On the anniversary of the UN-mediated agreement, Almasdar Online reviews the setbacks and status of the deal to avert war in the port city of Hodeidah
Analysis: One year after the Stockholm agreement, is Yemen any closer to achieving peace?
One year ago to the day, Yemen’s warring parties signed the Stockholm Agreement in Sweden, in a UN-led effort to prevent the country from further disintegration. The agreement received unquestioning support internationally, but divided Yemeni public opinion as many viewed it as merely prolonging the inevitable. The agreement was touted as a last hope to save the country from full-blown famine and introduce several confidence-building measures that would put the warring parties on a straighter path toward a full political settlement.
Late this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed retired Indian general Abhejit Joha as the chairman of the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) and the Command of the United Nations Mission in Yemen in support of the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMAHA). As head of the RCC, Joha is tasked with overseeing the redeployment of forces belonging to the two warring parties from Hodeidah and its three ports, in accordance with the Hodeidah agreement, signed as one of the agreements under the umbrella of the Stockholm Agreement.
This task, however, has been a monumental challenge: Joha is the third general to be assigned to lead the UN mission in Hodeidah, and he has already voiced his concerns more clearly than his predecessors. He was appointed to succeed Danish national Michael Lollesgaard, who officially led the mission from January to July 2019. He left with a farewell ceremony and a memorial shield from the Houthi authorities in Sana'a, unlike his Dutch predecessor, who was forced to resign after alleged assassination attempts and a series of violations, accusations, detentions, threats and insults.
After one year, three UN resolutions, three different generals, and a plethora of other complications and setbacks, what does the situation in Hodeidah look like now, and have people’s lives improved? What has been implemented so far? And what lessons have been learned?
Almasdar Online English takes a look at the key milestones of the Stockholm Agreement, from the signing to the controversial redeployment of forces, and analyzes where the agreement now stands.
The coastal city of Hodeidah, in Hodeidah governorate in western Yemen, has three sea ports that have been under Houthi control since October 2014. Hodeidah’s port facilities are the most important in Yemen with regards to imports of essential goods. For over five years, the Houthis have received enormous revenues from taxes and fees related to imports and their transportation through Hodeidah.
The Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition have accused the Houthis of using the ports to smuggle Iranian weapons and missiles, whose cross-border capabilities from an early stage have been of considerable concern to Saudi Arabia. Those accusations and fears were behind the military operations on the west coast, in which UAE-backed Joint Forces reached the outskirts of the southern and eastern city of Hodeidah in May 2018.
That progress represented a qualitative shift in the course of the battle for the government and coalition, but international pressure, and fears of a worsening humanitarian crisis, led to peace consultations between the government and the Houthis, hosted by Sweden for one week starting Dec. 6, 2018.
UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council via a television broadcast from Amman, Jordan that the agreement between Yemen’s parties "came into force from the date of their signing on Thursday, Dec. 13," but there was no change on the ground.
On Dec. 21, the UN Security Council issued resolution 2451 stating in the second paragraph that the Council “supports the agreements reached by the parties on the city and governorate of Hodeidah, the ports of Hodeidah, Al-Salif and Ras Issa; the establishment of an executive mechanism for the activation of the prisoner exchange agreement, and the issuance of a statement of understanding on Taiz, as stipulated in the Stockholm Agreement.”
The Secretary-General was authorized to “establish and deploy a vanguard team, for an initial period of 30 days from the date of this decision to begin monitoring, supporting and facilitating the immediate implementation of the Stockholm Agreement, including the chairmanship of the Re-Deployment Coordination Committee.”
On Dec. 26-28, 2018, General Patrick Cammaert chaired successive meetings of the Joint Committee for the Coordination of Redeployment in Hodeidah in the presence of three government and three Houthi representatives, and the meeting followed a series of meetings between Cammaert and his team (comprising eight people) with government leaders in Aden, and separately with Houthi authorities in Sana'a, visiting ports and areas of engagement after meeting Houthi officials in Hodeidah.
