Yemen’s six-month truce is up for renewal on 2 October. The UN and external powers should redouble their efforts to forge agreement on an expanded deal. If those look set to fall short, however, they should propose interim arrangements that avert a return to major combat.
Thanks to a UN-brokered truce, Yemen has enjoyed a lull in fighting for the past six months, the first such protracted reprieve since the civil war broke out almost eight years ago. But with a 2 October deadline for the truce’s renewal fast approaching, Yemen’s warring parties – the Huthi rebels in particular, but also the internationally recognised and Riyadh-backed Political Leadership Council, headed by President Rashad al-Alimi – face a moment of truth. The UN has proposed an expanded truce. But wrangling over a deal to reopen Huthi-controlled roads in and around the city of Taiz – and Huthi demands for salary payments for civil servants in rebel-held areas as an inducement to continue the détente – have pushed the truce to the verge of collapse.
If the parties cannot strike a bargain, the conflict may return to, or even exceed, previous levels of destructive intensity, with the prospects of a negotiated settlement becoming still more distant. UN mediators and outside powers involved should push the parties to compromise, but if the expanded truce looks out of reach, they should prepare options short of that to keep the guns silent – and the belligerents talking to each other – for at least another two months.
Taiz in a Knot
Taiz city – a transport and commercial crossroads linking Yemen’s north and south – has been contested since the war began. In 2014, the Huthis’ coup, which dislodged the internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, left the national army split between units loyal to Hadi’s government and others answering to the country’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had allied with the Huthis. Since mid-2015, army units and resistance fighters tied to the government have occupied the city centre, but the Huthis and former Saleh loyalists (the Huthis killed Saleh in December 2017) have controlled the routes connecting it with the rest of Yemen via two important highways, the north-south N1 and east-west N3. Cutting off access to the highways left Taiz in a state of partial siege, with only one poorly maintained mountain road from the south providing a way in and out of the city. The road closures have severely affected life in Taiz. All-too-frequent traffic accidents cause regular shortages of food and fuel. A flourishing war economy, in which ostensible rivals trade fuel and other commodities across internal boundaries while supposed allies fight one another to run smuggling rackets, serves to deepen insecurity in and around the city.
The severing of Taiz’s roads registered low on the international list of priorities until recently. Successive UN envoys to Yemen sidestepped the issue, seeing it as a distraction from their pursuit of a nationwide peace that would render war-related road closures moot. Even when the UN included road access in its peace initiatives, it did little follow-up work. The present envoy, Hans Grundberg, was the first diplomat of his rank to visit Taiz city – he went there in November 2021 – since the war began. Taizis have long felt abandoned.
In April, however, the Taiz issue started to get more attention, thanks to the UN-brokered truce. Shifts on the battlefield, including devastating government losses in al-Bayda, Shebwa and Marib governorate that badly dented Hadi’s wafer-thin credibility, a counteroffensive by United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed forces that halted the Huthi advance, and Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had created a mutually hurting stalemate for both Yemeni and outside parties to the conflict. The UN saw an opening to broker a pause in fighting. To convince the parties to stop shooting, the UN added a series of confidence-building measures to be carried out during the truce. The Huthis’ principal demands included reopening the airport in the capital Sanaa to international commercial flights and increasing the number of fuel shipments entering the port of Hodeida. The Hadi government asked for Taiz’s roads to be reopened – with the UN later scaling back this demand to asking for a commitment to discuss the roads. Five days after the parties concluded the truce, Hadi abruptly announced that he was stepping down in favour of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC).
Since then, the parties have made progress on the first two measures, which has worked to the Huthis’ benefit by increasing the fuel supply in the areas they control and allowing commercial flights to land in Sanaa for the first time since 2016. But the Taiz roads remain closed.
Physical roadblocks around Taiz are now a political barrier to sustaining and expanding the truce. Both the Huthis and the government say they are not interested in indefinitely extending the present arrangement. Each wants more concessions from the other in exchange for prolonging the détente. The UN has thus sought to negotiate a broader version of the truce, which it first proposed in June. The upgraded truce would last for six, rather than two months (the current version has already been renewed twice), and would include additional confidence-building measures to lay the groundwork for peace talks. Standing in the way of the expanded truce are government calls for progress on Taiz, the unfulfilled provision of the old deal, as well as the new Huthi demands related to salaries for civil servants. The Huthis say they will not make a new deal unless the government immediately starts paying salaries to those civil servants working in the areas they control, Yemen’s main population centres. In turn, the government says it will not even talk about salary payments until the Taiz road issue raised in the original truce agreement is resolved to its satisfaction.
