North Africa, West Asia

Yemen’s hopes and expectations - Part 1: the Stockholm agreement

What has been the outcome of the Stockholm agreement, a year after it was reached?

Helen Lackner
24 January 2020
A man walks near buildings destroyed in airstrikes in Dhamar province, Yemen, Dec. 25, 2019.
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Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

This four part series summarises the main changes in the Yemen crisis during 2019 and suggests what may happen in 2020. Part 1 deals with the Stockholm Agreement, primarily focused on the Huthi-controlled area. Part 2 deals with the crisis which arose within the anti-Huthi coalition between President Hadi’s internationally recognised government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Part 3 addresses people’s living conditions, the humanitarian crisis and Part 4 deals with the looming environmental disaster and other environmental issues.

As the new year starts, and the fifth year of internationalised war in Yemen nears its end, what are the prospects for Yemenis in 2020? Are they likely to see any real improvements in their living conditions? An end to the war? An end to being talked about as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’? An end to being described as ‘a proxy war’? The beginning of an era of peace and reconstruction? Millions of Yemenis must hope that this year will bring a positive answer to these and plenty other questions. Most of them are also probably more realistically aware of the great gap between hope and expectation. While their expectations are certainly far more modest, they must at least hope that there will be some improvement to the situation. So what happened in 2019? Did any of the Yemeni or coalition leaders do anything to reach a solution or peace for the Yemeni people? Did any of them give any consideration to the suffering of the population?

On 16 January 2020, at the monthly UN Security Council Briefing on Yemen the Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, referring to the Stockholm Agreement made another bland statement of hope and claims of improvements on the ground, which by their very blandness, implicitly recognised both actual lack of progress and the marginalisation of the UN in all major sectors of the conflict.

What is in the Stockholm Agreement?

2019 started with great hopes in the international community thanks to the UN-sponsored Stockholm Agreement reached on 13 December 2018 after a week of negotiations in Sweden. Since the full-scale war started in early 2015, it was the very first agreement between the Huthi movement, which controls most of Yemen’s population and a third of the country’s territory on the one hand, and president Hadi’s internationally recognised government on the other, hereafter the IRG.

Thanks to the presence of the UN Secretary General Guterres at the closing ceremony, the Stockholm Agreement was announced with considerable fanfare as a major step forward to end the war. The agreement has three components: the first concerns the exchange of up to 16 000 prisoners between the two sides; the second, a cease fire and demilitarization of Hodeida city and port as well as the two ports of Salif and Ras Issa; and the third is the formation of a committee to work towards de-escalation of fighting in Taiz. The entire document is only 3 pages, and it would be very difficult to produce something vaguer. The lack of details and precision reflects the unwillingness of the two sides to compromise or seek a solution in the interest of the Yemeni people.

The entire document is only 3 pages, and it would be very difficult to produce something vaguer

Fourteen months later, what has happened? Nothing more has been heard of the Taiz element and no progress made to de-escalate fighting in the city and governorate of Taiz. Both have mostly been liberated from Huthi control, but the Huthis retain certain pockets from which they occasionally attack the forces opposing them. However they don’t have to do much, as the anti-Huthi forces are busy fighting each other as different factions vie for dominance.

Taiz city is one of the strongholds of the Islah party, and much of the fighting is between the Islah-related government forces and those of Abu Abbas, a warlord close to the Salafis and al Qaeda but, being anti-Islah, has access to UAE assistance. Elsewhere in the governorate, particularly along the coast, the Huthis launch occasional attacks on the coalition forces which, here, are primarily composed of southern Salafis on the one hand and the northern forces brought together by Tareq Saleh, nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. There is also little love lost between these two elements.

The exchange of prisoners remains an issue of deep concern to thousands of prisoners and their families. Most observers were surprised at the numbers included in the agreement, as the expectation was of a few thousand at most. Regardless, the current situation is that only a few hundred have been returned to their families, including a few Saudi men captured by the Huthis. Although these exchanges have involved the International Red Cross, as is customary throughout the world, they have otherwise been arranged and negotiated by local tribal mediators, excluding the UN from this process.

The Hodeida agreement

The agreement on Hodeida is the main element of the Stockholm Agreement and certainly the one which has received the most attention from the UN Special Envoy [UNSE] and his team. Hodeida is the main port through which basic commodities arrive and reach the majority of the Yemeni population. Yemenis depend on imports for more than 90% of their wheat and 100% of other basics [rice, tea, sugar, etc.] as well as most fuel. The majority of the population is located in the northern highlands under Huthi control, therefore the importance of access via Hodeida port cannot be over emphasised.

