The five-month-old truce in Yemen has been a net good for Yemenis and preserving it should be a priority. After more than seven years of ruinous war, the truce has brought the relief of quiet frontlines, the suspension of air strikes, the reopening of the port of Hudaydah for fuel shipments, and the resumption of civilian air flights in and out of the capital. Still, it has been far from perfect. There have been a host of small-scale skirmishes and surreptitious movements of men and equipment, particularly around Taiz and Marib. On August 25-26, Houthi forces launched an attack in Taiz in an attempt to seize the last major government-controlled road into the city, prompting the internationally recognized authorities to pull out of talks in Amman and provoking a sharp condemnation from the UN special envoy. Still, Yemenis are intent that the current cessation of violence should not unravel.
That possibility now looms larger, although August saw the warring parties sign on for another two-month extension, having been unable to agree on the proposed six-month extension being pushed by the United States with the support of Saudi Arabia. Those talks reached stumbling blocks on the same issues that have plagued negotiations since the start of the truce – the government’s demand to reopen roads around Taiz in line with the original agreement to open ports and roads first, the Houthi insistence post-truce on putting payment of state salaries before that, and a resolution to this problem of sequencing. The Houthis had previously rejected a UN proposal for the phased reopening of roads in Taiz and other governorates, a proposed mechanism to pay public sector salaries in Houthi areas, and the expansion of flights from Sana’a airport. Last week’s military operation in Taiz tends to confirm the view that Houthi forces are preparing for the truce to end; if it does, they will likely act in Taiz to try and preempt any moves by pro-government forces on the West Coast, and make another push for Marib’s oil fields, with the aim of ensuring a resource base to increase the viability of a Houthi-controlled state in northern Yemen. The expansion of Southern Transitional Council (STC) power throughout the south after ejecting Islah-affiliated forces from Shabwa in August could encourage the Houthis to sue for a peace that effectively splits the country in two.
There are still dynamics on both sides that could push for keeping the truce alive. Despite the hard line taken by the Houthi movement, they are under pressure to alleviate the economic deterioration within their territories, which risks stirring dissent among a population that appears ever less willing to accept that war means a duty to stay silent. In a sign of such tensions, Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi recently warned against protests and strikes over salaries and services in a televised speech. With fighting in the south exposing rifts within the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), its head Rashad al-Alimi is in desperate need of a win. If a win involves a prolonged peace that keeps Houthi drones and missiles out of Saudi airspace, then Alimi’s main external backer in Riyadh will want it too. In other words, there is an opening to nudge the parties toward cooperation rather than conflict.
It is possible to discern the outlines of a compromise. If Houthi authorities concede that roads must be reopened as part of the peace dividend for ordinary people that the truce has provided, then the government should prioritize agreement on demands regarding salaries. Those demands have centered on a mechanism similar to the one employed in the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, in which both parties agreed that revenues from the port of Hudaydah should be deposited into an account at the Central Bank of Yemen in Hudaydah under UN supervision. That agreement failed as the Houthi side siphoned off funds for military purposes and salaries went unpaid. Mediators need to seize the initiative in pushing further to ask the parties to consider how a salary payment mechanism could work – to lay down the specifics of what percentage of total costs would come from which revenue streams, and which party is responsible for them. Those revenue streams could include, for example, Hudaydah’s ports, oil and gas, business taxes, telecoms, and civil aviation, and the agreed amounts could be placed in a trust account overseen by an independent body. While the de facto authorities in Sana’a collect more internal revenue than the government, the latter has access to donor cash that could allow it to take on the largest share of the salary bill.
If an agreement along these lines can be reached, it might not only save the truce – which, it cannot be overemphasized, is the priority for millions of Yemenis – but also create a model for resolving other issues currently preventing a wider settlement and set the country on the path forward. For one, it could strengthen the hand of moderates in Sana’a who would be able to point to the economic benefits of working things out rather than constant confrontation. It is obvious that the temptations on both sides to give up the grinding work of diplomacy are many, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the opportunity for a negotiated settlement remains very real. There is a nexus of internal factors and calculations that could, on the one hand, lead to the truce unraveling, or, on the other, through the right curation and guidance, further entrench it and guarantee a continuing peace. Now is not the time to lose focus.