In June a long-awaited truce in Yemen was extended for another two months. But the Houthis’ reluctance to cooperate continues to pose an obstacle to the resolution of the war.
In April of this year, Yemen’s conflict saw a major breakthrough as the main warring parties agreed to a two-month truce and confidence-building measures such as the reopening of Sanaa airport to commercial flights and the delivery of much-needed fuel shipments into the port of al-Hudaydah. The truce, which was welcomed with cautious optimism given the many failures of previous efforts, was extended for another two months in early June. Until now, cross border attacks from the Saudis and the Houthis have ceased and the Norwegian Refugee Council reports that civilian conflict deaths were down by fifty percent in the first month of the truce.
The truce was accompanied by a significant development in Yemen’s internationally recognized government, whereby former president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi handed over power to an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, which includes prominent leaders of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). This decision is the latest attempt to unify anti-Houthi forces in the country and regain the government’s legitimacy. Although the ultimate success of the Council is unknown, this effort was widely praised as a positive step toward peace.
Despite these developments, there are indications that the current truce is unlikely to mark the end of Yemen’s war. Both sides are trading blame over violations of the agreement. On one side is the internationally-recognized government, supported by the Saudi-led Coalition, and on the other side is the Houthis—a rebel group originating in Yemen’s north that has held the capital since 2014 and receives support from Iran. The Houthis claim that the Coalition and “its mercenaries” committed 118 violations of the truce within a 24-hour period. At the same time, pro-government media reported on Houthi shelling of civilian areas in southern al-Hudaydah. Perhaps more important than these alleged violations, however, is the limited progress that has been made in talks with the Houthis to reopen main roads to Taiz.
Since 2016, the Houthis have besieged Taiz by cutting off road access to the city’s center — held by the internationally-recognized government — and thereby impeding the transportation of goods and fuel and limiting the movement of locals. This siege has had a dramatic and sometimes lethal effect on the lives of Taizis, and the continued road closure is now considered one of the main barriers to peace.
An agreement to reopen talks over road closures was one of the three confidence building measures that were incorporated into the ongoing truce, with the other two being largely fulfilled when Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Riyadh agreed to allow commercial flights in and out of Sanaa and resumed fuel shipments to Houthi-held ports.
Earlier this month, Houthi and Iranian media praised the Houthis for their imminent reopening of secondary roads around Taiz. Indeed, talks are ongoing on this issue. However, three months into the truce and Taiz’s main road remains closed. The Houthis’ adversaries now accuse them of negotiating in bad faith. Thus, a common pattern in Yemen’s seven-year war emerges once again: a peace agreement that requires a commitment on the part of the Houthis cannot be fully achieved because there is no mechanism in place to pressure the Houthis into making concessions.
Some Houthi opponents argue that the only way to correct this imbalance is to pursue the military option against the group, thereby weakening the Houthis to the point that they would be forced to negotiate. However, years of intervention, bombardment, and siege by regional militaries receiving Western support has failed to defeat the Houthis and, as many argue, has likely empowered the group and driven them closer to Iran.
An understanding that the Houthis are basically unwilling to make concessions should not be read as a call for an end of the truce and a return to warfare, but rather an acknowledgement of something that has been true for a long time: the Houthis have solidified their control over northern Yemen and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Simply put, the Houthis do not make genuine concessions because they do not have to. There are few consequences that their leadership faces for scoffing at demands issues by their rivals or the international community.
This dynamic puts governments and international bodies in a difficult situation in Yemen. For example, reopening Sanaa Airport for commercial flights and allowing in fuel imports were both Houthi demands met by their opponents. These were also profoundly urgent steps for Yemeni civilians who have been unable to travel outside of the country and are in desperate need of fuel. Using these two Houthi demands as leverage against the group would only have hurt average citizens, exacerbating Yemen’s already catastrophic humanitarian situation.
Just as in previous negotiations, there is the possibility that the Houthis will surprise everyone and sacrifice their own interests for the chance at lasting peace by reopening Taiz’s main road. The past few years, however, indicate that this is unlikely. In the meantime, we may need to start accepting the fact that when only one side of a conflict makes concessions and the other side makes demands, it’s not a truce — it’s surrender.
Hannah Porter is an analyst at DT Global, an international development firm. She focuses on Yemen and countering disinformation and wrote her MA thesis on Houthi propaganda.
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