Conflict Alerts # 351, 25 March 2021
In the news
On 23 March, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire proposal to end the war in Yemen. The terms of the ceasefire include the following: reopening of the airport in Sanaa, allowing regional and international flights to operate; permitting the import of food and fuel through the Hodeidah port; and, restarting negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.
The Houthis have dismissed the proposal citing there is "nothing new." In April 2020, Saudi Arabia had called for a ceasefire amid the coronavirus outbreak, which the warring parties eventually violated. Following the recent proposal, some Iranian news agency - Mehr News reported that Saudi Arabia was "forced" to suggest a ceasefire, underlining that the Houthis have the upper hand in Yemen's conflict.
Issues at large
First, the unending war with a serious humanitarian crisis. The war in Yemen has been ongoing since 2014; it has intensified with the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with material backing from the US. Over the years, Yemen's situation has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Yemen has wtinessed millions of people displaced, a cholera outbreak, a devastating flood, widespread poverty and food shortage leading to massive malnutrition among children.
Second, a devastating war with no clear objectives. Neither the Saudi-backed coalition forces nor the Houthis seem to be having a clear political objective. There seems to be no clear winner after seven years of war. Previous peace efforts have had only limited scope and have not been inclusive. The war is seen as a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh.
Third, the different perspectives. The Houthis see the war as an act of aggression by Riyadh. Contrarily, the Saudi Kingdom sees it as a civil conflict, nonetheless acknowledging the invisible hand of Iran. This clash of narratives will question the credibility of the ceasefire. The southern separatists also do not seem to be trusting the Houthis in adhering to the ceasefire regulations. This discord could interfere with the initiative.
Fourth, the Houthis on a different leaf. While Riyadh has allowed for partial removal of the blockade on the Hodeidah port, the Houthis have demanded unconditional and complete removal. They also want the release of 14 ships that are under the control of the Saudi-led coalition. The discrepancies in the demands and compromises could render the ceasefire ineffective.
As the Biden administration has clarified its position concerning the Yemen conflict, withdrawing its support to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom seeks to refine its image in front of its most important western ally. Mohammed bin Salman's Yemen policy has been severely criticized; he seems to have realized the need for course correction and not further affect Riyadh's ties with Washington.
Unlike the previous time, this ceasefire proposal could gain more traction as there is active US intervention in the Yemeni crisis, something that was underplayed by President Trump. Lack of confidence between the parties, whose involvement is necessary for the ceasefire, is a potential hurdle. Saudi Arabia will be expected to step up its incentives to the Houthis to execute the ceasefire. The ceasefire, in turn, can be an efficient confidence-building mechanism that can cater to further peace efforts to resolve the conflict and tend to the world's worst humanitarian crisis.