With debate on Yemen in recent weeks focused on the decision by the U.S. State Department to revoke the Houthis’ designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), the Joint Declaration (JD) proposal by U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has received relatively little attention. During his first State Department address, President Joe Biden made clear that his administration is “stepping up … diplomacy to end the war in Yemen” and announced the suspension of “American support for offensive operations.” With the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as U.S. special envoy for Yemen in addition to the Houthi FTO revocation, Washington has made moves to expand its role in de-escalation initiatives, rather than conflict resolution. Lenderking discussed efforts to resume the political process with Griffiths and the Yemeni leadership, including cease-fire options and economic and humanitarian measures, and this aligns with the JD proposal advanced by Griffiths following the Arab Coalition’s unilateral cease-fire in April 2020.
Since the global outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago, the U.N. special envoy has sought to use the urgency engendered by the pandemic to broker a nationwide cease-fire alongside a set of confidence-building measures — branded as the JD — between the Houthi rebels and the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG). But the content of the proposal is not new, nor is it a recipe for effective de-escalation and sustainable conflict resolution. Rather, in many respects, it is a further normalization of the status quo. It involves a series of concessions favorable to the Houthis before unconditionally reviving comprehensive peace talks under the guise of “temporary and special mechanisms” to address “dire humanitarian and economic needs” — a scenario akin to what happened in Hodeida with the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. On Jan. 14, Griffiths briefed the U.N. Security Council on the “cumbersome and frustrating” negotiations regarding the JD proposal, but pointed out that “they cannot continue indefinitely.” The briefing implicitly acknowledged that the gap between the U.N. special envoy and the prerequisites for sustainable peace-making efforts in Yemen remained wide, despite Griffiths’ shuttle diplomacy between Aden, Riyadh, Sanaa, Abu Dhabi, and Tehran.
The JD in context
The leaked version of the JD, the content of which had barely changed as of January 2021, addressed several humanitarian, political, economic, environmental, health, and security issues in one basket, under three sub-proposals. These include a nationwide cease-fire, a U.N.-led cease-fire monitoring team, a resource-sharing arrangement (including revenues from Marib Oil Company), maintenance of the floating storage and offloading unit Safer and the Marib-Ras Isa pipeline, reopening Sanaa International Airport for commercial flights, payment of salaries, the formation of a joint COVID-19 committee, easing the collection of revenues from Hodeida’s ports, and the resumption of peace negotiations.
There hasn’t been any tangible progress in some of these areas when they have been negotiated separately — such as averting a crisis with the Safer — and combining them with a set of highly complex issues is unlikely to make them any easier to resolve, especially when seeking to build trust ahead of reviving peace talks. The JD combines many issues in one package but leaves security and military measures that usually help or hinder the cessation of hostilities largely unaddressed. It also conflates totally disparate issues, like the Safer, a potential environmental and humanitarian crisis, with a cease-fire, a political matter. High-risk issues like the Safer should be managed, negotiated, and settled separately and urgently. No one can afford the consequences of a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea, which is a real possibility should the Houthis continue to use the vessel as a bargaining chip.
The JD’s diversity of topics and vague provisions are reminiscent of the Stockholm Agreement. To grasp how problematic that was, as well as its ramifications, one need only revisit one of its key elements, the Hodeida Agreement, and its failure to be implemented. For example, the Houthis neither withdrew nor redeployed their militias, nor did they keep revenues from the port of Hodeida in a joint account at the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) branch in the city for the payment of salaries, as had been agreed. The JD’s adoption of strategic ambiguity akin to Stockholm necessitates lengthy post-agreement negotiations, hindering tangible progress and protracting the conflict, while granting actors other than the ROYG time and space to strategize and consolidate their gains.
Local controversy, international applause
As it currently stands, the JD is problematic. It fails to apply mutual concessions, reduces Houthi incentives for constructive engagement in peace-making efforts, and does not offer a clear roadmap to comprehensive talks. Instead, it further normalizes the status quo, offers economic benefits to militias, and lacks a cease-fire enforcement mechanism.
Against this backdrop, a diverse group of more than 40 Yemeni civil society activists expressed serious concerns about the draft JD. Their five-point appeal letter to the international community, dated July 20, 2020, argued that it “follows the same modality of the Stockholm Agreement” and that “the solutions proposed overlook internal dynamics of the conflict … seek quick fixes … [and] doubtless put Yemen further away from an equitable, sustainable peace and [therefore] could sow seeds for new cycles of endless conflicts.” MEI’s Nadwa al-Dawsari, a leading Yemen specialist and a signatory to the letter, recently pointed out that such fixes “might be a quick win for American and Western diplomacy,” but that they “could also potentially exacerbate the conflict if the administration … lacks the essential ingredients for sustainable peace.” She instead urged “increased US diplomatic engagement … to factor in the complexity and power dynamics on the ground,” highlighting the dire need to localize liberal peace-making approaches, which are all too often based on one-size-fits-all solutions.
