In December 2018, representatives of Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the rebel Huthi movement did something unexpected: they agreed on something. At UN-mediated talks in Sweden, the two parties announced what is now known as the Stockholm Agreement.
You can read our analysis of the agreement here, but its key components were a prisoner swap, an agreement for mutual redeployments from Hodeida – the port, the city and environs – and a commitment to discuss de-escalation at another front-line city, Taiz. The Hodeida agreement in particular was vital. A battle around this Red Sea port threatened to cut off a trade route that accounts for 70 per cent of key goods shipped into Yemen, thereby pushing the country into famine.
A month on, the momentum behind the Stockholm Agreement is flagging as the rivals exchange mutual recriminations and the UN struggles to get them to follow through on their pledges to redeploy from Hodeida. With the deadline for redeployments now past – they were scheduled for completion by 8 January – speculation is mounting that the deal may be on the verge of collapse.
The Stockholm Agreement is imperfect and imprecise, but it was hard-won. If it is allowed to break down, there will be no opportunity for a similar deal for a long time. Here are five steps the UN, and the wider international community, should urgently take to safeguard the accord and move its provisions forward.
1. Prevent a Collapse
The Yemeni government claims that the Huthis have violated a ceasefire announced on 18 December hundreds of times. The Huthis have made similar claims about their adversaries. In a note to the UN Security Council based on reporting from Patrick Cammaert (the retired Dutch marine who, on the UN’s behalf, is leading negotiations on redeployments and assessing the situation in Hodeida in preparation for a monitoring mission), Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out that despite exchanges of fire, neither side had attempted to make new territorial gains.
Given the nature of the forces of the ground, and the fact that the Stockholm Agreement does not include any definition of the ceasefire, little more can be expected for the time being. More worrying are the ongoing provocations of the Huthis in particular, and the rapidly escalating war of words among the Huthis, the government, the Saudi-led coalition and their various media proxies.
On 29 December, after an abortive UN attempt to get the parties to temporarily reopen the Sanaa-Hodeida road as part of a confidence-building measure, the Huthis unilaterally announced their redeployment from Red Sea ports, reportedly refusing to allow a UN convoy to leave the city via the Sanaa road. It was a disingenuous announcement. As many observers noted, the group appeared to simply hand out uniforms to their supporters at the port and claim that they were autonomous local security forces, asking the UN to verify a “redeployment” of forces. Cammaert refused to oblige.
The Huthis then boycotted an 8 January meeting of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, the body chaired by Cammaert and tasked with agreeing on how to manage force redeployments from in and around Hodeida. They cited security concerns, arguing that the meeting would have taken place in territory controlled by their adversaries. The Yemeni government argued that the claim was spurious, given that their representatives had crossed the front lines to meet the Huthis in territory they controlled on two previous occasions. Cammaert subsequently met with the Yemeni government and the Huthis at separate locations.
Confidence declined further after a series of Huthi attacks on high-profile targets far from Hodeida, including a United Arab Emirates (UAE) base in Mokha (hit by a Huthi missile), a Yemeni government-run military facility in Lahj governorate and sites inside Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Saudi-led coalition has ratcheted up its rhetoric in what many believe is preparation for a return to hostilities. It is also allegedly bulking up its forces at key positions on the Red Sea coast, including Mokha. While not all these actions are violations of the ceasefire agreement (in many cases, the Huthi attacks occurred outside its geographic scope), they are highly provocative.
The UN and the wider international community should press each side to immediately halt moves that seem designed to provoke the other to walk away from the agreement. They also need to start implementing the accord, which will require securing greater cooperation from the Huthis first and foremost (more on how to do this below).
2. Sort Out the Ceasefire’s Terms and Enforce It
After the Sweden talks, the UN was forced to hastily organise a truce in Hodeida governorate that started on 18 December. But the parties did not agree to ground rules. Unlike most ceasefire agreements, this one did not include technical details on the scope, nature or duration of the halt to hostilities; definition of breaches; or mechanisms for quickly stopping fighting if it breaks out anew. Failure to achieve such an agreement – in all likelihood due to the urgency of getting a deal – has had damaging consequences. Compounding the problem, the UN has yet to deploy a full-scale monitoring team – which will require Security Council approval – leaving the ceasefire’s fate vulnerable to the war of narratives that plagued attempts at building a peace process in the first place.
