A Houthi withdrawal from Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah was always going to be the main sticking point in the ceasefire deal agreed in December, experts have said after the rebels raised fresh conditions for pulling back their forces.
The agreement reached at UN-brokered talks in Sweden was seen as a breakthrough in efforts to end the four-year war, and the first step towards a negotiated political solution.
The withdrawal of both rebel and government forces from Hodeidah was supposed to have taken place soon after the ceasefire went into effect on December 18 but has yet to be implemented.
On December 29, the Houthis said their fighters had started to leave Hodeidah's three ports and hand over control to local coast guards, but the government claimed these supposedly neutral forces were actually loyal to the rebels.
The UN observer team in the city, headed by retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, had no mechanism in place to vet these local units and struggled to bring the rebel and government sides together for meetings to co-ordinate the ceasefire implementation. Mr Cammaert resigned in January and handed over to a Danish general, Michael Anker Lollesgaard, who relaunched the meetings on a ship docked off Hodeidah.
On February 18, the UN announced that both sides had agreed to a two-phase withdrawal process. But the rebels have so far refused to retreat, saying that government forces must withdraw at the same time.
"The part related to the withdrawal from Hodeidah in the Stockholm agreement was always going to be the most difficult," Cinzia Bianco, senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics, told The National.
Phase one of the latest plan stipulates that rebel fighters must withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Issa.
In phase two, government forces backed by the Arab military coalition supporting the government must leave the eastern outskirts of the port city.
Ms Bianco said the Houthi rationale for delaying is that "if they truly hand over Hodeidah, the port will end up in the hands of the Arab coalition".
The UN is still attempting to bridge differences between the two sides over the local authority that would take charge of Hodeidah, under UN supervision, once the redeployment of armed forces has taken place.
The city is Yemen's main entry point for desperately needed food, medicine and other aid, and the UN is keen to secure this lifeline for civilians affected by the war, millions of whom are on the verge of starvation.
“There is a genuine international commitment to the Stockholm agreement and this factor is still meaningful to the survival of the deal,” Ms Bianco said.
Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, said the sequencing and timing of the withdrawal was always going to be a challenge. The UN, as well as international partners, need to maintain focus to get these first steps toward redeployment under way, she said.
"The Stockholm Agreement still provides the best way forward to de-escalate the situation and the best chance to build momentum towards broader political talks to end the war," Ms Dickinson told The National.
Experts have repeatedly stressed that only talks between the two sides can lead to a solution to the war. If the Hodeidah deal collapses, then the chances of holding such negotiations are very slim.
The government and the Arab coalition have formally complained to the UN Security Council about hundreds of rebel violations of the Hodeidah truce. The UN warned this month that “further measures” would be taken against ceasefire violations.
“Members of the Security Council stressed the critical importance of the parties implementing those commitments without delay for the sake of the Yemeni people,” the UN said in a statement.
The Security Council called on the parties “to seize this opportunity to move towards sustainable peace by exercising restraint, de-escalating tensions, honouring their commitment to the Stockholm Agreement and moving forward with its swift implementation”.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday that although some progress has been seen in Hodeidah, "more must be done, now, if lasting peace is to be achieved".