In mid-2020, the Yemeni government rejected the JD’s content, deeming it pro-Houthi and in contradiction to internal and external peace references. Rasha Jarhum, the co-founder of Peace Track, a Yemeni female-led peacebuilding initiative, echoed the government’s concerns, pointing out that the JD proposal “jumps over the three peace references: the 2011 GCC initiative, the Outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (2014), and international resolutions,” and is largely pro-Houthi. In a 23-page document, Peace Track examined the similarities and differences between the Houthis’ April wish list to end the war, the envoy’s April cease-fire working draft, and the draft version of the JD leaked in July. For their part, the Houthis, through what Elana DeLozier of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy called a Houthi “wish list for ending the Yemen war” in April 2020, conditioned their engagement in U.N.-led peace talks on a nationwide cease-fire, the end of the coalition’s blockade, and the withdrawal of the remaining coalition forces. This is where the JD as an idea started and drawing on the detailed Peace Track comparison, it can be partly viewed as the insurgency’s conditions for restarting U.N.-led peace talks, but with several benefits prior to talks.
Internationally, the signatories to a joint communiqué — the U.N. Security Council permanent members, plus Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and the EU — expressed support for the JD on Sept. 17, 2020 in a bid to build international traction. All have maintained that the way to end the war in Yemen is a politically negotiated settlement, and with increasing U.S. engagement the pressure is likely to mount, with the hope that this will pave the way for talks and end the conflict.
No mechanism to enforce cease-fire
Like the Hodeida Agreement, the cease-fire proposed in the JD depends heavily on monitoring and reporting violations but lacks an enforcement mechanism. This approach did not work in Hodeida, where there has been renewed sporadic armed conflict, with some of the “heaviest fighting since the singing of the Stockholm Agreement” taking place in October, killing 38 civilians and displacing 73 households around al-Durayhimi, to the south of the city. Fierce Houthi attacks began again in January 2021 in Hays and al-Durayhimi, killing and injuring more than 100, including civilians. Acting with impunity, the Houthis also indiscriminately shelled the Joint Forces in Mocha, civil infrastructure in Hodeida, and residential neighborhoods in Mandhar, destroying the al-Qasemi mosque in February 2021.
The piecemeal U.N.-brokered Hodeida cease-fire agreement and the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement offer clear lessons on how to better design future cease-fire processes. Both, albeit to different extents, failed to end hostilities in and around the port cities of Hodeida and Aden, respectively. Given the scope of the cease-fire in Hodeida, the Houthis expanded their campaign and redeployed their forces, capturing Hajjour in the Hajjah governorate only a few months after the signing of the Stockholm Agreement. And following the unannounced de-escalation with Saudi Arabia in late 2019 — which was one of the “quietest periods since the start of the conflict” according to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data — they took control of al-Jawf’s capital, al-Hazm, in March 2020. Their attacks in and around the resource-rich governorate of Marib only intensified throughout 2020 and into March 2021, with the latest phase heating up in early February shortly after the U.S. revoked the Houthis’ FTO designation. In the south, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) deployed fighters to the distant archipelago of Socotra and engaged in a firefight with ROYG forces in Abyan, following enduring standoffs in mid-2020.
These developments clearly show that the perception of unfinished business, coupled with poorly designed, monitored, and implemented cease-fire mechanisms, gave armed actors more space and greater motivation to try to make further political, economic, security, social, and military gains before the restart of nationwide peace talks. The failure to hold violators accountable, or to adopt a carrot-and-stick approach, undermined the feasibility and credibility of both the cease-fire process and mediation efforts. This made the cease-fire meaningless and enabled spoilers to renew fighting in an effort to make territorial gains and capture resources — an outcome that the JD risks repeating at the national level.
