No war, and no peace! This phrase sums up the current situation in Yemen, as Yemeni society as a whole is trapped between these two states. The fragile ceasefire doesn't stop the bloodshed, and the rift between the warring parties, ongoing for more than eight years, continues to widen.
This war has multiple fronts: First, a civil war waged by Ansar Allah, the Houthi group, on one side, and forces loyal to the legitimate government on the other, represented by military authorities in liberated provinces. And second, a regional war where Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead an Arab coalition supporting the legitimate government, while Iran backs the Houthi rebels.
In an endeavor to curb the conflict between the two Yemeni sides, the United Nations, through its envoy Hans Grundberg, brokered a ceasefire agreement in April 2022. This agreement entailed the cessation of hostilities between the parties.
No war, and no peace! This phrase sums up the current situation in Yemen, as Yemeni society as a whole is trapped between these two states. The fragile ceasefire doesn't stop the bloodshed, and the years-long rift between the warring parties continues to widen
The agreement, which covered a two-month period, from April 2, 2022, to June 2, 2022, with the possibility of extension, stipulates the halting of military operations and allowing humanitarian aid delivery to civilians.
It was extended on June 2, 2022, and ended in October of the same year. However, it practically continued without an agreement for an extension, before Saudi Arabia, through Omani mediation, initiated negotiations for permanent peace. Yet, this collided with the Houthis' conditions, most notably the payment of employees' salaries in their controlled areas.
A formal ceasefire
This ceasefire, spanning nearly a year and a half, marks the longest period of comprehensive cessation of hostilities in the Yemeni conflict, which now approaches its ninth year. Despite numerous international endeavors to reach a political resolution, none have succeeded due to the Houthi military escalation and their continued buildup of forces surrounding the city of Taiz, as well as in Ibb, Sanaa, and Marib.
On April 9, 2023, and for the first time since the beginning of the war, a joint Saudi-Omani delegation arrived in Sanaa to negotiate with the Houthi group and bring an end to the conflict in Yemen.
After four days of discussions and consultations, a plan was formulated to establish a renewed ceasefire lasting for six months. This ceasefire encompasses reopening major roads, removing all restrictions on Houthi-controlled airports and ports, including full access to Sanaa Airport. It also involves initiating direct peace talks between the warring factions, addressing disarmament, forming a new government and presidential council, and unifying the central bank, all within a two-year transitional period.
Furthermore, a prisoner exchange took place involving 900 prisoners from both the Houthi group and the legitimate government, facilitated by the mediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross as a gesture of goodwill.
However, the negotiations encountered obstacles, and the Houthis began to threaten military escalation in response to the refusal to implement their conditions, which were deemed unrealistic by the opposing side. These conditions included the payment of salaries for state employees, including Houthi soldiers and officers, based on the payrolls of the current year 2023, while the legitimate government insisted on using the payrolls from 2014. Additionally, the group demanded that it be responsible for salary disbursements, alongside the requirement to lift restrictions on various airports and ports under its control, with the revenues directed to its own benefit.
In August 2023, the Omani delegation conducted a new visit to Sanaa and, according to Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the head of the Houthi negotiating team, an agreement was reached to sustain the atmosphere of relative calm and maintain communication, as well as "consult with the Houthi leadership, assess the situation, and resume the negotiation process, with a primary focus on addressing humanitarian issues."
Political analysts have expressed doubts about the outcome of the Omani delegation's visit. They argue that the proposals presented by mediators, which the Houthi group considers lacking novelty and having been previously discussed, did not yield significant progress.
These proposals revolve around humanitarian matters and include extending the ceasefire for another six months, with the possibility of further extensions. In addition, the United Nations would facilitate dialogue between Yemenis concerning salary disputes, prisoners, road access, and the expansion of destinations at Sanaa Airport, while maintaining facilitations for the Hodeidah port.
Naif Haidan, a member of the Houthi-affiliated Shura Council in Sanaa, informed Raseef22 that "Saudi Arabia has reached a dead end and is fully convinced, after exhausting all military means, that it will not achieve its goals through military force. Saudi Arabia's true interest lies in extending a hand to Yemen, building trust for peaceful coexistence and neighborly relations."
Regarding the negotiations, Haidan mentioned that they aim to resolve various issues even if progress is slow. "In the end, military operations have ceased, and all that remains are attempts to twist arms through economic pressure, despite the full conviction of the necessity of ending the conflict and moving towards a lasting peace."
He also accused the other side – the legitimate government and Saudi Arabia – of complicating the salary issue and using it as a "card to mobilize public sentiment against the Houthi-led Salvation Government, and this tactic continues to be employed," according to him.
A lack of vision
Political analyst Dr. Fares Al-Beil does not see a real ceasefire in Yemen. He believes that the war is ongoing, with Yemenis continuing to suffer casualties. According to him, the Houthi group has not ceased military operations and maintains its military build-up.
He tells Raseef22, "Since the ceasefire was declared, major roads have not been reopened, commercial activities have not resumed, restrictions on movement have not been lifted, and salaries remain unpaid."
The Yemeni war is a conflict with regional dimensions, amidst Iran's desire for control in the region, and international players wishing to see the region embroiled in conflict, which confuses the international community and hinders concrete steps towards peace
Dr. Fares believes that the misunderstanding of the Yemeni conflict by the international community is a key factor undermining settlement efforts, as "many view it as a power struggle among parties and believe that the solution lies in power-sharing, which is a mistaken belief."
