After more than seven years of war and humanitarian crisis, there is a small glimmer of hope for peace in Yemen. For the first time since 2016, a United Nations-mediated truce has been extended from two to six months, and has largely held. The warring parties agreed to halt offensive operations, allow commercial flights into Sana’a, and permit fuel ships to enter the port of Hodeidah. They are also discussing opening roads into the besieged city of Taiz and, crucially, further steps to end the conflict.
Achieving a comprehensive settlement, however, remains a challenge. The continued siege of Taiz and recent fighting among nominally allied forces illustrate some of the difficulties that diplomats will face. To help transform the current ceasefire into a lasting peace, the U.N. and U.S. Special Envoys to Yemen should first continue to press for a truce extension. They should also keep public pressure on the Houthis to end ceasefire violations and continue trying to lift restrictions on travel both within the country and with the outside world.
What Has the Truce Accomplished?
The truce already represents a significant achievement: In its first two months after the ceasefire was signed, fatalities fell by 85 percent, to 400 compared with about 2,600 in the previous two months (many of the continued casualties were due to landmines rather than active combat). The U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen reported that the first week of August saw the lowest number of civilian casualties since the war began. In addition to saving thousands of lives, the truce has led to more mobility within the country, as many people feel more comfortable going to work and allowing their children outside to play.
The truce has also contributed to a de-escalation in regional tensions: Cross-border attacks, including both Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen and Houthi missile and drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, have halted. The truce has also brought some much-needed humanitarian relief to Yemen. The first commercial flight since the start of the war landed at Sana’a Airport in May. Since then, at least 34 round-trip flights with more than 15,000 passengers travelled between Jordan and Sana’a. In August, there were three round-trip commercial flights each week. Additionally, 33 ships have been cleared to enter Hodeidah port, bringing in close to one million metric tons of fuel products. Nevertheless, fuel and food prices are still high for most Yemenis. They face rising global prices, low currency reserves that make it difficult to finance imports, double taxation on many commodities by forces on both sides, inflation, and unpaid public sector salaries, among other factors.
Finally, the truce has opened space for broader conversations among Yemenis themselves. The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies hosted a forum in Stockholm in June, for example, that brought together Yemeni political leaders and civil society to discuss a range of issues from security-sector and economic reform to incorporating women in future negotiations. Such conversations are vital if Yemenis are to negotiate a lasting peace.
The Truce Is Still Tenuous
Despite these accomplishments, the truce is not guaranteed to last. Violations have continued, such as a July 24 Houthi shell in Taiz that killed one child and injured eleven others. Indeed, data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project’s Yemen Truce Monitor shows that the Houthis are responsible for about 93 percent of all truce violation events through August 12 (1,883 out of 2,011), in addition to another attack in Taiz on 28 August. Houthi forces have also refused to open the roads to Taiz. The U.N. Special Envoy has presented several proposals to address this: One such proposal in July was accepted by the internationally recognized government but rejected by the Houthis. In the meantime, the people of Taiz will continue to suffer the humanitarian consequences. Furthermore, only one commercial flight from Sana’a has landed in Cairo, after which Egyptian security concerns closed the route.
In this context, diplomats have struggled to get the conflicting parties to move towards more comprehensive peace negotiations. The U.N. Special Envoy, Hans Grundberg, had hoped to extend the truce for six months instead of two in early August to create more time for such talks. Instead, negotiations for a simple two-month extension came down to the wire. And although Grundberg had proposed an expanded truce with provisions like additional commercial flight destinations, the truce was renewed in its leaner, existing form.
The truce is an agreement between the internationally recognized government and Saudi Arabia on one side and the Houthis on the other. But the war in Yemen is far more complicated than a two-sided conflict. Recent fighting in Shabwa between forces associated with the Islah party and the United Arab Emirates-backed Giants Brigades and Shabwa Defense Forces has once again exposed tensions among groups that are nominally aligned with the internationally recognized government. It has also put pressure on the newly formed Presidential Leadership Council, an eight-man body that represents several factions of the anti-Houthi coalition. This latest round of fighting demonstrates a longstanding problem: Even a permanent agreement between the internationally recognized government and the Houthis will not be enough to end the violence in Yemen, let alone “stitch Yemen back together.”
What Can the International Community Do?
Diplomats got straight back to work after the August 2 announcement of the latest truce extension. In his most recent briefing to the U.N. Security Council last week, Grundberg laid out a plan for an expanded truce. The proposal includes a mechanism for regular payment of civil service salaries, the opening of Taiz’s roads, an expanded itinerary of flights, and “the regular flow of fuel” through Hodeidah. The expanded truce would also create forums to address economic and humanitarian issues and begin a political transition process. Both parties have reviewed these terms, and while they have not yet reached agreement, Grundberg cautiously concluded that “a zone of potential agreement was discernible.”
One key problem is that the United States and international community have little leverage over the Houthis to ensure that they stay active in negotiations. Yet this is not insurmountable. For one thing, the truce has created a momentum of its own. The truce has now become the norm, and both parties are likely to suffer repercussions if they step away. In this light, it is encouraging that the Houthis ultimately agreed to the most recent truce extension even after aggressively signaling that they would not.
The U.N. Special Envoy can continue to play a critical role in smoothing out disputes over implementation, which have been the downfall of past Yemen ceasefires. For example, commercial flights did not begin until about six weeks after the truce was signed due to disagreements between the parties over whether passengers would be able to fly on Houthi-issued passports. The Special Envoy was able to get both parties back on the same page via further shuttle diplomacy. The U.N. role as a trusted arbiter allows the envoy to continue serving the behind-the-scenes but vital role of ensuring that the truce’s terms are implemented, thereby building trust among the parties.
Some on the internationally recognized government’s side worry that they have already made too many concessions, and that the Houthis are simply using the truce period to regroup and redeploy. Their concern is that the international community will simply ink a deal and walk away from Yemen altogether, allowing the Houthis to become the de facto authority. Here, the United States does have more leverage, and it can offer both pressure and assurance to keep the Presidential Leadership Council engaged in truce negotiations. U.S. statements about the humanitarian situation in Taiz, for example, can both pressure the Houthis to open roads and assure the internationally recognized government that their concerns have not fallen off the agenda. Continued diplomatic engagement can help to build confidence on both sides that the international community will stick around to ensure that the terms of the truce are actually implemented.
The U.S. Special Envoy’s Office, which is backing the U.N.-led process, and the U.N. Special Envoy have their work cut out for them. Ending a war will be a slow, painstaking process that requires a long-term investment in diplomacy. And even if the truce holds, the war in Yemen will not be over. A deeply fragmented state will have to be repaired or reimagined. Political negotiations will need to be expanded to bring in the voices of Yemeni women and civil society. The United States and the international community should resist the urge to pivot away from Yemen to the next international crisis. Rather, the United States should remain engaged over the long term and continue to support a process that is led by Yemenis themselves. As Grundberg said in his briefing for the U.N. Security Council this week, “We need to end the conflict, not merely manage it.” Embracing the envoy’s proposal for an expanded truce extension by October 2, when the latest extension expires, would be a good start.
Alexandra Stark is a senior researcher at New America and holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. She is currently writing a book manuscript, Forgotten Wars: What intervention in Yemen’s civil war tells us about Middle East politics and the failures of U.S. policy.
Photo by OCHA/Philippe Kropf