The Dutch general presented to the parties three priority areas under the Stockholm Agreement: a ceasefire and control mechanism, confidence-building measures for humanitarian assistance, and redeployment. The Committee agreed that the second session would be held on January 1, 2019, with both parties submitting detailed plans and an operational vision for the full deployment.
The parties agreed on the structure of the RCC and its mechanism of action. According to the report of the UN Secretary-General , it was agreed that the structure would be as follows: a secretariat to support the chairman of the RCC; a joint coordination and communication center; and a mechanism for communication and coordination, with communication and coordination teams, in order to oversee the compliance of the parties to the ceasefire and redeployment and monitoring.
As a confidence-building measure, the two sides agreed at the meeting to open humanitarian corridors, with the Sana'a-Hodeidah highway as an initial step facilitating the first humanitarian convoy from Hodeidah port. The agreement included military protection from the Houthis accompanying the convoy and officials facilitating cross-border crossing sought by government and armed UN security personnel.
As government forces began removing roadblocks and opening the Kilo 16 road linking Hodeidah to Sana’a the next morning, the Houthis were carrying out a deployment from the port of Hodeidah, and handed it over to other gunmen dressed in coast guard uniforms. The Dutch general, apparently surprised by the arrangement, attended the “handover” and gave a speech on the occasion.
The spokesman for the UN Secretary-General said later that during a meeting at the port, Cammaert expressed his "disappointment at the missed opportunity to strengthen confidence between the parties to the conflict," stressing that any action taken in this way would only be worthy of confidence if all parties, including the United Nations, would be able to follow up on the redeployment and ascertain whether they matched the Sweden Agreement.
The second meeting was held to discuss the passage of the blocked aid convoy in Hodeidah and the redeployment of forces, but ended on Jan. 3 without any progress. The Houthis insisted on carrying out the first redeployment phase, and accused Cammaert of siding with the government. A military source close to the government delegation spoke of Houthi threats to the UN official and accused him of bias.
Threats and intimidation
Houthi forces opened fire on retired General Cammaert, and the group's spokesman, Mohammed Abdul Salam, said that "the lack of progress in Hodeidah in implementing the Stockholm Agreement is mainly due to the deviation of the chairman of the UN Coordination Committee (Cammaert) from the course of the agreement, implementing another agenda.” The group demanded his dismissal, and Houthi-controlled media published many news articles and accusations against Cammaert.
In mid-January, the UN official's motorcade came under a barrage of bullets on the lines of contact southeast of Hodeidah, which the Houthis then blamed on government forces. However, the government delegation denied this and said they were with Cammaert during the attack. The UN stated that they were unable to identify the source of the gunfire.
“The UN declaration that it does not know the source of the fire that targeted Patrick's convoy is a matter of concern for two reasons,” said Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who said firstly that "if the team cannot know the source of the fire with its presence or targeting, it indicates a low level of experience or confusion, and this calls into question the accuracy of the team's reports to the Security Council." Secondly, Al-Houthi said, it is "to cover up the fires of the states of aggression and its mercenary, which is proven that it is not neutral.”
A source close to the UN mission in Hodeidah said that in his report, Cammaert recommended to the Security Council to expand the UN mission, noting that the Houthis blocked the arrival of his entire initial team of 30 members, some of them former military personnel.
According to the source, who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, the UN Security Council adopted Cammaert's proposals, through Resolution 2452 of Jan. 16, which called for the establishment of a special political mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement. This step was welcomed by the government and rejected by the Houthis as a violation of sovereignty, who informed the UN envoy that their cooperation would be impossible if the Dutch remained in the joint committee leadership.
According to the source, the Houthis' attack on Cammaert and the assassination attempt against him sought not only to scare him, but also to try to liquidate him and hold the government responsible. However, this was not achieved and the second purpose was to prompt him to resign and request an exemption from his mission.
