input while women’s groups say that their participation in talks thus far has been symbolic at best. Meanwhile, little has been done to dampen tensions among various anti-Huthi groups on the ground. The envoy’s office, the coalition and outside powers urgently need to address this issue to prevent battles between rival groups in Taiz and Aden.

Supporting De-escalation and Talks

With uncertainty in Washington and a complex, high-stakes political process ahead, the EU’s role will be more critical than ever. Member states and EU diplomats enjoy the advantage of having maintained contact with all sides – members of the coalition, the Yemeni government, the Huthis and Iran – throughout the conflict. The EU as well as its member states should use these contacts to exert pressure on all parties: on the Huthis, to show flexibility and carry out their Stockholm commitments; on Iran, to press the rebel movement in that direction; and to the Saudi-led coalition, to genuinely end its military campaign and work toward a political settlement. The UN Security Council has proven to be a useful instrument of pressure, and the EU should coordinate among member states on future Security Council action. Finally, EU member states should extend technical support to the envoy and his team, particularly with respect to port management and local security.

The EU should maintain current humanitarian programs, or even expand them. Its current focus on providing food, water and medicine, along with treatment for malnutrition and cholera, is critical. But the EU may need to increase its assistance rapidly in the event of a battle for Hodeida, and in any event should engage with the government, Huthi leadership and coalition to improve humanitarian access to vulnerable populations. Actors have a tight timetable to make progress, not least because of the threat of famine. That 20 million Yemenis are facing severe food insecurity should focus minds, help prioritise de-escalation and build on the Stockholm deal as a foundation for a political settlement.