The holdup appears to be a disagreement over one road in particular. In July, the government accepted a UN proposal to reopen four roads in Taiz province: the main northbound route linking the city with the east-west and north-south highways; two smaller roads in north-western and south-eastern Taiz; and a section of highway leading to Aden on the southern coast. The Huthis rejected the plan. But they had earlier floated schemes of their own in which they suggested reopening all these roads except the first one, the northbound route. The Huthis make not entirely convincing arguments about why talks on Taiz’s roads have not progressed, for example citing fears of al-Qaeda attacks and traffic congestion.
” There are reasons to suspect that the Huthis might be more interested in running down the clock on the truce than trying to find a compromise on Taiz. “
There are reasons to suspect that the Huthis might be more interested in running down the clock on the truce than trying to find a compromise on Taiz. Some Huthi officials believe the truce, which includes halting cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is a major concession in itself. They refuse to do more unless further climbdowns are linked to a nationwide settlement or at least until the government starts paying salaries in Huthi-run areas. Others in the Huthi camp argue that rebel fighters’ morale might decline if the leaders give up more. But perhaps most importantly, the Huthis perceive that their rivals have been weakened by bouts of infighting in the PLC, which may have tipped the military balance of power further in the Huthis’ favour.
A Divided Leadership Council
Yemen has fragmented into several zones of military-political control since 2015. Before the PLC’s formation, armed factions in the anti-Huthi camp fell into two broad categories: those who recognised the authority of Hadi’s government and those who did not. Hadi came to power in 2012 but fled Sanaa after the Huthi-Saleh coup. He remained Yemen’s internationally acknowledged (if widely disparaged) leader until he resigned the presidency, under pressure from Riyadh, to make way for the PLC shortly after the truce came into effect.
Before Hadi’s ouster, forces clustered in Taiz, Marib and northern Shebwa, many of them with ties to Islah – Yemen’s pre-eminent Sunni Islamist political party – had placed themselves under the authority of those army units loyal to Hadi. But many other anti-Huthi groups refused to recognise Hadi’s writ, because they rejected either Hadi himself or his relationship with Islah. The latter objection was particularly strong among powerful UAE-aligned factions. Abu Dhabi reviles Islah because some of its members have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Emirati leaders view as a threat on par with al-Qaeda or even the Islamic State (ISIS). Of the UAE-backed groups, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which advocates for an independent southern Yemen, is among the most powerful.
Hadi’s influence on the ground waned as these new groups rose to prominence. But his continued international recognition arguably acted as a brake on the aspirations of elements of the fractious anti-Huthi coalition to regional autonomy or secession. Over the course of 2018 and 2019, for example, the STC took over Aden, the government’s interim capital. But the STC, which hopes to gain international support for southern independence, met stiff resistance from diplomats working in Yemen, who continued to back Hadi and his government. The Hadi government worked hard to differentiate between STC “militias” and its own “state forces”, and Riyadh later pressured the STC into allowing government officials to return to work in Aden as part of a deal that froze the STC-government conflict but did not resolve it.
” When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi … installed the [Presidential Leadership Council], they appeared to have been trying to … unify the anti-Huthi camp. “
When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi eventually pushed Hadi out and installed the PLC, they appeared to have been trying to overcome all these divisions and unify the anti-Huthi camp. They hoped to present the Huthis with both a credible interlocutor for negotiations and a more formidable foe on the battlefield. But instead of fostering unity, the PLC’s formation has created even more space for rivals to jostle for power and led to speculation in Yemeni and regional media that the divisions extend to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The PLC folded the leaders of key anti-Huthi groups, including the STC, into a new executive headed by Alimi, a former interior minister. The confusing new dynamic evened the playing field for the various anti-Huthi groups. “Now everyone is legitimate, and no one is legitimate”, a Yemeni journalist said of the anti-Huthi armed factions, adding that the PLC made it easier for anti-Islah forces to attack their rivals, even those who had been part of the pre-PLC military or security services, which the PLC is meant to be combining with other forces under its command.
That is precisely what happened. In August, UAE-aligned forces took over Shebwa governorate. In doing so, they forced what were widely described by Yemeni media outlets as “Islah” forces – but who were also in the main members of the pre-PLC state-run military and security forces – out of Shebwa. Shebwa’s UAE-aligned governor later accused what he termed “Brotherhood” forces of sedition. Shortly afterward, the STC seized the eastern half of neighbouring Abyan governorate, after negotiating the takeover with Hadi’s local military allies, who had been cast adrift by his ouster.