Yemen has been described by the UN since 2017 as suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its population in need of assistance of one kind or another, including 20 million considered food insecure in 2019. The World Food Programme, (WFP) in its best month of December 2019, provided food assistance to 12 million Yemenis, most of them in the areas reached through Hodeida. This both demonstrates the importance of humanitarian assistance, and its failure to reach a significant proportion of those in need. Moreover it is important to remember that the majority of food Yemenis eat arrives through commercial channels, rather than as humanitarian assistance.

Hodeida’s importance in negotiations and during the war increased dramatically in 2017 when there was a serious threat that the anti-Huthi coalition would attack the city and the port. From 2017 onwards, it was faced with a stalemate on most military fronts, and regardless of rhetoric to the effect that the ‘only solution is political’, the coalition’s strategy was to take Hodeida militarily from the Huthis, in the belief that this would be a step towards taking over the highlands and would therefore force the Huthis into dialogue and compromise. An initial attack on Hodeida in mid-2017 was abandoned under international pressure, but a year later the coalition started its offensive.

The international community, including the UNSE and western states supporting the coalition, as well as all organisations involved in addressing the humanitarian crisis opposed this offensive for three main reasons: first most believed that it would not force the Huthis to surrender, contrary to coalition members’ expectation. Second it was clear that such an offensive would involve a lengthy and very destructive battle, leading to thousands of direct casualties in the city and its surroundings. Third, it would interrupt the flow of basic necessities (food and fuel) to the highlands, thus worsening the already disastrous humanitarian situation for millions.

Predictably, the coalition offensive, started in July 2018, but soon got into a quagmire as the Huthis had been well prepared to defend the city and the coalition forces were unable to get beyond the suburbs, so they failed to achieve their aims in the following months, and opposition to the offensive grew internationally. In addition to other factors, particularly the pressure put on the Saudi regime following the assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi in October, even the US joined others in the international community to press the UN and its Special Envoy to push for discussions between the sides, finally leading to the Stockholm Agreement.

Yemen has been described by the UN since 2017 as suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its population in need of assistance

The main positive achievement of the Stockholm agreement has been on the Hodeida front. Fighting in Hodeida effectively ceased for almost a year, and the cease fire has more or less held for 13 months now. This has been thanks to the presence on the ground of the UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement [UNMHA] established in January 2019and whose mandate was renewed for a further six months on 13 January 2020. Although it faced considerable difficulties and is on its third leader, it is now fully staffed and has set up 4 ‘observation posts’ in Hodeida city, which are contributing to keeping the area free of fighting and facilitating transit of goods between the port and the roads to the interior. Less successful has been the ‘redeployment of forces’ which called for the redeployment of forces from both sides and the handover of the three ports to local security forces agreed by both parties and endorsed by the UN. This formulation of course allowed each side to interpret the situation as they wished, which is precisely what they did.

What actually happened was that, in anticipation of a deadline set by the Quad [US, UK, SA, UAE] at the UNSC meeting of mid-May, the UNSE and the head of the UNMHA felt compelled to find a mechanism which would demonstrate some progress. They therefore accepted the Huthi offer of a ‘unilateral’ withdrawal of their fighters from the three ports, which took place between 11 and 14 May and was endorsed by UNMHA monitors. The UNMHA leader officially welcomed the handover to the Coastguard, leading to a major clash between the UNSE and President Hadi’s IRG which rejected the UN’s acceptance of the handover as it was not to its own Coastguard but, in its view, simply the Huthi troops changing uniforms. The Hadi government formally complained to the UN Secretary General, going so far as requesting the removal of the SE. After a high level UN delegation to Hadi, working relations were restored, but there is little doubt that the three ports remain under Huthi control in early 2020.

Outcome

Later in the year, continuing lack of progress was notable despite the resumption of meetings by the Joint Redeployment Committee: an indicator of the lack of trust is that all its meetings since early 2019 have taken place on board a UN ship in the high seas, due to the inability to agree on a meeting place in Hodeida itself. By the end of the year, they had agreed a mechanism for the payment of port revenues to the Hodeida Branch of the Central Bank of Yemen, whose funds are to be used to pay salaries of civil servants. To date this has not been implemented.

Overall the outcome of the Stockholm agreement, a year after it was reached, is very limited. In particular it has not prevented the Huthis from increasing their influence in the part of Yemen they control nor has it reduced their control in Hodeida governorate.

Despite the hopes of the UN, it has demonstrated one of its most surprising statements, that it ‘shall not be considered a precedent to be referred to in any subsequent consultations or negotiations.’ The presence of the UNMHA has forced the coalition to abandon its plan to conquer Hodeida, leaving it without a military strategy to defeat the Huthis. This was one factor which encouraged the Saudis to start direct negotiations with the Huthis, and was probably the main reason for the UAE to announce its military withdrawal from Yemen in mid-2019, which has only been partially implemented. This probably played a role in inducing its southern separatist ally to expel the Hadi government from Aden in August 2019, the subject of part 2 of this series.

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