A government source close to the government team told Al-Masdar Online that Cammaert informed the UN envoy of his resignation on Jan. 21, and although the UN initially refused his resignation, the UN envoy on Jan. 31 appointed Danish General Michael Lollesgaard as the new head of the RCC and head of the UN mission.
Cammaert was later able to hold a third meeting of the RCC, on board a ship at sea, and spoke about it to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, saying that "the parties no longer accept meetings, so I invented a ploy, after seeing a rescue ship of the United Nations World Food Programme, anchored at the port.”
Cammaert stressed that the Houthis did not dare to go to the meeting in the areas of government control, and they feared that the government delegation would enter the city of Hodeidah like a "Trojan horse," pointing out that the international ship "Vos Apollo," where the meeting was held, was "a golden opportunity,” he said. “I saw the parties together chewing qat on the deck, but that did not produce tangible results. We were unable to reach an agreement, and we agreed to maintain the status quo, temporarily."
Cammaert told the Dutch newspaper that his team was hit six times by live bullets, and that "every evening we heard the shelling, and sometimes the hotel was shaking," and mentioned receiving threats on social media from the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The Houthis had refused to hold a meeting of the joint committee in areas controlled by pro-government forces, despite the prior agreement that the meetings would be held equally in areas controlled by both sides to enhance confidence, which was not done.
End of implementation period
The Houthis were supposed to redeploy their forces from the three ports of Hodeidah and sensitive humanitarian facilities within two weeks of the agreement entering into force as stipulated in the Stockholm Agreement. That is, the first phase of the redeployment was to be completed by Jan. 2. The joint redeployment of all forces from Hodeidah and its three ports and its surroundings was to be completed within 21 days of the ceasefire entering into force.
According to the report of the government team before Yemen’s House of Representatives in Seyoun, the government's acceptance of the extension of the implementation period of the Stockholm Agreement represents a political and military disaster, allowing the Houthis to manipulate and exploit the agreement in favor of strengthening their positions in Hodeidah.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by Almasdar Online, claimed a number of developments and constructions that the Houthis began implementing after the cancellation of the scheduled period of implementation of the agreement, where they created dozens of tunnels at Hodeidah airport and fortified their areas of control south and east, erected guns and anti-aircraft guns on the buildings of citizens and used houses and residents as human shields.
The report called the government and the parliament, to vote on the cancellation of the Stockholm Agreement and the resumption of the liberation process, but the House of Representatives merely recommended that the government set a time period for the United Nations as a deadline for the implementation of the agreement by the Houthis, or the resumption of the liberation process, and came as a non-binding recommendation according to the draft recommendations obtained by Almasdar Online.
A ‘gift’ for the Houthis
In February, Griffiths, the UN envoy, extended the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement indefinitely after holding a series of meetings with Houthi leaders in Sana’a and the Yemeni government in Riyadh, allowing General Lollesgaard to discuss widely with both sides of the conflict.
Griffiths said the extension of the time period for the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement is "expected," noting that the timetables involved for the implementation of the agreement "were very ambitious, while the situation on the ground is more complex.”
However, the spokesman for the Joint Forces on the West Coast, Colonel Wadhah Al-Dubaish, labelled the extension and the end of the scheduled implementation period as a gift to the Houthis.
"The extension decision is like putting the basket and eggs in the hands of the Houthis to control everything," he said in a statement to Almasdar Online.
Al-Dubaish described the Stockholm Agreement as "ominous" from the beginning, and said it “cost us a lot of sacrifices, even though we were on the outskirts of the city of Hodeidah and close to its liberation.” He continued, "The agreement is a gift to the Houthis and every day we continue this agreement is a gift to the militias and the complicity of the United Nations is a gift and empowerment for the militias. The UN envoy and the UN are giving gifts to the Houthis, but tomorrow the gift will not be free and will be very expensive."