So far, the UN has argued that the post-Stockholm gunfire and shelling are relatively minor breaches, and that neither side has attempted to take new ground, which would be a grave infraction. But the government has accused the Huthis of erecting barricades across Hodeida while the rebels have alleged that coalition troop build-ups are occurring around the city and further down the Red Sea coast. Both claims, which would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Stockholm Agreement, appear credible.
The UN deployed a team in December to assess the situation in Hodeida, monitor it as best possible and start talks between rival commanders over redeployments. But to date the team has been unable to adjudicate the ceasefire or gauge the level of adherence to the deal. Doing so will require a clear set of rules governing the ceasefire, along with detailed knowledge of troop positions and a skilled technical team able to assess alleged violations. The Redeployment Coordination Committee, which is comprised of an equal number of Huthi and Yemeni government military representatives, can lay out the ground rules. The UN team will also need freedom of movement around Hodeida, something they have yet to achieve due to objections from the Huthis, who again cite security concerns.
Another core component of this process will be setting up a full monitoring mission. In December, the Security Council permitted the deployment of the initial assessment team and Guterres subsequently sent its members a proposal for the full mission, to be composed of up to 75 people. A vote on a resolution approving his request is expected before 18 January. The UN will then need to hire monitors, deploy them to the field and work out how best to assess ceasefire compliance.
Finally, once all the preceding has happened, the UN will need to decide how to ensure accountability. Cammaert, who combines the roles of military coordinator, planner and monitor, reports to the secretary-general weekly. Once rules are established and a monitoring mission is in place, he will be much better positioned to provide a fair assessment of what is happening on the ground. His regular reports will make it easier to publicly hold the parties to account.
3. Achieve a Detailed Agreement on Redeployments
The Huthis maintain that they have moved their main fighting forces out of Hodeida, Ras Issa and Salif ports. This claim, however, is based on their interpretation of the Stockholm Agreement, which differs sharply from the Yemeni government’s and the coalition’s. The Stockholm Agreement left vague the question of which “local forces” should control the ports after a redeployment, and the redeployment committee has yet to agree on what constitutes a redeployment, who should secure the facilities and how to verify that a handover has taken place. In essence, these loopholes left the Huthis free to hand over the ports to themselves.
Reaching an understanding on these matters is an urgent task. It would be a huge step forward, demonstrating the parties’ ability and willingness, even if grudging, to keep their word. It would also be a big win for the UN’s credibility as a mediator. Failure to do so would have the opposite effect.
Getting there is likely to involve both a technical component, led by Cammaert, and a political aspect led by Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy who brokered the Stockholm Agreement. Griffiths has sustained a punishing travel schedule as he meets with senior Huthi leaders, Yemeni government officials and coalition officials, extracting renewed commitments to the process. The UN also needs to redraw the timelines for redeployments agreed upon in Sweden, which were set at 21 days from the announcement of the ceasefire, meaning that the deadline passed on 8 January. Even before considering the animosity between the parties, this timeframe was unrealistic from a purely logistical point of view. It will likely be up to Griffiths to get the Huthis and the government to agree to a schedule that acknowledges the urgency of the task at hand, but gives Cammaert a decent amount of time to carry it out. To regain lost momentum, the focus for now should be on getting an agreement about genuine Huthi redeployments from the ports and putting it into practice.
4. Crack the Huthi Nut
In the run-up to the Sweden talks, the international community’s biggest challenge was getting the Yemeni government to agree to a deal on Hodeida, with the endorsement of Saudi Arabia, the government’s main foreign sponsor, and the UAE, the Red Sea coast campaign’s effective commander. In the end, it was reportedly a last-gasp phone call from James Mattis, then-US defense secretary, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that pushed the deal over the line. We now know that the U.S. can exert pressure and that it can work. But future pressure seems less likely now that Mattis is gone and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who sees Yemen largely through the lens of countering Iran, is likely to take the lead on Yemen policy.
