Saudi Arabia Announces Cease Fire in Yemen- Will it hold This Time?
Col Rajeev Agarwal

On 22 March 2021, Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Announcing the peace initiative, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan urged the Iran-backed Houthi militia to join the initiative and said, “We want the guns to fall completely silent. This Saudi initiative, as a continuation of Saudi and international efforts to find a lasting peace in Yemen, is an opportunity to end the crisis and for all sides in Yemen to put the interests of the Yemeni people and of Yemen first”1. The plan calls for a nationwide cease-fire supervised by the UN, the reopening of Sana’a airport, and new talks to reach a political resolution to the conflict. Restrictions on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah would be eased, allowing access for ships and cargo. Income from the port, including taxes, would go to the central bank in Hodeidah in accordance with the Stockholm agreement.

This is, however, not the first time that such a ceasefire has been announced. Previous announcements of ceasefire in this war torn country have not succeeded and so, viability and possibilities of success of this ceasefire raise questions. Also, this announcement is a unilateral one by Saudi Arabia and not as a result of some talks/negotiations with the Houthis. Expectedly, the Houthis, in their initial response haver dismissed the announcement stating that there is nothing new in the announcement. The timing of the announcement is also interesting, coming at the back of repeated drone strikes attempted across Saudi Arabia by the Houthis as also intensified fighting in the oil rich Marib province of Yemen over the past few months. However, changing dynamics in the region may help this ceasefire may hold, at least for some time.

Start of the Conflict

The current conflict owes its origin to the Houthi’s takeover of Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014. President Hadi and PM Khaled Bahah (along with the cabinet) were placed under house arrest. Hadi, however, escaped to Aden on 21 February 2015 and later to Riyadh in March 2015, describing Houthi takeover of Sana’a as a “coup”. The Houthis took control of Taiz Airport and entered Aden unopposed on 25 March 2015, completing control of the three major cities in the country, Sana’a, Taiz and Aden. This prompted Saudi Arabia, in consultation with regional Arab Allies and the US, to launch airstrikes in Yemen on 26 March, 2015 in the operation codenamed "Operation Decisive Storm". Oman was the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country which did not participate. The operations have continued ever since.

Escalation in the Conflict

The conflict meandered along after the initial round of airstrikes by Saudi led coalition. The UN Security Council attempted to find solution through its Resolution No 2216 on 15 April, 2015 (Russia abstaining) demanding withdrawal of the Houthis from the areas seized by them and imposing arms embargo on them, but failed to end the war. The peace talks in Geneva during June 2015, in Switzerland in December 2015 as also attempted peace talks in Kuwait in April 2016 did not yield any results.

The conflicttook a new turn towards the end of 2017 with reports of missile strikes on Saudi Arabian sites (especially oil facilities) by Houthi rebels. The assassination of former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, by Houthi rebels on 04 December 2017 further intensified the conflict2.. There were attempted coups too twice during this period, once in January 2018 by the Southern Secessionist Movement which attempted to overthrow the Yemeni government functioning out of Aden and later in August 2019, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) marched into Aden and overthrew the Hadi government and forced them to vacate Aden. Both times, through timely intervention of Saudi Arabia and UAE, the situation was brought into control. Later, the STC and the Hadi government signed the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019 promising the return of Hadi government to Aden and de-escalation, among a number of other measures.

There were also the attempts to take over Socotra Island, a sovereign territory of Yemen, first, when UAE deployed 300 soldiers along with tanks and artillery at Socotra Island on 30 April 2018 and again on19 June 2020 when STC seized several state buildings, including the governor’s headquarters in the provincial capital Hadebo. Both times, again, the situation was diffused by Saudi intervention.

In between the coup attempts and bids to takeover Socotra islands, new fronts opened up in the conflict, raising concerns. On 12 June 2018, Saudi led coalition launched an offensive in the strategically important port city of Hodeida. The coalition forces captured the airport of Hodeida on 20 June and pressed on operations to drive the Houthis out of Hodeida Port too. The fighting resulted in the only point of entry to Yemen being blocked off sparking off a humanitarian crisis as no medical or food aid could be delivered to Yemeni people (Sana’a airport was closed off immediately after capture by Houthis in September 2014). A number of attempts were made to restore the peace in Hodeidah; the Stockholm Agreement signed on 13 December 2018 as well as the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) , approved by the UNSC on 16 January 2019, but none have worked so far. The current ceasefire proposal too talks of easing restrictions in the port city of Hodeidah.

A new dimension to the conflict was added when the Houthis started targeting Saudi oil facilities in May-June 2019 followed by drone strikes on Saudi ARAMCO facilities in September 2019. Such strikes by drones have continued till date, threatening the oil production as well as oil prices in the region.

