Though the battle for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida is paused until the UN-brokered deal to demilitarise the area succeeds or collapses, fighting on other fronts has intensified, particularly along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Since the Hodeida ceasefire took effect in December, the battleground has partly shifted to the northern governorates around the Huthi rebels’ heartland of Saada. According to the Yemen Data Project, an independent data collection initiative that tracks airstrikes in Yemen, Saada governorate has faced more Saudi bombardments than any other part of Yemen since the war began in March 2015, with the majority of strikes taking place near the border.
In particular, fighting has escalated in Baqim and Al-Buqaa, towns located along a main highway to Saudi Arabia, and along the internal border separating Saada governorate from Al-Jawf to the east. Here, tribal fighters backed by Saudi Arabia are pushing westward along a highway that runs along the border from Al-Jawf to Al-Buqaa.
Further west, toward Yemen’s Red Sea coast, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place around the Saudi border in Hajja governorate, namely the port town of Midi and nearby Haradh, close to Al-Tuwal, the main border crossing. In recent weeks, tensions have grown between the Huthis and members of the previously neutral Al-Hajour tribe in the Kushar district of Hajja, just 25km east of Haradh. Hostilities started when the Hajour detained Huthi fighters who had entered tribal territory. This incident triggered a series of tit-for-tat detentions and skirmishes, which now reportedly involve Sawdah tribesmen from neighbouring Amran governorate.
The Huthis and the Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi regularly claim major victories against one another in the north while little changes on the ground. But what momentum there is lies with Saudi-backed forces, which have gradually gained territory since late 2016. They have made the most progress in Al-Buqaa, where they have come within 10km of Kitaf, until 2013 the site of a local outpost of Dar al-Hadith, a Salafi religious institute whose members were forced out of Saada by the Huthis in 2014. Some of those fighting the Huthis on the border, and in Hajja and Al-Jawf, are former Dar al-Hadith students. Others come from tribal and military networks affiliated with Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist political party. Although these are not the only forces arrayed against the Huthis along the northern border, their presence has led the Huthis to paint these battles as a sectarian campaign sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
The Huthis are also defending their home turf that holds meaning for all sides: the Hadi government sees military success in Saada as a way to demoralise the Huthis if they manage to “raise the Yemeni flag in Marran”, as President Hadi has said his forces intend to do. Marran is the Huthi family’s hometown, where government forces killed the movement’s first leader, Hussein al-Huthi, in 2004. If the Hadi government is serious, then it is willing to fight in Saada for a long time to come. For its part, Saudi Arabia says it is trying to defend its border from Huthi encroachment, and restore the authority of the Yemeni government in the north.
Bottom Line: If the Stockholm Agreement brokered in December succeeds in preventing a fight for Hodeida, diplomats hope that a broader political process on the country’s future will soon follow. But fighting in the north could undermine that outcome, as both sides see control of the Saudi-Yemeni border as important leverage. De-escalating violence along the border should therefore be a medium-term priority for the UN and international actors. In the longer term, the Huthis, Saudi Arabia and government of Yemen will need to negotiate a lasting security agreement on the border as part of wider political talks.
Further delays and provocations from the parties could cause at least a temporary resumption of fighting around Hodeida.
Political and Military Developments
Lieutenant General Michael Anker Lollesgaard had an eventful first week as head of the newly formed UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA). He convened the Huthi and government of Yemen delegations to the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) he now heads on a boat moored in Hodeida’s harbour, before sailing south to Aden with the government delegation. After meeting political leaders in the Hadi government’s temporary headquarters, he flew to Sanaa with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, for meetings with Huthi officials.
Griffiths and Lollesgaard hope to convince the government and the Huthis to implement a plan put forward by General Patrick Cammaert, the outgoing RCC chair who laid the groundwork for UNMHA, to redeploy front-line forces away from Hodeida city and nearby ports. Both sides appear to accept the proposal. The RCC is due to meet again in the coming days, and initial redeployments from Hodeida and Saleef ports could start shortly after.
On 11 February, Griffiths and Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, issued a joint statement urging the Huthis and government of Yemen to permit access to the Red Sea Mills compound on the eastern edge of Hodeida, which holds around 25 per cent of all World Food Programme (WFP) wheat supplies in Yemen. The WFP evacuated staff from the compound in September 2018 as fighting along the Red Sea coast reached the city’s outer limits. UAE-backed Yemeni fighters now control the mills, and the UN has been trying to arrange for access via heavily mined roads crossing the frontline. Lowcock and Griffiths warned that because the UN was unable to access the compound, food for 3.7 million people for a month was “at risk of rotting”. Four days earlier, Lowcock had issued a separate statement calling out the Huthis for failing to clear a path for the UN to reach the mills from Hodeida city, which they still hold.
Some UN officials saw the statements as an attempt to mollify the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who have shown growing signs of frustration at what they perceive as the UN’s failure to criticise the Huthis for violating the Stockholm Agreement and blocking access to Red Sea Mills – and also as a means of pressuring the Huthis.
