Residents in Hodeidah have reported a number of skirmishes breaking out over the weekend despite negotiations in Sweden having produced an apparent ceasefire. The news is concerning given the importance of Hodeidah as a key Red Sea port city in securing food and aid imports to help alleviate the severe food shortages facing millions in Yemen. The key challenge for both sides in the short term is to ensure an orderly withdrawal from Hodeidah. The result of the negotiations concluded last week in Sweden saw both parties commit to withdrawing troops from Hodeidah and allow UN monitors to take up positions to make sure the agreement is respected.
Implementing this agreement is essential as any lapse in momentum may be used to justify a resumption of hostilities in Hodeidah by either side. Hodeidah is not only important from a strategic perspective in the conflict between the Houthi and the Hadi government but also to the lives of millions throughout wider Yemen. Action Against Hunger has described the situation in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, stating that nearly 53% of the population is in urgent need of food aid. Given this dire situation, aid agency CARE hailed the outcome of the talks in Sweden as a “landmark first step,” and it should indeed be seen as incredibly encouraging. UN special envoy Martin Griffiths who had been leading the shuttle mediations between the parties told Reuters that the second round of negotiations is due in January to decide on a framework to bring about a transitional governing body.
While the results of last week’s negotiations are definitely a step in the right direction, the violence reported over the weekend is cause for considerable caution. It has been demonstrated continually throughout the past few years that both major players harbour substantial distrust and suspicion of the other side. This, and the insecurity it creates, is the key contributing factor in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. According to various humanitarian groups involved in Yemen, the issue is not money but access in terms of being able to deliver aid. In most cases it is utterly impossible to reach significant parts of the country. Bearing this in mind, the UN monitoring mission must be robust and, while its primary goal will be to end hostilities, a by-product of this will be to alleviate the suffering of millions by allowing supply lines to be established. This is necessary to achieve any kind of productive rebuild to Yemen’s economy that has been decimated during the four-year civil war between the Houthi and the Hadi coalition.
The civil war in Yemen began in 2014 when Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa and forced Hadi to share power. A federal constitution was proposed but rejected by Houthi and southern separatists. Hadi was arrested but in 2015 was able to escape to Aden where he rallied a coalition against the Houthis. The negotiations were the first of their kind in over two years and come amidst renewed pressure from the west to cease what many consider a proxy war. The Houthi rebels are supported by Iran whereas the Hadi government is backed by Saudi Arabia in what many analysts believe to be an underlying power struggle between two of the Middle East’s oil kings.
The situation in Yemen will remain delicate for the near future and is reliant on both robust monitoring as well as continued negotiations. While securing Hodeidah and opening supply lines should be priority number one to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, many more measures need to be discussed to make the agreement work in the long term. Both sides issued statements that, following the monitoring process, they would be in control of Hodeidah. This demonstrates the need for ongoing discussion to address the fundamental differences between the various factions. A future agreement will necessarily involve a lot of compromises and will endeavour to appeal to the interests of either side. Whether Yemen will remain a singular state or split again to become what it was before 1990 remains to be seen, but any effective government seems to be some way off. Yemen faces a long road to peace, and its ongoing use by Saudi Arabia and Iran only adds potholes to this road which the UN, through these negotiations, is hoping to repair.
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