The most brutal incident in recent times was perhaps the strike by Houthis on a Yemeni Military training base in Marib province on 17 January 2020 wherein 116 people were killed through a combination of strikes by ballistic missiles and armed drones. Saudi led Coalition Forces retaliated promptly and attacked Nehm (60 kilometres East of Sana’a) on 22 January killing 80 Houthis. Drone strikes across Saudi territories continued through 2020 while the region and the world was fighting the pandemic of COVID-19.

In December 2020, Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi swore in a new government that was formed as one of the outcomes of Riyadh Agreement. The 24-member cabinet represented Yemen’s northern and southern areas with equal numbers of members from each region and included five members of the separatist STC too as part of a bid to end a power struggle between Hadi loyalists and the secessionists3. However, this announcement was greeted with a fresh wave of drone and missile attacks by the Houthis soon, when on 30 December 2020, a large explosion struck the airport in city of Aden, shortly after a plane carrying the newly formed Cabinet landed there. At least 25 people were killed and 110 wounded in the blast4.

Recently, a new dimension to the conflict has been added with the fighting spreading to the oil rich province of Maribtoo. The latest strike by Houthi drones targeting King Khalid Air Base in the Khamis Mushait province and the International Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia on 15 March 2021 was again act of provocation. Although the Saudi-led coalition destroyed a booby-trapped drone, it has raised more questions over prospects over peace and ceasefire in Yemen.

Previous Attempts at Peace and Ceasefire

Although a number of attempts have been made right since the talks in Switzerland in December 2015, the few announcements of ceasefire have hardly made any significant contributions to peace in Yemen. The Stockholm Agreement, the Hodeidah Agreement and Riyadh Agreement, all have promised de-escalation but have not yielded peace. A unilateral two-week period ceasefire was announced by Saudi led coalition on 09 April 2020 through its spokesman Col Turki al-Malkibut, the Houthis were quick to denounce the ceasefire. Again, following a coup attempt in Socotra Island, a comprehensive ceasefire was agreed upon between the STC and the coalition forces on 25 June 2020. While situation in Socotra Island was resolved, the conflict continued across other regions in Yemen.

Changing Dynamics in the Region

With the dawn of new decade, there have been a number of significant changes in the regional landscape. To start with, Saudi Arabia led GCC announced restoration of diplomatic ties with Qatar during the GCC Summit on 05 January, ending a three year stand-off. This was followed up by the first foreign policy speech by newly elected US President Biden who announced ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales. This coupled with the stance that he would only interact with King Salman as his counterpart and not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a shock to the Saudis. The release of an unclassified version of an intelligence report by the US later in February confirming the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanin the the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was a let-down for the Saudi, so accustomed to special treatment under the previous Trump administration.

Also, the willingness expressed by the US to revive the Iran nuclear deal, though expected, could not have been to the liking of Saudi Arabia as well as Israel. The Libyan peace process leading up to the formation of a unified government for the first time since ‘Arab Spring’ and the announcement by Turkey to normalise relations with Egypt and other Arab countries5. are significant developments in the region too.

The Possibilities

In the changing regional dynamics, Saudis felt left out and felt the need to retake initiative. The possibility of ending war in Yemen could not only help score some points but also help them come out of an imbroglio where they are stuck with no plausible solution in sight.

For Iran, the revival of the nuclear deal is vitally important, especially in a year when presidential elections are slated for June 2021. While it cannot afford to be seen compromising its position on the nuclear deal, helping restore peace in Yemen could be seen as a positive gesture from their end. Also, elsewhere in the region, going slow in Syrian conflict would do no harm to Iran, at-least for the time being. For the Houthis, ceasefire announcement has come at a time when they are holding strong in the conflict. Extension of its operations towards Marib had ensured that, in case of a peace solution, they would have better bargaining power.

The ceasefire could therefore be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. However, Yemen has not been lucky so far with similar attempts in the past. Changing dynamics and better sense may finally force the opposing parties to look afresh and maybe, the guns will fall silent after all, even if for a temporary truce.

Endnotes
  1. Saudi Arabia announces Yemen peace initiative, Arab News, 22 March 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1829846/saudi-arabia
  2. It may be noted that President Saleh helped the Houthis in their takeover of Sana’a in September 2014. However, Saleh announcement of breaking alliance with the Houthis in November 2017, stating that he would now align with the Saudi Arabia was considered as an act of betrayal by the Houthis.
  3. New Yemen gov’t sworn in after Saudi-brokered power-sharing deal, Al Jazeera News, 26 December 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/26/yemens-new-government-sworn-in-after-power-sharing-agreement
  4. Explosions rock Yemen airport as new government arrives from Saudi Arabia, killing at least 25, CBS News, 30 December 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/yemen-airport-explosion-as-new-government-arrives-from-saudi-arabia/
  5. Turkey ready to normalize ties with Egypt, Gulf countries following years of tension, Arab News, 08
    March 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1821871/middle-east

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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VERY WELL ARTICULATED ARTICLE. MUST READ. WELL DONE.

 
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Very well covered Sir

 

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