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Yemen: Growing Uncertainty after the Ceasefire

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 10, 2022

    The UN-mediated ceasefire between the government and the Houthis in Yemen that began in April this year ended on 2 October as both sides could not agree to extend it further. The announcement of the ceasefire was intended to halt all military attacks, facilitate movement of fuel ships to Hodeida port, commercial flight operations at Sanaa airport, and help in opening of roads in different parts of the country blocked because of the war. The ceasefire was also expected to start a political process to end the war.1 Throughout the period of the truce, both sides have accused the other of violating the ceasefire and attempting to take advantage of the situation.

    The UN used the period of truce to further step up negotiations and find a sustainable and long-term future roadmap for peace and stability in the country. It made serious efforts to bring both parties together and assisted in negotiations on their demands. The UN hoped to push for further negotiations during the ceasefire period and extend it further to achieve consensus between the parties. While the six months of continuous ceasefire in the middle of the civil war in Yemen is quite an achievement, it has ended in a much-expected deadlock with continuing uncertainty.  

    There have been some credible achievements made in the country during the six months of the ceasefire. The truce brought the cross-border attacks to a halt. Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the coalition airstrikes on the Houthis stopped, to a large extent. Civilian casualties dropped by around 60 per cent, flight operations continued from Sanaa and Aden airports and the import of fuel through the Hodeida port increased to cater to the worsening fuel crisis in the country.2 The ceasefire facilitated the distribution of humanitarian aid in the country. On the political front, it created an atmosphere of hope for a renewed dialogue between the two sides.

    During negotiations to extend it, trouble arose over the issue of the payment of salaries of government employees. The Houthis demanded that the government pay salaries of all the government employees as a pre-condition for the extension of the truce.3 While the government was willing to pay the salaries of its employees recruited before the Houthis captured Sanaa in 2014, it was hesitant to recognise thousands of people hired by the Houthis who worked for them in the new government.4 The UN, though surprised by the additional demand made by the Houthis regarding payment of salaries to all government employees, remains hopeful of bringing both parties to the negotiating table again.

    Before the ceasefire agreement, several rounds of talks were held between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad mediated by Iraq. Yemen was a key point of discussion between the two countries where the objective was to find a way out of the present conflict. The Saudi–Iran talks were a key driver for agreeing to a ceasefire as both these countries are important regional players in Yemen and have huge stakes in the conflict. Failure to extend the ceasefire is an indication of the fact that the Saudi-Iranian talks have not made much progress in recent months. The Saudi-Iranian talks were expected to be one of the most credible political means to bring peace and stability to Yemen. Yemen, thus, now faces an uncertain situation as there are fears of an escalation of violence.

    The unfolding of events during the last six months of the ceasefire reiterates the fact that there is a severe lack of trust between the Yemeni government and the Houthis. Even though it agreed to a ceasefire, the Yemeni government cannot fundamentally accept the Houthis as a major player and cede any political space to them. The Houthis capturing the capital Sanaa and other parts of the country by force and negotiating with the government from a vantage point and demanding their share of power in all political negotiations is a difficult proposition for the government to accept.

    On the other hand, the Houthis are sceptical of any political move or negotiation that may weaken their current position, both politically and militarily. They also do not want to lose any popular support they have built up in the last eight years. The UN with support from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan tried to bridge that gap by implementing the ceasefire to reach an acceptable way out of the current situation. But the non-renewal of the ceasefire now threatens instability.

    The situation in the country since the end of the ceasefire remains tense. There has not been any substantial escalation in violence and armed clashes during the month of October, but in a major attack, the Houthis targeted the Al Dhabba oil port in Hadramout in the south of the country on 21 October with drones. The Yemeni government stated that the attack on the oil terminal is a terrorist act and designated the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. The Houthi attack on the oil terminal only adds to the further deterioration of the situation and threatens to reverse whatever little achievements were made during the ceasefire. There is growing uncertainty over the next steps of the government and the Houthis as they assess their future strategies. The ceasefire was a golden opportunity for Yemen to permanently end violence and expedite a political process for long-term peace and stability in the country. It was also proving beneficial for the economic and humanitarian situation in the country. The end of the ceasefire without any substantial political understanding between the government and the Houthis heightens the risk of escalation of violence and a return to the period of uncertainty that existed before the ceasefire.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.