Both sides are likely to attempt to spoil the agreement. At this stage, however, the Huthis are the principal obstacle to progress. By the Stockholm Agreement’s terms, the Huthis have to make the first move by redeploying forces from the three major Red Sea ports; then, both sides have to make a series of mutual redeployments from critical humanitarian infrastructure and eventually from the entire city to yet-to-be-designated positions, effectively demilitarising the entire Red Sea trade corridor.
For sceptical Yemenis, there are echoes of September 2014 events in how the Huthis have dealt with the Stockholm Agreement. At that time, the Huthis had just overrun the capital, Sanaa, and other northern governorates. They signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, which called for their forces’ phased withdrawal back to their mountain strongholds. But after signing the deal, the Huthis ignored the pullout requirement, arguing that the men at checkpoints on the streets were not their fighters but supportive citizens from autonomous “popular committees”. By the following January the rebels had placed Yemen’s transitional president, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, under house arrest as their slow-rolling coup tipped an already divided country into civil strife.
A similar outcome must be avoided at all costs, again raising the question of what tools diplomats have at their disposal to extract concessions from the Huthis. The coalition argues, with some justification, that the Huthis relented in Sweden only because they were under military pressure around Hodeida. But turning up that pressure – a coalition invasion of the port and city – would come at an inordinate human cost.
There are other means of pressing the Huthis. An honest, public accounting of what is happening in Hodeida would be a good start. Cammaert is widely viewed as principled and highly capable, and his reporting to the UN secretary-general on redeployment negotiations and the monitoring mission will help cut through the media noise from the rival camps. Such an accounting would put more pressure on the Huthis to comply with their commitments, as they would run the risk of seeing significant parts of international public opinion – which they have tried to use as a tool throughout the war – turn against them.
As Crisis Group has noted before, the EU and Oman have good contacts with the Huthis, and Iran has repeatedly offered to play a mediating role in Yemen. Now would be a good moment for Tehran to prove its willingness and ability to convince the Huthis to engage constructively on Hodeida, first and foremost by allowing Cammaert’s team freedom of movement in the territory they hold and by encouraging quick, meaningful and verifiable redeployment from the three ports. Brussels and Muscat can also help by engaging with the Huthis in Sanaa and abroad, pressing the case for redeployments, and making clear that their patience is wearing thin. In his most recent trip to Sanaa, Griffiths pushed Abdel-Malek al-Huthi, the rebel leader, to reiterate his commitment to the agreement, including redeployment. While Cammaert hashes out technical details, such continued high-level pressure on Huthi, government and coalition officials to stick to their commitments will be important.
5. Maintain International Focus and Consensus
The Stockholm Agreement was the result of a confluence of events. These include the global outcry over the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October, triggering U.S. Congressional action on Yemen, and the looming threat of all-out famine. Even then, what came out of Sweden had many flaws.
Yet the process initiated in Sweden prevented a bloodbath in Hodeida and, for now, the onset of widespread starvation – though the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is already the world’s worst. If the Stockholm Agreement can be implemented fully and the envoy’s office can make progress on swapping prisoners and ending the battle for Taiz, the conflict will essentially freeze in place and the UN’s credibility as a mediator will grow considerably.
Now may be the UN’s last shot at building momentum behind a peace process for some time to come. Mattis’s exit at the end of December removed one of the few U.S. policymakers with a nuanced view of the Yemen war, and perhaps the only Trump administration official who enjoyed both trust in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and effective leverage over the Gulf monarchies. If the Stockholm Agreement collapses, Mattis’s absence is likely to be keenly felt if and when the parties return to the table.
Making the most of the Stockholm Agreement will require international consensus around the process, particularly at the UN Security Council, which almost certainly will have to authorise repeated expansions of the UN’s mandate in Yemen. To succeed, the Security Council members will need to avoid the terse, drawn-out negotiations between the UK and the U.S. over humanitarian issues and language on Iran that almost derailed passage of the resolution backing the Stockholm Agreement and sending Cammaert to Yemen in December. Too much is at stake for squabbles at the Security Council to stand in the way of genuine progress toward a full ceasefire.
Peter Salisbury, Consulting Senior Analyst, Yemen.