What does the Stockholm agreement mean for Yemen?

Last week, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and its internationally recognized government agreed to a deal in Sweden, known as the Stockholm agreement. It is made up of four key elements: a prisoner swap, the creation of a demilitarized zone around the country’s vital Red Sea trade corridor through a series of withdrawals by rival Yemeni forces, the formation of a committee to discuss the future of the contested city of Taiz, and a commitment for the Houthis and the government to reconvene at the end of December.

The agreement is meant to prevent the situation in Yemen from getting any worse rather than making it better, and even this was a big ask. Under concerted international pressure, and with a massive famine looming, the Houthis and the government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi agreed to the bare minimum — and language in the agreement makes it clear that they did so begrudgingly.

An opportunity for the United Nations for a demilitarized zone

The good news here is that the United Nations, which has struggled for years to gain even the smallest toehold in its attempts to mediate the conflict, finally has an opening — albeit one that will be painfully difficult to convert into facts on the ground that it can build on in the new year. Officials will next try to persuade the Houthis, who control the Red Sea trade hubs, to withdraw their forces from the three facilities and neighboring towns and cities and get the UAE-backed Yemeni forces that have surrounded Hodeida over the past two years to pull back. A battle for the Hodeida port and city, which looked inevitable just weeks ago, would all but certainly have sparked a huge famine and deepened the political deadlock.

If the Red Sea trade corridor and the main highway linking Hodeida with Yemen’s interior can be turned into a demilitarized zone, that would at the very least allow for a stabilization of the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Removing Hodeidah from the battlefield would also remove one of the last militarily, if not morally, attainable prizes from the war and make it much harder for the government, the Saudi-led coalition that backs it or the Houthis to argue that there is anything other than a political solution to the conflict. If the envoy and his team can get a wider deal on Taiz in the new year, then the conflict will essentially have been frozen.

This is not to say that getting there will be easy. The 21-day timeline agreed for withdrawals is probably unrealistic. And policing of the city after the main forces have been pulled back — who exactly will secure the city is left vague in the agreement — is likely to become an increasing bone of contention during U.N.-led negotiations over the city.

International pressure on Yemen

The U.N. will also need for the concerted international pressure that made the Stockholm agreement happen to continue, if not intensify. Hoping to build on the agreement, and to give the United Nations a stronger mandate in Yemen particularly for an observer mission to sustain the Hodeida truce, the United Kingdom reworked a U.N. Security Council resolution it drafted before the Sweden talks to include a declaration of support for the Stockholm agreement. The draft resolution retains a series of asks from the U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock that would help ease the current economic quagmire.

But negotiations over the resolution had grown tense, with the United States and Kuwait — the only Arab member of the council and widely seen as a proxy for Saudi Arabia — demanding significant changes. The United States called for the insertion of language on Iran’s role in the conflict, leading to Russian objections and threats of a veto at the council. The United States also pushed for Lowcock’s humanitarian requests to be removed, arguing that they overcomplicate what should be a simple process of affirming the Stockholm agreement. After a showdown reported to have involved the threat of a U.S. veto, a slimmed-down version of the resolution was set to be passed Dec. 22, giving the United Nations its mandate but sending a clear signal that it will be hard to maintain international consensus in the future.

What was agreed to in Sweden, then, does not constitute a major political breakthrough but, rather, ramped-up international pressure that is by no means guaranteed in the future, and a degree of pragmatism from the Yemeni parties and their international backers that may not last. Even then, the Houthis and the government were at pains to make the point that both the prisoner swap and the Hodeida deal were not political agreements and are not meant to be seen as an opening to a wider peace deal.

A confluence of factors — a deepening humanitarian crisis, Saudi foreign policy blunders and shifts in U.S. attitudes toward the kingdom — have created a narrow opening for the United Nations in Yemen. If they make the most of them, at least things won’t get too much worse.

Peter Salisbury is a journalist and analyst focused on political economy issues in the Middle East and North Africa with a decade of experience in Yemen, and  a consulting senior analyst at International Crisis Group and a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House.

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