MS Risk Blog

What are the implications of the fragile ceasefire in Yemen?

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Despite the largely successful December peace talks, the relationship between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels has remained delicate. Since the original discussions, the warring parties have been engaging in both physical and verbal combat, frequently breaking the ceasefire and vehemently accusing each other of violations and lies. In its taxing umpire role, the United Nations (UN) has been working hard to mediate and facilitate communications between parties, but behind doors are most likely wringing their hands at the breakdown of promises. There may be a ceasefire, but it is tenuous, feels half-hearted and is precariously held together by the UN.

January saw violent attacks and extensive damage to humanitarian supplies. On 25 January, the UN announced that two silos at the Red Sea Mills grain facility had been damaged by a fire caused by mortar shelling. The facility contains critical food supplies for almost 4 million people. Just one day later, eight civilians were killed and 30 wounded in the shelling of a displacement camp. Although UN Envoy Martin Griffiths has been keeping upbeat over the duration of the month, he stated on 31 January that he was “deeply concerned about recent hostilities” in the region. With the breakdown of the earlier prisoner exchange talk in Amman, the drone attack on a Yemeni government base and the bullets striking a vehicle carrying Patrick Cammaert earlier in the month, the ceasefire has been severely tested.

So far, February has been more positive in that hostile interactions have mainly been limited to verbal clashes. At the beginning of the month, representatives from both parties met on a ship in the Red Sea in an UN-orchestrated attempt to execute a troop withdrawal from Hodeidah port. The withdrawal was meant to have been completed by 7 January; however, the Saudi-backed government and Houthis have remained in steadfast disagreement over the control of the city and ports. Later, another round of peace talks took place in Amman. The parties made an attempt to finalise the prisoner exchange deal. However, they failed to reach an agreement, with both sides accusing each other of lying. The Houthis stated that the talks could drag on for months if the Saudi-backed government denied the existence of thousands of Houthi fighters in captivity, accusing the opposition side of supplying a list containing fake and duplicate names. According to The National, the talks finished without a final agreement on how to redeploy rival forces as part of the ceasefire agreement. In spite of this, the warring parties later agreed to exchange the bodies of killed fighters, making an “important progress in moving the release process forward,” according to a UN Committee tasked with overseeing the swap.

The frail ceasefire has inevitably garnered significant media attention. The focus on the ongoing violence in Yemen has led to public outcry, placing intense pressure on countries who engage in arms dealings with Saudi Arabia. On 13 February, US lawmakers voted to end US support for the conflict. The US House of Representatives approved a resolution which would force the Trump Administration to withdraw US troops from involvement in the region. The White House has previously threatened to veto the motion, stating that the resolution was inappropriate. It argued the measure would harm relationships with Saudi Arabia and hinder the American ability to combat violent extremism. The recent news has marginally increased the possibility of the US halting arms’ sales to the Saudi Kingdom. Nevertheless, this appears unlikely judging by Trump’s previous unwillingness to criticise Saudi Arabia and his friendly relationship with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Further critique has been directed at the Prince due to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which Trump has refused to condemn or reprimand in any manner. Trump could have used the global criticism of the Prince as a tool for ending the war in Yemen by piling pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the US President has been more interested in maintaining America’s weapon sales to the region.

The fragile ceasefire undoubtedly increases the likelihood of full-blown fighting firing up again. This would in turn lead to a worsening humanitarian crisis through civilians in Houthi-run areas being attacked by Saudi-coalition airstrikes, the blocking of food and aid by Houthis through major ports and the loss of critical infrastructure, leading to health conditions which would be compounded further by the lack of medical care in the region. On 14 February, the UN warned that approximately 24 million people are in need of assistance and protection in Yemen. This figure accounts for 80% of the country’s population. The UN released the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview Report for Yemen, which reveals that 14.3 million people are classified as being in acute need, with approximately 3.2 million requiring treatment for acute malnutrition. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the “severity of needs is deepening,” with the number of people in desperate need at 27% higher than last year. The UN’s top relief coordinator Mark Lowcock said unless government and rebel forces manage to hold a ceasefire, a fifth of the UN’s food reserves in Yemen could rot. This would subsequently endanger the lives of millions of civilians. In the last month, many media sites have increasingly reported on the recent swine flu outbreak in the region. The lack of medicine and medical equipment has meant that the disease has been difficult to contain. It is clear that the continual violence has had a long-term effect on the region and will continue to do so many years later, with the fragile ceasefire further confirming the constant instability of the region.

The delicate ceasefire also raises questions over the motives of the warring parties. The conflict would arguably help further Iran’s agenda for power, who are widely thought to fund the Houthi-rebels. The Islamic region has been hit hard by US sanctions which came into full force last year and has been struggling to re-assert its dominance in the Middle East as a result. Marwan Kabalan, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, has questioned whether Iran really wants a final settlement to be reached. The region hopes to keep Saudi-Arabia occupied in Yemen, so they do not have the resources to undertake activities against Tehran on other fronts in the Middle East. Additionally, Iran could be hoping to use the Yemen conflict as a bargaining chip in a deal to lift the US sanctions and recover the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This could be a feasible possibility this year if the ceasefire between the warring parties completely disintegrates and the UN is forced to make a decision and divert a further humanitarian disaster. Given the desire of a number of European countries to safeguard the 2015 Nuclear deal and the real possibility of the complete fragmentation of the ceasefire and the likely humanitarian catastrophe that will follow, Iran could potentially find itself in a strong position to free itself of the US sanctions.

If the warring parties permanently fail to stick to their ceasefire agreement, it is uncertain what the UN will do. Given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering the crisis, this ongoing situation could continue for years. The question is whether the UN has the capacity to stick to this, particularly in light of new emerging potential humanitarian crises in the Middle East. For example, Syria is gradually becoming more unstable with the recent seizure of more than a dozen towns and villages in northern Syria. The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, of the Levant Liberation Committee, was detrimental to the September ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey that deflected a government offensive in Idlib province. Russia and Turkey have since agreed to take decisive measures in the region, and it is reported that aid agencies have begun withdrawing from Idlib. Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises in Syria’s war.

It is difficult to say what the Yemen conflict will resemble at the end of this year. However, it is clear that the fragile ceasefire does not bode well. Along with the apparent unwillingness of the warring parties and the aggravated humanitarian crisis, it looks like troubling times are ahead for Yemen.