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Yemen and the Houthis: the challenge of extending the ceasefire again

Houthi conditions on blockades of besieged cities such as Taiz and on the management of oil revenues complicate a six-month extension of an armistice marked by ceasefire violations
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AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS  -   Yemeni supporters of the Iranian-backed Huthi movement brandish their weapons as they rally in the capital, Sana'a, to protest against the Saudi-led coalition's intervention in their country

Embroiled in a conflict now in its eighth year and described by the United Nations as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis", Yemen now faces the difficult task of extending an unprecedented armistice by six months. A ceasefire that has now lasted four months and for the first time in years has resulted in a comprehensive agreement between the parties that has provided thousands of Yemenis with access to medical services, protection mechanisms and economic, educational and social opportunities. 

However, virtually unable to impose an extension of the armistice, the international community is eagerly awaiting the expiry of the final hours of the truce. Negotiations between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi rebels, which have been stalled for several weeks, seem to have moved away from simply accepting or rejecting each other's conditions and have incorporated new demands. Especially on the Houthi side.   

"The transition from a seven-year war to a state of relative calm has not been without challenges and some shortcomings in fully implementing the elements of the armistice. However, the armistice has transformed Yemen. It has made a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of people. And that is why the Yemeni people and the international community want and expect the full implementation, renewal and strengthening of the truce (...). We must seize this opportunity and not waste it," UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg said in a statement, calling for an "extension" of the armistice.

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UN PHOTO/LOEY FELIPE - Official photo by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg
What were the main points of the truce?  

First agreed on 2 April this year by all Yemeni forces - and coinciding with the start of Ramadan - the truce was extended for the first time in June, two months after it was signed, and has four main points.  

A freeze on hostile military operations, the resumption of flights to and from the international airport in the Houthi-held capital, Sana'a, and the entry of 18 fuel shipments into the western Red Sea port of Hodeida were the three points respected in both the original truce and the extension agreed on 2 June. However, the reopening of roads and humanitarian corridors in Yemeni government-controlled towns besieged by Houthi insurgent forces (such as Taiz) has been a pending task for two months.

"In the last four months of the truce, more fuel ships have entered the port of Hodeida than in all of 2021, allowing hospitals and businesses better access to fuel," said a joint statement issued by several international organisations advocating for an extension of the truce. "It has increased by about 53% from 23 ships collectively carrying less than 470,000 tonnes in 2021 to 26 tankers carrying a total of 720,270 tonnes during the four months of the truce," noted Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni security, conflict and defence researcher and co-founding member of the Security Distillery think tank, for the Middle East Institute (MEI). 

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REUTERS/FAWAZ SALMAN - Yemeni airport image
New conditions  

But the economic benefits of these port movements have not gone, as the UN stipulates, into the so-called UN joint account, nor, apparently, to pay Yemeni officials residing in Houthi-controlled territories. This is an issue that divides the two parties and seems likely to be part of the Houthis' new demands (who are threatening to ask for new budget allocations to cover these expenses). 

In addition, the insurgent group's refusal to implement any of the UN proposals to reopen roads, particularly those around the besieged city of Taiz - home to over three million people - further complicates the process of extending the truce.

"It is difficult to have confidence in the continuation and success of the truce as the Houthi militias are not implementing any of their commitments and, instead, continue to increase the severity of military violations of the armistice on several fronts. While the Presidential Command Council has been clear in extending the ceasefire to alleviate the suffering of all Yemenis without discrimination, the continued siege of Taiz and the lack of progress in this regard, in addition to the lack of commitment to allocate the revenues from oil shipments from the port of Hodeidah to pay employees' salaries, affect the firmness and continuity of the truce," Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak told Asharq Al-Awsat media.  

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Houthi militants near the city of Hodeidah, Yemen

As if these misunderstandings were not enough, continued violations of the ceasefire - now numbering more than 1,700, according to the Armed Conflict Events and Location Data Project's Yemen Truce Monitor - have called into question the parties' commitment. Especially on the side of the Houthis, who have been blamed for 93% of these attacks. But, as Ibrahim Jalal points out, "the relative calm brought about by the four-month truce has meant that violations have not resulted in significant changes in control of territory or large numbers of combat deaths. But despite the fragile ceasefire that remains in place, provocations and signs of further escalation continue to mount.  

Omani delegation in Sana'a  

In this context, a delegation from the Sultanate of Oman went on Sunday to Sana'a, the Yemeni capital in the hands of the Houthis, according to the chief negotiator and official spokesman of the Houthi group, Mohamed Abdul Salam, in an official statement. Faced with a UN that seemed unable to lower the new Houthi demands, several international observers believe that this Omani trip will play a key role in the negotiations. This has been the case in previous attempts at rapprochement between the Yemeni government, the Saudi-led international alliance and the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgent group, with the latter seeing Muscat as a neutral mediator

"The Omani delegation's visit to Sanaa came to convince the Houthi militia to accept the truce, especially since the militia has imposed impossible conditions, including the seizure of revenues from the liberated governorates under the pretext of paying salaries to employees in areas under its control," Yemeni political researcher Yasser Al-Yafei explained.  

"The Houthi militia is approaching the mediation efforts with a new escalation through the continued mobilisation of fighters and the organisation of military parades to show its refusal to extend the truce. But in fact, the militia needs the truce at this stage to further consolidate the international will to end the war in Yemen," he added. The Yemeni authority, represented in the Presidential Leadership Council, said the Yemeni government cannot make any more concessions for the agreement of a further extension, as this would only further weaken its negotiating position and benefit the Houthi side.

3,000 new Houthi fighters "just in case"

In contradiction with the very spirit of the truce, the Houthi side announced on Sunday that it was recruiting more than 3,000 fighters to reinforce the front lines. "If the enemy," said Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree, referring to Arab coalition forces and the internationally recognised Yemeni government, "wants peace, our negotiating delegation has already done enough; and if they want war, then we are ready and present on every battlefield. 

This has been interpreted by some international analysts as a use of the armistice by the Houthi militias to strengthen their war positions and to "accumulate more Iranian weapons in residential areas and use civilians as human shields". This could prompt the international community to abandon any effort to extend the truce again.  

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PHOTO/Al-Huthi Group Media Office/AFP - A screenshot taken from a video provided by the al-Huthi Media Office shows Huthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree speaking at a press conference
International consequences of the truce

In addition to the interests of protecting the Yemeni population - where more than 19 million people are food insecure - there are also the interests of an international community faced with the fuel crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. This is why powers such as the US and UK have viewed the collapse of the armistice with great concern, as a further increase in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabian oil plants (the leader of the international enemy coalition) would lead to disruptions in international oil supplies and associated supply chains. 

However, as Yemeni researcher Ibrahim Jalal noted, if the six-month truce is extended further, it must in any case be "only a temporary de-escalation measure", and "cannot be extended indefinitely". "It must be linked to a wider political process".