War-weary Yemenis eye a shaky ceasefire with suspicion

War-weary Yemenis eye a shaky ceasefire with suspicion
Comment: Five years of conflict have taught Yemenis that ceasefires are usually followed by a fresh surge in fighting on the frontlines, writes a Yemeni journalist.
5 min read
14 Apr, 2020
Previous ceasefire have fizzled out, or given way to even more violence [AFP]

The ceasefire in Yemen declared last Thursday by the Saudi-led coalition was seemingly good news. It raised hopes that the country's warring sides would suspend fighting and start collectively combating the perilous threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. The very next day, Yemen reported its first case of coronavirus. 

Several countries worldwide have welcomed the ceasefire at this critical time, and it was covered widely by local and international media as an important and urgent step, given the current circumstances in Yemen, the region and the world.

But the much vaunted truce is starting to look more like empty rhetoric, rather than a positive situation on the ground. The fighting has not subsided and airstrikes have not even paused. Houthi fighters and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces have continued engaging n heavy clashes, retreats and takeovers. The ceasefire appears almost dead on arrival.

The truce was an abrupt Saudi initiative with the aim of creating "favourable conditions" for a UN-sponsored meeting between the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government, the Houthis and the coalition. Its major goal is to pave the way for a permanent ceasefire in Yemen, according to Saudi-led coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki.

On the face of it, Saudi Arabia's rationale for declaring the ceasefire is to shift its focus to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and contain its serious consequences at home. Several Saudi provinces are under lockdown and the number of cases keeps rising. 

It appears then, that rather than a genuine desire to seek a comprehensive solution to the five-year quagmire in Yemen, it's actually the curse of the coronavirus that has caused Saudi Arabia multiple other distractions, prompting it to propose a halt in hostilities.

In the eyes of the Houthis, any ceasefire in Yemen is fake unless Saudi Arabia stops airstrikes and allow the free operation of ports and airports

With the oil price war and a stagnant oil market, Saudi Arabia will face a considerable loss in revenue. In addition, there has been a freeze on Hajj and Umrah visas since late February which will impact the Kingdom's economic landscape. All in all, an exit from Yemen or at least a short pause in the war, would likely work in their favour. 

But so far, the proposed peace initiative has unsurprisingly, been a failure. Several previous agreements have also reached a dead end, and countless peace bids have evaporated over the last five years.

The Stockholm Agreement for example was signed in December 2018 and aimed to reach a ceasefire in the city and port of Hodeida, and the ports of Salif and Ras Issa, in addition to a mutual redeployment of forces to agreed upon locations.

One year and four months have elapsed, and the implementation has not materialised. Exchange of fire keeps occurring and the city is still in jeopardy of an all-out military confrontation.

Last year, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis engaged in behind-the-scenes talks in pursuit of any rapprochement or mutual understanding to resolve the conflict in Yemen.

Yet their talks have been futile and Houthi missiles kept flying towards Saudi territories. The undeniable fact remains that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have yawning schisms and deep mistrust of each other, a matter which has rendered any peace proposal in Yemen impotent.

For their part, the Houthis have their own vision of how to end the conflict. Put forward last week, it touched on three aspects, namely military, humanitarian and political. It emphasised an immediate ceasefire and the cessation of military mobilisation by both sides. It also raised the issue of salary payment of public employees, compensation to the war victims, and reconstruction. In addition, the proposal said the UN should sponsor talks between the Yemeni parties without foreign interference.

Read more: IMF to provide Yemen immediate debt relief in bid to fight coronavirus

Mulling over all the items of the proposal points to a glaring difference in attitude between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi group. The Houthis do not recognise the Yemeni government as a legitimate representative of Yemen, and their proposal is addressed to the coalition, not to the UN-recognised Yemeni government.

The Houthis, realising Saudi Arabia's situation, have capitalised on these circumstances to make political manoeuvres, and military gains. Over the last few weeks, the Houthis have attempted to score more territorial gains in Marib, a province that is rich with oil and gas to the east of Sanaa, and they keep trying to bring this province to its knees.

When one party calls for a truce, the other party prepares for further incursions and attacks

In the eyes of the Houthis, any ceasefire in Yemen is fake unless Saudi Arabia stops airstrikes and allows the free operation of ports and airports. "We will continue to fight and target their military installations and industrial sites since they continue with the siege. So, we don't consider it to be a ceasefire," said one Houthi spokesman and a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council.

In comparison, while the Yemeni government parroted the Arab coalition's statement on the ceasefire, the Houthis expressed conditions over its viability. Unlike the Houthis, the Yemeni government is not in a position to accept or reject any truce without the green light from the coalition. Government forces fight or withdraw at the request of the Saudi-led Arab coalition. Such Saudi hegemony remains a big obstacle on the way to peace in Yemen.

The outlook for peace in Yemen is disheartening, and the war continues to swell. Five years of conflict have taught Yemenis that ceasefires are usually followed by a fresh surge in fighting on the frontlines.

Even the warring parties themselves have grown doubtful about their viability. When one party calls for a truce, the other party prepares for further incursions and attacks. This has created a mindset that sees little hope in political talks, and both sides bet on the battlefield to subdue one another.

Today, civilians in Yemen have reason to worry when they hear news of a ceasefire. They know that what follows is often a surge of violence, at least as deadly as the last.   

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.