He explains, "The Yemeni war is a conflict with regional dimensions, framed within Iran's ambitions for control and influence in the region, along with the desire of many international parties to see the region embroiled in conflicts. This intricate scenario perplexes the international community and hinders it from taking real steps towards peace."
Regarding his view on the Saudi-Houthi negotiations, he believes that these efforts have faltered. Riyadh sought progress in these talks, due to an understanding with Iran, but faced what he called "insurmountable demands" from the Houthi side.
Yemeni reports deny the existence of a Saudi-Houthi agreement, characterizing the discussions that transpired between the two parties as preliminary consultations initiated by Saudi Arabia with the hope of reaching a broader agreement that would involve UN involvement. Allegedly, the Houthi group rejected this proposal in principle and made substantial financial demands from Saudi Arabia, on grounds of rebuilding what was destroyed by the war, alongside other conditions described as impractical, including the salaries file. This suggests an unwillingness to negotiate with the Yemeni legitimate government but a readiness to engage with Saudi Arabia.
Fares wonders: "Why are the Houthis negotiating with Saudi Arabia? To stop missile attacks and refrain from further hostilities? Ok then what about the problem of Yemeni legitimacy? Where does that go?"
A complex equation
Political writer Abdul Bari Taher does not foresee a near-term solution in Yemen. He cites several factors contributing to this outlook, including "the weakness of national governance, societal divisions in Yemen, the fragmentation of the country into separate and conflicting entities, and the most dangerous thing is the civil society’s dependence on the regional, and the regional’s dependence on the international.”
Nonetheless, in the broader context, according to Taher's perspective, Yemen is trapped in a state of limbo, between war and peace. He attributes this to the failure of the conflict to yield gains for any party while also eroding their capacity to continue the war. At the same time, there is no consensus on a political solution.
This leads to, as he describes it, "the absence of a functioning state, security, peace, and stability, along with the continuation of internal and external blockades, the non-payment of salaries, the failure to address living conditions for thirty million Yemenis, and the denial of access to education and healthcare, as well as their suspended security rights due to the persistent threat of a return to hostilities."
Regarding potential solutions, the restoration of the state, and reshaping Yemen's political landscape, Taher asserts that "the first imperative is the establishment of peace across the entirety of Yemen's territory, driven by the collective will of its people. This necessitates a comprehensive, national resolve and the dismantling of the pervasive climate of fear."
For his part, Maged al-Madhaji, the head of the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, characterizes the situation in Yemen as exceedingly complex. He tells Raseef22 that the negotiation equation between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is fundamentally flawed, with Houthi tactics of delay pitted against Saudi Arabia's determined push.
Al-Madhaji underscores that, within this context, the Houthi group has taken charge of a previously stagnant negotiation process. They are pushing forward to solidify their control over territory and secure gains. This development coincides with "Saudi Arabia's eagerness to appease and seek favor with the Houthi group. Regrettably, this particular dynamic adds significant complexity to the situation."
Regarding Saudi Arabia's attempts to engage with the Houthi group, he says it appears to be driven by its internal considerations, rather than a focus on the Yemenis themselves.
He elucidates, "The Kingdom is searching for a way out of the Yemeni war crisis, despite presenting itself as a mediator rather than a party to the conflict, and this approach has sidelined the legitimate Yemeni government and factions supportive of its cause. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia is engaged in a power struggle with the UAE for regional dominance."
A narrow deal
Some view the motivations of the Houthis as inscrutable, especially given their ongoing rejection of a negotiated settlement. Dr. Fares Al-Bayl suggests that the Houthis "view war as their natural environment, while peace eliminates the need for their presence."
According to him, a settlement occurs when conflicting parties are willing to make concessions, but "this doesn't hold true with the Houthi group. They lack a vision or decision-making capacity to determine their role in Yemen's political future, as they were a group that was created solely for war and has not developed political qualifications, or the Iranian regime doesn't want them as mere partners in the political future, or they want them to continue disrupting the state while exerting their control without facing the costs associated with it."
Political researcher and member of the Media and Culture Department in the Presidential Office, Dr. Thabet Al-Ahmadi, comments on the Saudi-Houthi negotiations to Raseef22, "In reality, whether the deal is narrow, as some describe it, or as broad as the Rub' al Khali Desert, historical, geographical, and political realities dictate that no warlike militia can be engaged in dialogue or negotiations. That's how militias are formed, how they come into being, and how they will remain. It's difficult to change their nature."
He accuses the Houthi group of being a "terrorist gang, on par with Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram", even deeming them more dangerous than all of these combined. The mentioned groups "adhere to a single militaristic approach and don't engage in dialogue or negotiation with others, posing a clear threat. Whereas the Houthis adopt contradictory dual strategies, perpetrating terrorism on the ground while simultaneously negotiating with politicians."
Al-Ahmadi sums up the future of Yemen, stating, "The war will not end because the Houthis sustain themselves through it. It's the very justification for their existence. Ceasefires and peace negotiations expose the truth to the people. Furthermore, the decision regarding war or peace doesn't rest with the Houthis; it's in the hands of Tehran. The Houthis are just one functional card of Iran's cards implanted in the Arab body."
He enumerates the hurdles impeding settlement efforts in Yemen, ranging from the Houthis' non-adherence to ceasefires, ongoing indiscriminate shelling, threats to maritime navigation, attacks on commercial ports, and even assaults on oil wells using drones and missiles. All this while "simultaneously demanding salaries. It's an equation that is not balanced and a logic that defies reason", he concludes sarcastically.