Failure of cease-fire monitoring
In line with the Stockholm Agreement’s approach in Hodeida, the JD seeks to establish a U.N.-led Redeployment and Coordination Committee (RCC) comprising a minimum of two senior military officials from each side. The experience of the RCC in Hodeida has been very problematic, however: The Houthis occasionally targeted the ROYG personnel overseeing the cease-fire, faked the surrender of Hodeida’s three ports in a farcical episode, and imposed operational restrictions on the U.N. Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA). They also shot and killed a government liaison officer who was overseeing compliance with the cease-fire in March 2020. In 2019, the rebels reportedly committed over 13,000 cease-fire violations and another 4,445 in January 2021 alone, according to the Foreign Ministry. On Feb. 14, the ministry called on the U.N. “to reconsider the status of its mission in Hodeida, which has become a hostage to the Houthi militias that obstructed the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2452.” In short, the track record of the RCC and UNMHA lacks credibility and does not augur well for effective de-escalation efforts if replicated.
Indeed, although the cease-fire section of the JD fulfils the Houthi prerequisites for engaging in peace talks, without a feasible path to implementation the declaration may not build confidence it needs — and instead it is likely to amplify the current escalatory dynamics and ramp up hostilities. All parties to the conflict, especially the Houthi rebels, believe that their military objectives have not yet been achieved. The decision of the Iranian-backed Houthis, which was endorsed by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, to send wave after wave of military reinforcements to Marib in a bid to capture the facilities of Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company and gain control over the Marib-Ras Isa pipeline is a case in point. If they manage to achieve this, it would transform the nature of the conflict. It would likely ramp up escalation — yet again — and extend it to the southern and eastern governorates. Were that to happen, the conflict would inevitably get even messier and the context of any peace process would change, depending on what was achieved and by whom. For any future cease-fire to have a better chance of being effectively implemented, however, the current power imbalance must first change — and ideally to better reflect the aspirations of the Yemeni people, who are seeking a more equitable distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity.
Further normalization of the status quo
The JD normalizes the role of the Houthi insurgency by legitimizing their involvement in sovereign issues, such as the generation and distribution of revenues and resources, without their having to make concessions and prior to the resumption of comprehensive peace talks. This, in turn, reduces their incentive to engage in the process in good faith, raises the ceiling for their demands, and secures them more free wins. In a phone call with his Kuwaiti counterpart in July, then-Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hadhrami pointed out that the amendments proposed in the declaration “undermine the sovereignty of the country and the government’s exclusive right in managing state institutions.” Even though the Hodeida Agreement stated that fuel and customs revenues generated from Hodeida port should be deposited in a U.N.-monitored joint account to be used to pay public sector salaries, according to the information minister, the Houthis diverted an estimated $160 million from the CBY branch in Hodeida to finance the war effort without the U.N. stopping them.
The draft JD attempts to legitimize Houthi control of “derivatives of oil revenues in Hodeida to pay part of the salaries,” increasing the burden on the government without specifying what proportion of the salaries are to be paid with such revenues and abandoning previous U.N. commitments. The gradual normalization of the status quo that started with the Stockholm Agreement has been further endorsed in new ways in the JD, even as it lacks credible means to resolve many other outstanding issues. Although the Houthis generated a minimum revenue of almost $2 billion in 2019, they did not pay a single full salary for civil servants in areas under their control, according to the U.N. Panel of Experts’ 2021 report. In 2020, the Houthis reportedly paid a half month’s salary over the course of the year.
Overall, under the current distribution of power, which favors armed groups over the government, the JD will neither resolve the internal dynamics of the conflict, nor lead to a sustainable transition to peace. Instead, it will keep Yemen, as it is now, in a medium-term fragmentation trap while increasing the role of armed actors and heightening concerns over violent extremism. The Houthi rebels, the STC, and the ROYG have yet to reach a real military stalemate, contrary to the Yemeni public, who reached one many years ago. However, superficial fixes that predicate their success on the cessation of hostilities without an overall change in the local distribution of power or a peace agreement when the conditions are ripe enough will only grant more time and space for armed groups to intensify their military operations, or allow other armed actors to emerge, coalesce, or switch loyalties, as has happened in the past decade in Yemen. Such consequences will only further delay Yemenis’ long overdue aspirations for a democratic, just, and prosperous country — and with that come many costs, both internally and externally.
Moving forward, rather than engaging in shallow negotiations over the wide range of issues in a single basket as the JD suggests, a more productive approach might be to address some of these issues separately in an effort to make progress, build confidence, and improve the lives of Yemenis. Dealing with the Safer, the generation and collection of revenues from Hodeida’s ports, the payment of salaries, and the safe reopening of airports would all provide a more solid basis for the move toward nationwide peace talks.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict, and defense researcher, a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI, and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank. Among his research interests are the U.N.-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, and the rise of the Houthi insurgency. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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