As pressure grows for a ceasefire in Yemen it seems likely that there will be some form of de-escalation soon, if not a full-fledged ceasefire. Indeed, a modest de-escalation has already been affected as demonstrated by the Ansarullah movement’s (aka the Houthis) decision to stop missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Calls for a ceasefire have increased in recent weeks, in part due to the repercussions of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The United Kingdom has taken the lead on this by submitting a draft proposal for a limited ceasefire to the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt raised the issue on his visit to Iran where he tried to elicit Tehran’s support for the UK’s plans.
Meanwhile, on the ground, fierce fighting is continuing in the key port of Hudaydah as the Saudi-Emirati coalition tries to make maximum gains ahead of a possible limited ceasefire centred on Hudaydah and surrounding areas.
However, a cessation of hostilities without a clear roadmap for a lasting political solution is likely to make matters worse in the long run. Yemen is riven with deep divisions at every level, some of which, notably the quest by southern secessionists for independence, threaten the very integrity of the Yemeni state.
Currently, the country’s deep political divisions are masked by the intensity of the fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-UAE coalition. Once that fighting stops, other divisions will likely come to the fore, leading to the de facto partition of Yemen.
Can a ceasefire hold?
The latest news on the diplomatic aspects of the Yemen conflict suggests that even a limited ceasefire is not guaranteed at this point. The Trump administration has reportedly “slammed on the brakes” on a British-sponsored draft resolution, apparently for fear of isolating the Saudi leadership.
It is also important to note that the British diplomatic initiative is exclusively focussed on securing a ceasefire at the port of Hudaydah where the fiercest fighting is concentrated. But the conflict between the Houthis and their allies on the one hand and the Saudi-UAE supported Aden-based government on the other, rages on many fronts, albeit intermittently.
In July forces loosely aligned to the Aden-based government made a lightning advance on Hajjah province in the north before they were beaten back by the Houthis. At around the same time in the summer Aden-based government-aligned forces made a push into the eastern part Saada province (the heartland of the Houthis), with full Saudi air cover, but despite the repeated air strikes that offensive also stalled.
The failure of the Saudi-directed offensives in Hajjah and Saada during the summer reflect two overriding facts. First, the Saudi-led coalition is reliant on poorly trained and often poorly motivated tribal fighters in the field. Whilst these forces fought well in Aden back in 2015 and performed similarly well in Taiz where they managed to contain a Houthi-led siege, their performance further afield has been poor.
Second, Saudi-directed offensives close to the Houthi heartlands in the north are as much about distraction than of a genuine military push into these areas. The Houthis have taken the fight deep inside Saudi Arabia’s Asir region as early as 2016 and continue to fire ballistic missiles at targets deep inside Asir and the neighbouring Jizan region. The latest reported missile strikes on targets in Asir and Jizan occurred yesterday, despite earlier Houthi assurances to discontinue missile attacks in preparation for a limited ceasefire.
By appearing to harass the Houthis in their northern strongholds the Saudis hope to distract attention away from the fact that the Ansarullah movement has demonstrated military sophistication and political resolve by taking the fight deep inside Saudi Arabia.
The complexity of the Yemeni battlefields – coupled with the fact that the Ansarullah movement has gained a tenuous foothold inside Saudi Arabia – calls into question the longevity of any “limited” ceasefire.
Ceasefire talks are set to start in the Swedish capital Stockholm next week and it remains to be seen if Saudi Arabia guarantees safe passage to a Houthi delegation travelling from Sana’a. Back in September ceasefire talks in Geneva were abandoned because guarantees of safe passage had not been made to the Houthi delegation.
Illusion of peace
Assuming the talks in Stockholm take place as scheduled in early December and assuming further that a “limited” ceasefire centred on Hudaydah is secured, based on the current military, political and strategic configurations a wider peace is still firmly beyond reach.
For a start, the Saudis will find it hard to cease air strikes indefinitely, especially when presented with opportunities to target the Houthi leadership, similar to the air strike back in April which targeted the Sana’a based interior ministry reportedly killing two Houthi leaders.
Then there is the issue of the political and military divergence at the heart of the anti-Houthi coalition. The Saudis and Emiratis appear to be fighting separate campaigns in Yemen, backing competing groups and scrambling to consolidate their respective positions in Aden.
Tensions came to the fore in January when Saudi-backed forces nominally aligned to the fledgling government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi clashed with fighters loyal to the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council which is clamouring for secession.
In their drive to shape Yemeni politics to suit their respective strategic postures, the Saudis and Emiratis have intervened in local politics to the point of dangerously intensifying underlying fissures and centrifugal forces. For example, the Saudis appear to tolerate hardline Salafi factions and even jihadist groups, notably Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, both of which have been central to Saudi efforts at containing the Houthi siege of the south-western city of Taiz.
Meanwhile, the UAE reportedly commissioned American and Israeli mercenaries to kill the leaders of Al-Islah, the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequent attempts by the UAE to reach out to Al-Islah, including a meeting in Abu Dhabi between UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed and Al-Islah leaders, reflects the UAE’s weak position ahead of ceasefire talks in Sweden. At a deeper level, it betrays the Emirate’s volatile and in the long run untenable position in Yemen.
In view of this confusing picture, the Saudis and Emiratis may well sabotage any limited ceasefire flowing out of the talks in Sweden for fear of expediting their collapsing positions in Yemen. The inherently fragile Yemeni coalition that is ranged against the cohesive Ansarullah movement is likely to implode once fighting against the Houthis stops.
At that point, a vicious civil war could break out in the south. Yemen it seems may not survive the proposed ceasefire.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.