The Danish General
Lollesgaard began his mission in February by putting forward plans to merge the stages, ending the gradual and simultaneous implementation previously adopted by Cammaert. From Feb. 16 to 17, the discussion focused on redeployment in order to agree on ways to redeploy and re-establish the local security forces in charge of securing the city and the three ports mentioned, once the redeployments had been completed.
The meetings resulted in the concerned parties agreeing to the framework for the first phase of troop redeployment from the three Red Sea ports and vital humanitarian facilities.
The first phase included the withdrawal of Houthi forces from the city's ports by about 5 km, as opposed to a retreat by government forces at the eastern entrance to the city by about 1 km. This phase was supposed to secure humanitarian corridors for assistance and commercial shipments, with the second phase covering the rest of the military steps required by the agreement, particularly on the completion of the "redeployment" by the parties at agreed locations outside the city of Hodeidah.
To overcome differences over the second phase, which is of great importance to both sides, the UN offered its vision to completely evacuate Hodeidah from all armed forces , but the disagreement was over the interpretation of the full deployment of the city, and the identity of the local security forces and the Coast Guard hindered implementation, as the "redeployment," as the Houthis see it, is a process of withdrawing part of their forces to keep the areas from which they withdraw under their control by handing over to forces mainly run by the group.
The Yemeni government insisted that the positions from which the Houthis withdraw should be handed over to the security forces and local authority that existed in Hodeidah before the Houthis invaded Sana’a in September 2014, after which point they appointed their own security and local leaders.
In mid-May, the Houthis and the UN announced the start of a unilateral redeployment of Houthi forces, and the UN said in a statement that the Houthis' withdrawal from the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa was agreed in Stockholm. This was the beginning of a crisis between the UN team and the Yemeni government, which considered the UN's recognition of what it called a "play" to hand the Houthis the ports of Hodeidah to their forces, and subsequently lodged a formal complaint against Martin Griffiths to UN Secretary-General Guterres.
That crisis was overcome, following the provision of verbal guarantees to the Yemeni presidency by the Secretary-General. The Yemeni government said it had given Griffiths one last chance to correct the course of the implementation of the Hodeidah Agreement, and following that development, the RCC held its fifth meeting in the presence of the Houthi and government delegations, ahead of the UN Security Council's resolution 2481 on July 15, extending the mission of the UN mission to support the Hodeidah agreement until Jan. 15, 2020.
These events were indicative of Lollesgaard’s greater proximity to the Houthis, and this was evident through a farewell ceremony and a tribute shield and a recreational trip in Sana'a on July 23. Houthi officials praised in strong terms the Danish general, such as the statement of the deputy chief of staff appointed by the Houthis and the head of its team in the RCC, Major General Ali Al-Mushki, who said that "General Lollesgaard is a military commander with a living conscience; the countries of aggression have not been able to buy his conscience, as they have the consciences of many people," referring to the Saudi-led Arab coalition.
As the United Nations renewed the mission of UN envoy, the Secretary-General ended his work as a step to restore confidence with the Yemeni Government. But the termination of his mission led to an arduous search for a new general, after US Admiral Timothy James Keating declined the position as RCC chairman, as did a general from New Zealand.
The fifth meeting of the RCC in Hodeidah ended in mid-July, which came after two months without any progress on withdrawal and re-deployment. The committee referred the redeployment, verification and security and local authorities files to Griffiths for a decision in consultation with Houthi and government leaders, which means that the implementation of the Hodeidah agreement requires a new agreement on security forces and local authority that will take over the city and ports after the withdrawal.
On Sept. 9, the RCC held its sixth meeting, chaired by the Deputy Head of the UN mission to support the Hodeidah agreement, and the participation of the Houthi and government delegations, focusing on activating the ceasefire and de-escalation mechanism initially agreed in mid-July.
The parties agreed that the Joint Operations Centre (observation posts) of the UN mission at the Hodeidah facility would be established and activated, and that the center would include liaison and coordination officers from both parties, as well as UN liaison and coordination officers.
