The latest danger to stability in war-torn Yemen came at the close of last week, when the Yemeni government issued a claim that Houthi rebels have not fully kept the terms of a recent UN peace deal. On 29 December, Yemeni officials denied reports that Houthi forces had withdrawn from the strategic port of Hodeidah, a central provision of the ceasefire brokered between the warring factions.
The government’s official media outlet, Saba News Agency, quoted an unnamed source as saying that the Houthis’ statement about their redeployment in the port of Hodeidah is a “clear attempt to circumvent” the recent agreement on the city. The Saba report ended with the threat that the alleged violations by the Houthi’s will lead to “failure [of] the agreement” and “cannot be accepted.”
Hodeidah has been a central point of contention throughout the Yemen Civil War. While most fighting has centered around the capital of Sanaah, Hodeidah, being the country’s largest port city, has unique strategic importance. Hodeidah was the target of a bold plan by the Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government to achieve a decisive victory over the Houthis. Of course this scheme also involved tremendous risk. The city is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis who have been on the verge of starvation for the better part of three years. The Arab coalition pledged a swift operation that would minimize casualties from the local population and avoid disruption of the port. But months after the campaign began, the Saudi-led coalition still hadn’t managed to achieve complete victory. Hodeidah became yet another point of crisis in a country already in shambles.
On 13 December, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced both sides had agreed to an immediate ceasefire in Hodeidah, following a week of peace talks in Sweden. The deal gave both parties twenty-one days to fully withdraw their troops. The agreement was more than just good news for the port city. The ceasefire was in essence a prelude to negotiations for a long-term political framework in Yemen scheduled for late January. In other words: The success of the Hodeidah plan would determine the future for the entire country.
A Cautious Optimism
Last week, reports began to come in of the Houthis abandoning their posts in Hodeidah under UN oversight. Things looked promising. But years of rivalry between the Houthis and Yemen authorities are not easily undone.
Almost immediately, both sides began to accuse each other of violating the terms of the deal. In an interview with the Beirut-based Al Masirah network, General Yahya Sariyah, the spokesman for the committee of Houthi-aligned militias accused the Saudi-led coalition of violating the ceasefire numerous times since its start on 13 December. Sariyah went so far as to accuse the Saudis of transferring al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists from Syria to use them as their proxies.
The recent report on Saba News was the Yemeni government’s turn is to “retaliate” and claim that the Houthis, not the coalition, are in fact the disingenuous ones.
Despite the current upset, it’s worth looking at Yemen’s situation within the context of the last three years. The UN’s peace deal is certainly the most progress Yemen has seen since the civil war began. The bad blood between Houthis and the government will not immediately disappear. But it may have waned enough to set the course for long-term stability.