An Unwelcome Distraction
If the PLC’s formation was meant to present the Huthis with a single credible negotiating partner, it has thus far backfired. The infighting has deflected attention from the truce, thrown efforts to unite the military factions into disarray and undermined the PLC’s credibility. It has also raised questions about whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE are on the same page. Lastly, it has put President al-Alimi, who was born in Taiz, in a tight spot. The PLC chairman’s credibility is already tarnished: he repeatedly demanded a halt to the Shebwa battles and forbade the STC from entering Abyan, but to no avail. The Huthis likely recognise that his authority will erode further if government negotiators agree to a deal that delivers little or nothing there. Should the truce expire with no deal, meanwhile, the Huthis would presumably press their military advantage and fully encircle Taiz. Islah-linked armed groups in Taiz and Marib – where the war’s main front lies at present – look increasingly vulnerable. They are surrounded, by the Huthis on one side and their UAE-aligned frenemies on the other.
The Huthis may also be banking on Saudi Arabia’s desire to exit the war to allow them to avoid making concessions. With the PLC in freefall, Riyadh may calculate it is better to get a bad deal on Taiz, pay salaries in Huthi areas and edge Yemen toward a final settlement than to risk further territorial losses. What is clear is that none of these considerations have much to do with the technical details of the UN’s proposals on which roads to open. The current Huthi position appears to be about extracting the maximum possible benefit from the negotiations without giving much of anything up in return.
The Cost of Failure
If, indeed, that is the Huthis’ calculus, it may prove mistaken. The rebels are under increasing pressure in areas they hold to address an economic crisis that has not eased since the truce began. While more fuel flowed into Hodeida, easing shortages at the pump, rising prices on world markets made fuel, food and other basic goods more expensive. Partly for this reason, the Huthis have been laser-focused on obtaining salary payments as a precondition to an expanded truce. The rebels are hardly likely to collapse any time soon, but if they return to fighting, they will need to present people in areas they control with economic benefits to justify more years of wartime privation.
” The Huthis are better prepared for renewed battle than the forces in Marib and Taiz. “
As for PLC officials, they should not overplay their weaker hand, either. Frustrated government officials say they should not have to swallow a more limited agreement on Taiz than the UN proposal they already accepted, as that would reward the Huthis for intransigence. They demand that the UN and world powers lean on the Huthis to reopen the roads as per the current truce’s terms. But the PLC should not allow the truce to fall apart to prove a point. The reality is that, given the infighting in the south and discord on the presidential council, the Huthis are better prepared for renewed battle than the forces in Marib and Taiz, a vulnerability the rebels will be keen to exploit. While some in the government may think that ending the truce would be a moral victory, and proof that they will not make endless concessions for no return, it could also prove to be a hollow one. Claiming the moral high ground could cost the government more territory in Marib and maybe even the last open road out of Taiz city. Already in August, the Huthis moved on al-Dhabbab, the district this road passes through. That offensive failed, but they could easily make another attempt.
Averting a Collapse
Time has not yet run out on hopes of expanding the truce. The best bet for Grundberg is to short-circuit negotiations. The envoy travelled to Sanaa on 28 September to meet Huthi leaders. It is not clear if he met Abdulmalik al-Huthi, the rebels’ reclusive leader, in person. But it is to Abdulmalik he must speak. A single word from the Huthi leader can put a stop to his lieutenants’ gamesmanship in the Taiz talks and ideally get the Huthis to commit instead to opening the northbound road that is the crux of the stalled negotiations. Grundberg could also entreat the government to call the Huthis’ bluff on Taiz, accepting their offer to reopen three of the four routes mentioned in the UN proposal in order to expand the truce and keep negotiations going, while making clear that other roads are to reopen in later phases.
Ideally, the parties would agree on the UN’s expanded truce option, but if not, a middle-ground arrangement that buys the UN a little breathing room may be the least bad outcome available to Grundberg. The parties could agree to a two-month rollover of the truce, or a more limited expansion of its terms and length. Such a deal would at least go some way toward keeping violence at bay. It would, nonetheless, bode ill for larger prospects for peace, illustrating that the parties have little interest in converting the truce into a lasting ceasefire, let alone comprehensive political talks. It might also indicate that the UN is locked into a cycle in which it expends energy addressing piecemeal issues, like roads and salaries, rather than a wider political settlement. If 2 October indeed passes without an expanded truce, the UN and the countries backing its initiative should redouble their efforts on Taiz’s roads and the question of salaries in order to keep the option of an expanded truce alive. More broadly, though, Grundberg should explore ways to break out of the above cycle, pressing his case for a political process beyond the truce by clearly laying out his plans for negotiations to end the war.