Since the ceasefire agreement in Hodeidah came into effect, the truce has been shaky and violated from all sides, and the UN has frequently described it as a very fragile truce. Sporadic fighting has resumed in Hodeidah since January, but in September and August a major escalation was seen that coincided with the UAE-backed insurgency in Aden.
Since the Indian general officially took office in early October, after holding a series of meetings with Houthi, Saudi, and government leaders in Sana’a and Riyadh, and bilateral meetings with the two parties delegations in the redeployment committee, the Houthis have foiled attempts to hold a joint meeting of the redeployment committee and prevented the government team from reaching the ship, according to Wadhah Al-Dubaish, the spokesman for the government’s west coast forces.
In a small achievement early in his tenure, the general created a mechanism for establishing a ceasefire, where he was able to oversee the deployment of five contact and monitoring points along the battle fronts in Hodeidah. However, continued violations have undermined the achievement.
Al-Dubaish, the spokesman for the joint forces on the west coast, however, said that the five observation points that were established on the outskirts of Hodeidah from several directions did not play any role, and that the activation of these points came as a cover for the Houthis with a clear distinction and inaction from the UN.
He claimed in a statement to Almasdar Online that since the installation of these points a month and a half ago, the Houthis have developed more than forty trenches and tunnels, and installed new military installations, under UN silence.
Joha expressed concern about an increase in violations despite the deployment of observation points, calling on the parties to show restraint, non-escalation, and commitment to the Stockholm Agreement.
Joha's latest statement condemned the escalation by both sides in Hodeidah, and shortly after the release of his statement he was stopped by the Houthis and prevented from travelling for several hours.
In a briefing to the Security Council on Nov. 22, Griffiths expressed concern about the increasing restrictions on the movement of mission staff in Hodeidah.
In late November, Houthi ballistic missiles and drones targeted civilian and military positions in the directorate of Al-Mocha, which is controlled by pro-government and coalition forces. While the joint forces condemned the attack as a violation of the Stockholm agreement and a serious escalation, the Houthis said that the attack fell outside of the agreement, which demands de-escalation in Hodeidah only.
General Joha faces greater difficulties in implementing the agreement, for several reasons, including, according to experts, the ambiguity and gaps in its terms, which bear different interpretations, such as the identity of the local security forces and the authority that will take over the city after the implementation of the re-deployment of forces from the city and ports.
This belief is confirmed by the statement by the first Dutch general, as well as reports from the International Crisis Group, the Washington Institute for Studies, the Sana'a Centre for Strategic Studies and regional and international research centers, which spoke of ambiguity and foreshadowed the impossibility of implementing the agreement on the ground.
In addition to ambiguity, other obstacles to the implementation of the agreement include the exceedingly complex nature of the conflict in Yemen, the associations of the parties to the conflict with international sponsors, and the increasing number of deaths on both sides, in addition to the loss of confidence in the UN and its ability to end the five-year war in Yemen.
On the other hand, supporters of the agreement say it has succeeded in its primary task, which was to prevent the medium to long-term closure of Hodeidah's ports. That would have likely resulted in widespread famine, given the country’s over-reliance on Hodeidah’s maritime facilities to bring in essential goods like wheat and oil. Had government and Saudi-led coalition forces significantly improved port facilities elsewhere in Yemen, thereby reducing dependence on Hodeidah for imports, the international community would have been more likely to support a military operation to retake Hodeidah from the Houthis.
Nevertheless, a year after the signing of the agreement, which is widely seen by Yemenis as having been imposed by foreign rather than domestic powers, it is clear that no significant progress has been made in achieving its stated goals, and lives continue to be lost on a daily basis. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, and instead of bringing Yemen closer to a comprehensive peace agreement, it has made the warring parties apprehensive about entering into new ceasefire monitoring or similar agreements, and eroded trust in the office of the UN Special Envoy.