The UN should move swiftly on Hodeidah to avert disaster
The handshake was the most visible result of the talks in Sweden on Yemen. To see Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani and the Houthi representative shake hands was encouraging. It is the first time that the two sides had met face to face since talks in Kuwait in 2016. Even if we disagree on the significance of the outcome of the Sweden talks, it was certainly encouraging to see the parties engaging.
There were some tangibles from the week-long talks that concluded last week. About 15,000 prisoners and their families may soon be united. The agreement to free the prisoners is skewed in favor of the Houthis, because they would be getting back thousands of their fighting forces who are in government hands now and could be deployed again to fight.
The majority of those to be freed by the Houthis are civilians who may not have a direct impact on the fighting capabilities of the government side. Nevertheless, Yemen will feel the positive effects of this humanitarian gesture of thousands of families uniting for the first time in months and years.
The agreement on Hodeidah is very significant as well. The proposal to have a UN peacekeeping and administrative role in running the ports there has been around for some time, but now we have indications that the international community is ready to support such a role.
It is important that the UN role is given enough support from the Security Council in terms of the mandate and resources to ensure that the ports are used solely for civilian purposes and not as conduits for arms smuggling and profiteering. The UN should ensure that proceeds from running the ports are used to fund humanitarian activities and pay civil servants’ salaries.
There were failures as well. The parties failed to reach agreement on Taiz, a heavily populated city that has been besieged by the Houthis for years. They also could not make progress on the general framework for peace and other important issues. The good thing is that they all agreed to continue discussions in the near future, but that all hinges on the progress that the UN and the parties can make to implement what was agreed in Sweden.
Against these encouraging signs, there have been some disturbing developments. Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the leader of the Houthi delegation, and his lieutenant have both published their own slanted understandings of the outcome of the Sweden talks, especially regarding Hodeidah.
They disagree with what the UN sought to convey about the agreement. It is not clear whether these Houthi statements about the talks are intended for consumption by their supporters, or whether they represent their genuine positions.
According to Abdel-Salam, the first phase should be withdrawal of the “invading forces” from Hodeidah’s city outskirts. The second phase would be “suspending military activity from all sides.” He reiterated that the agreement means “withdrawal of the invaders” from the whole southern part of the “province” of Hodeidah, not just the city or ports.
The majority of those to be freed by the Houthis are civilians who may not have a direct impact on the fighting capabilities of the government side.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
This is significant because the province covers vast territories that have been under government control for months, long before the recent military moves in the ports and city. Abdel-Salam agrees that his own forces should stop their military activities, but not withdraw or redeploy.
Abdel-Malak Al-Ajri, another member of the Houthi delegation, was more strident. In a detailed statement he published in an official Houthi publication, he dismissed the “rumor” of leaving the ports as a propaganda ploy by the other side. He stressed that the agreement does not include leaving the ports, but only “withdrawal by the aggression militias and mercenaries from the city outskirts.”
According to him, Houthi forces would only redeploy to the position they held in the city and ports during Ramadan (June-July 2018), meaning full control of them. Al-Ajri said nothing has changed in the security arrangements or control of Hodeidah, only an isolated facilitation of the humanitarian situation.
Houthi actions on the ground are consistent with these interpretations and more ominous. Houthi forces have been re-entrenching their positions in the city and ports, and not showing any signs that they would be ready to withdraw or redeploy.
It spells disaster for Yemen if these Houthi statements represent their operational understanding of the solution to Hodeidah. The UN should work to disabuse the Houthis of these notions by swiftly moving to establish a peacekeeping, peacebuilding presence in Hodeidah. The sooner that is done, the sooner the UN can start to defuse the standoff around Hodeidah.
If the UN mandate and resources are robust enough to make a difference in there, the formula could be used as a template for other areas should the parties agree. But if the UN fails in Hodeidah, its future in resolving the Yemen conflict may be doomed.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1