The Huthis have done some work on demining the area around Red Sea Mills, but have repeatedly voiced concerns that opening the main Sanaa-Hodeida highway would make them vulnerable to coalition-backed attacks. In the meantime, the WFP negotiated access to the compound via an alternative route that did not entail crossing frontlines; a convoy stood ready to travel from Aden to Hodeida to inspect the facility on 13 or 14 February. But senior UN officials cancelled the journey following the two statements from Lowcock and Griffiths, citing unspecified security concerns. The statements angered the Huthis, who perceive a coalition campaign aiming to paint them as the only intransigent party and diminish their concerns about reopening the highway.
The Huthis saw a communique (see below) issued by the Quad – the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – on 13 February as further evidence of such a campaign. They fear that attempts to shift the public narrative could become a precursor to a renewed coalition assault on Hodeida if the ceasefire collapses, for which they believe they will be blamed.
The Huthis are doing themselves few favours, however, tightening their grip on all aspects of life in areas they control. Security police affiliated with the movement cracked down on banks this past week, detaining senior staff at the Tadhamon International Islamic Bank, one of the biggest private financial institutions in the country. The Huthis take issue with Sanaa-based banks cooperating with the government of Yemen-run Central Bank of Yemen in Aden over access to a Saudi-funded import credit facility, and hope to extract preferential exchange rates in currency transactions by increasing their control over the main banks.
Economic conditions are barely improving. While the Yemeni riyal gained slightly against the dollar in the week prior to 14 February – trading at around 595-597 to one, compared to 600 to one a week earlier – the Famine Early Warning System is forecasting a deeper decline in the value of the riyal over the course of 2019 due to an ongoing shortage of foreign currency. Meanwhile, the government of Yemen announced that it expects to produce an average of 110,000 barrels per day of oil in 2019 and to export 75,000 barrels per day. At current market prices, that would generate around $1.7 billion in revenues this year, which is insufficient to cover imports.
Bottom Line: A key issue for Lollesgaard is closing the huge trust deficit between the Huthis, the government of Yemen and the coalition. If he can at least get an agreement on the first phase of Huthi redeployments from the Red Sea ports, he would ease current tensions a great deal. Conversely, further delays and provocations from the parties could cause at least a temporary resumption of fighting around Hodeida. Diplomats should carefully calibrate their pressure on the Huthis and should be ready to restrain and pressure both sides if violence around Hodeida worsens. If the current stasis continues, the already catastrophic humanitarian situation is likely to worsen.
Regional and International Developments
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a joint resolution spearheaded by Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) on 13 February that directs the U.S. to remove its armed forces from “hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al-Qaeda or associated forces” within 30 days of enactment. The bill now heads to the Senate, which adopted a similar resolution during the previous Congress. Its prospects are unclear, though proponents have indicated they are hopeful for a narrow victory. The White House said on 11 February that it “strongly opposes” the legislation and that it would veto any similar bill or resolution. Trump administration officials have also indicated that they do not believe U.S. armed forces are engaged in “hostilities” for purposes of war powers legislation.
Separately, reports suggest that the Trump administration does not intend to reissue the certification it made to Congress in September 2018 that the Saudi-led coalition is taking adequate precautions to avoid civilian casualties. Absent such a certification, the U.S. is legally barred from resuming the refuelling support that it suspended in late 2018.
As the U.S. government struggled internally to define the boundaries of its participation in the Yemen conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at the Quad meeting in Warsaw, where a related conversation was taking place. Beyond boilerplate diplomatic language welcoming recent UN Security Council action on Yemen and expressing support for Griffiths, Quad members issued a communiqué on 13 February. The Quad accused the Huthis of creating bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented the UN from setting up its monitoring mission in Hodeida and interfering in the banking sector. The Quad also discussed efforts to “reduce illicit fuel imports by the Huthis” from Iran and, citing a new UN Panel of Experts report made public the same day, accused Tehran of supplying the Huthis with money, ballistic weaponry and other advanced weapons systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Quad made no mention of allegations by CNN and Amnesty International earlier in February that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have supplied advanced weapons systems to their local allies, which have reportedly ended up in the hands of jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and leaked into the local arms market. The coalition issued a standard denial of the CNN report on 9 February, with the UAE saying it takes all reports of arms leakages “seriously”.
Meanwhile, even as they reaffirm their determination to end the war through diplomacy, UAE officials repeat that their forces are positioned to resume hostilities in Hodeida in case redeployments do not progress. In briefings in late January, coalition officials said they saw the Stockholm Agreement as a stepping stone toward a political process to end the war, so the uptick in bellicose language may well be a means of maintaining pressure on the Huthis. This tactic could backfire, however, if the Huthis respond with bellicosity of their own.
While the UAE and Saudi Arabia are pressing UN Security Council members to be more forceful in their public criticism of the Huthis, the UN sanctions committee for Yemen, composed of Security Council member states is due to renew the sanctions regime on Yemen by 26 February. Members do not expect major changes to the sanctions regime, but worry that the U.S. could attempt to insert new language on Iran.
Bottom Line: Actions and statements by the U.S. Congress and the Quad ended up balancing each other out, apportioning blame to the Huthis and coalition equally for delays in implementing the Stockholm Agreement and the ongoing human suffering in Yemen. Outside players need to keep pressing the Huthis and coalition to end the war, and Congressional action is helpful in this respect.