A dangerous miscalculation at the heart of Yemen’s peace consultations

The UN-brokered deal for Yemen is being reshaped to the benefit of the Houthi rebels

FILE - In this April 13, 2017, file photo, Yemenis present documents in order to receive food rations provided by a local charity, in Sanaa, Yemen. Saudi Arabia said Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018 that the coalition it is leading in Yemen will provide $1.5 billion in new humanitarian aid for international relief organizations working in the impoverished country. It comes as aid groups say coalition airstrikes are destroying critical infrastructure and that the coalition needs to do more to facilitate the delivery of fuel, food and medicine at Yemeni ports. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
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Hodeidah, Yemen’s most important port city and the centrepiece of last December’s Stockholm de-escalation agreement between Houthi rebels and Yemen’s internationally recognised government, is imploding. On March 1, Houthi mortar rounds killed five children from the same family and destroyed one of the city’s largest factories. This latest round of violence is the clearest indication yet that the Stockholm agreement is failing.

But, it is failing for one very specific reason.

Whether intentionally or not, the UN-brokered deal for Yemen is being actively reconfigured in the Houthis’ favour. This is mainly because the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who is under immense pressure to achieve concrete deliverables for peace, has no choice but to accept Houthi demands, lest the deal collapse on his watch. While accommodating the Houthis might save the peace process on paper, it perpetuates a dangerous status quo on the ground, which impacts the humanitarian situation negatively and makes it more difficult for the Yemeni government to fulfil its own obligations. This calls into question whether the UN is capable of holding the Houthis accountable for their end of the bargain.

When it was announced in December, the Stockholm deal appeared to be a major breakthrough. Its provisions involve the implementation of three major confidence-building measures: a ceasefire in the contested port city of Hodeidah, an end to the siege of Taiz, and prisoner exchanges. The Hodeidah ceasefire is, by far, the most important of these measures. By calling for a phased withdrawal of troops from the city and the opening of a humanitarian aid corridor between Hodeidah and Sanaa, the agreement not only prevents a joint Arab Coalition-Yemeni government attack that could claim hundreds of lives but also keeps Hodeidah port, the conduit for 70 per cent of the country’s humanitarian aid, open.

Mr Griffiths has already made several unilateral concessions to the Houthis, most notably by delaying the implementation time line for a phased withdrawal of forces at Hodeidah and overlooking Houthi intransigence on the Taiz understanding, in order to keep Stockholm alive. The UN also ignored the advice of General Patrick Cammaert, whom the UN Security Council had appointed to oversee the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Cammaert, who was eventually replaced, had criticised the Houthis for refusing to reopen the Hodeidah-Sana'a humanitarian corridor and for staging a clumsy ruse where the Houthis pretended to hand control of the city over to Yemen's coast guard, later revealed to be Houthi soldiers in coast guard uniforms.

So far, the UN’s flexibility has not helped Yemenis but rather encouraged the Houthis to extract concessions without giving anything substantial in return. Houthi forces remain ensconced in Hodeidah. The humanitarian corridor is still shut, and the World Food Programme (WFP) recently reported that nearly 60 per cent of all food aid in Sanaa is going to the Houthis and their allies instead of civilians. The UN did not penalise the Houthis for their staged “handover” of the city. This failure to hold the Houthis accountable for their malfeasance reflects a broader pattern of behaviour. Last year, the Houthis blew up a WFP truck carrying grain for an entire village. More recently, they temporarily cut access to the Red Sea Mills granary, putting donated foodstuffs at risk of rotting. While the WFP condemned these actions, Mr Griffiths did not.

So far, the UN's flexibility has not helped Yemenis but rather encouraged the Houthis to extract concessions without giving anything substantial in return

Mr Griffiths has cultivated a relationship of trust and respect with the Houthis, which is something his predecessors were unable to achieve and a major asset. However, his desire to keep the Houthis involved in the peace process has undermined the UN’s efforts to create real peace. Instead, it has given the Houthis the international legitimacy that a violent non-state actor desires while allowing them to continue obfuscating their own role in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Failure to enforce the Taiz understanding has allowed the Houthis to continue their siege of the city. Citizens are subjected to daily shelling, while shipments of medicine, food, and commercial goods are barred. In addition to worsening Yemen's catastrophic humanitarian situation, the collapse of Taiz has shaken the faith of Yemen's internationally recognised government in the UN process, just as the Houthi failure to withdraw from Hodeidah first, as agreed upon under Stockholm, has disincentivised the Arab Coalition and the Yemeni government from pulling their own forces back from the frontlines. (To be certain, Yemen's government has complicated matters in Hodeidah by insisting on port oversight, effectively scuttling UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's recent suggestion that the UN independently manage the facility).

Enforcing Stockholm was never going to be easy. Many in the Houthi camp are uncompromising in their belief that they are divinely appointed as Yemen's rightful rulers. Others recognise that surrendering control of major population centres would decrease their leverage in negotiating a final settlement. The imperative to show military strength following compromise, however hollow, is one of the reasons the Houthis detonated a drone over a military parade in South Yemen less than two weeks after Stockholm was signed. For many Yemenis, it is difficult to see how this agreement can possibly succeed when the Houthis ignore their obligations under the accord and violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement.

Mr Griffiths is in a bind. But he is not without leverage – however limited. He can subject the Houthis to the same level of international scrutiny as the Arab Coalition and Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Admittedly, such an approach could lead the Houthis to give up any pretension toward peace, but that would only yield an outcome closely resembling the status quo. Conversely, it may lead the Houthi leadership, given their strong desire to maintain some semblance of international legitimacy, to take real steps toward implementing Stockholm.

Certainly, there is risk. But if Mr Griffiths continues to accept the bare minimum the Houthis offer, to overlook their failure to uphold their obligations under Stockholm, and to allow the Houthis to maintain their campaign of repression of Yemeni civilians, then the peace process will be nothing more than ink on paper.

Fatima Alasrar is a senior analyst for the Arabia Foundation, she tweets at @YemeniFatima