What’s behind the Saudi ceasefire proposal in Yemen?

Ceasefire agreements between Houthis and Saudi coalition have rarely held up in deadlocked six-year conflict in Yemen.

Smoke and dust rise near buildings from air attacks launched by the Saudi-led coalition on the capital Sanaa [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Yemen’s Houthi rebel group, which has been battling a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition since March 2015, rejected Riyadh’s latest ceasefire initiative, demanding the complete lifting of the blockade on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.

The Iran-aligned group controls a large part of Yemen’s north, including the capital Sanaa and Hodeidah port – considered a lifeline for millions of Yemenis affected by the six-year-old war.

Rights groups have criticised Saudi Arabia’s naval and air blockade on Yemen saying it has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Yemen where 80 percent of the population survives on foreign aid.

The proposal, announced by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, includes restarting political negotiations between the Saudi Arabia-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthis under the United Nations auspices.

It would also allow fuel and food imports through the western port of Hodeidah – Yemen’s main port of entry, and reopen the main airport in Houthi-controlled Sanaa.

The initiative came following the UN Security Council’s call on March 18 for all parties to work with the UN envoy to Yemen, without preconditions, for the sake of a ceasefire and a political settlement.

Recent fighting

Since the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition militarily intervened in Yemen in March 2015, tens of thousands of people have been killed and much of the impoverished country’s infrastructure has been destroyed.

The military intervention came after the Houthis removed the internationally recognised government of Hadi from power in late 2014 and captured vast swathes of the country’s territory.

In recent weeks, the fighting has escalated in the northeastern province of Marib as Houthis launched a campaign to capture the last main region controlled by Hadi loyalists. They have also been launching near-daily drone and missile attacks on the kingdom, including on its multibillion-dollar energy installations.

The Saudi coalition in turn has been responding with air raids.

In the south, the Yemeni president shares control of Aden with southern separatists and local militias.

On Tuesday, eight Arab nations hailed the Saudi proposal but analysts are still not very hopeful.

The Houthis, meanwhile, launched a drone attack on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, the group’s military spokesman said on Tuesday.

Here is a look at Saudi Arabia’s current initiative, as well as previous agreements between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia-backed pro-government forces:

Responses to Saudi initiative

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam told Al Jazeera the group is “ready to go to a political dialogue after Saudi Arabia stops the war and lifts the siege”.

“Saudi Arabia must declare an end to the aggression and lift the blockade completely, but putting forward ideas that have been discussed for over a year is nothing new,” he was quoted as saying by the pro-Houthi Al Masirah TV.

Abdulsalam said the terms of the initiative are “nothing new” and were previously discussed in talks with the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.

“The Saudi proposal appears to double down on the idea that it is the Houthis who have to make concessions here,” International Crisis Group analyst Peter Salisbury told the AFP news agency. “That won’t sit well with negotiators in Sanaa.

“The Houthi response has been clear: they say this is an old offer, and that they’ve been clear in their position – completely lift barriers to movement on Hodeidah and Sanaa airport.”

Casey Coombs, a researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said Saudi Arabia “is framing itself as the peace-seeker”.

“Knowing full well the Houthis will continue fighting for Marib and firing rockets into [the kingdom], Saudi is betting this move will portray Houthis as the aggressors.”

The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Muhammad bin Saeed al-Jaber, told Al Jazeera the initiative is a completion of the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the international community to find a political solution.

He stressed it was preceded by contacts with regional and international parties, and that it came in line with the proposals of the UN and US envoys to Yemen.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak told Al Jazeera there was a significant diplomatic effort before the initiative was launched, which the Yemeni government was “an integral part of”.

Bin Mubarak also said the response of the Houthis to the initiative was condescending and negative, adding that they had to interact positively with the initiative to stop the war in Yemen.

Major ceasefire attempts in the past

2015 Geneva talks

The first and second rounds of the Geneva talks, which took place in June and December respectively with the backing of the UN, yielded no results. The talks broke down in the second round following ceasefire violations from both sides.

April 2016

A shaky ceasefire preceded talks in Kuwait, which began on April 21.

The talks were based on UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which states that the Houthis must withdraw from seized territories and disarm before talks can progress. However, on August 6, the talks ended following a deadlock.

The main sticking point remains that the Houthis wanted to discuss a political settlement before surrendering arms while the government delegation insisted that implementing the UN resolution was a priority.

December 2018

In December 2018, the warring sides signed the Stockholm Agreement in Sweden, which included three main factors.

The agreement entailed a ceasefire along the Hodeidah front and the redeployment of armed forces out of the city and the Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Issa ports. It was never fully implemented but despite occasional skirmishes, the agreement did alleviate the situation to an extent.

Hodeidah, the main entry point for Yemen’s commercial imports and aid, has also largely functioned, thanks to the Stockholm deal. Also, the UN-brokered deal called for a prisoner exchange between pro-government forces and Houthis.

And the third element of the deal was a statement on the status of the Yemeni city of Taiz. It included the formation of a joint committee from both sides of the conflict and the Yemeni civil society to determine the working mechanisms to run the strategic city.

However, that has not really resulted in any real action on the ground. Another major downside of the Stockholm agreement was that it failed to reach an agreement on two other key issues: the reopening of Sanaa International Airport and the reunification of the Central Bank of Yemen, which was split in September 2016.

April 2020

Saudi Arabia declared a 14-day ceasefire on April 9, which UN chief Antonio Guterres welcomed as a way to promote peace and slow the advance of COVID-19.

UN Special Envoy Griffiths noted that the two-week unilateral ceasefire covered “all ground, maritime and air operations in Yemen”.

But the ceasefire has remained elusive despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic situation.

On Tuesday, Yemen’s coronavirus committee urged the government to declare a public health “state of emergency” after a surge in infections in the war-torn country. Years of war have left the country’s weak healthcare system in ruins.

It has officially registered some 3,500 COVID-19 cases, while 771 people have died. But experts say the numbers may be much higher since testing is scant.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies