Yemen truce extended for two months, but warring sides far apart

Initial two-month truce, which had notably reduced hostilities in Yemen, had been set to expire on Thursday.

Pro-Houthi rally in Sanaa, Yemen.
The Houthis control Yemen's capital Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

A truce between the Yemeni government and the country’s Houthi rebels has been extended for two months, the United Nations has announced.

The initial two-month truce, the first since 2016, began on April 2 and was set to expire on Thursday. Still, after days of negotiations, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg announced that parties to the conflict had agreed to an extension.

“I would like to announce that the parties to the conflict have agreed to the United Nations’ proposal to renew the current truce in Yemen for two additional months,” Grundberg said.

Grundberg added the truce extension would come into effect “when the current truce period expires, today 2 June 2022 at 19:00 Yemen time (1600 GMT)”.

“The announcement of the truce extension today shows a serious commitment from all parties to end the senseless suffering of millions of Yemenis,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Yemen Country Director, Erin Hutchinson, said in a statement after Grundberg’s announcement. “The last two months have shown that peaceful solutions to the conflict are a real option.”

It is unclear what eventually convinced the warring sides to agree to a renewal of the truce at the last minute.

Though the provisions of the truce were not fully implemented – roads leading to the largely government-held city of Taiz continue to be closed by the Iran-aligned Houthis, for example – there have been some significant breakthroughs.

As part of the truce deal that went into effect on April 2, the parties to the conflict had agreed to halt all military operations inside Yemen and across its borders, operate two commercial flights a week from Houthi-controlled Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt, allow 18 fuel vessels into the port of Houthi-controlled Hodeidah, and open the roads in Taiz and other governorates.

According to the NRC, the number of civilians killed and injured in Yemen dropped by more than 50 percent in the first month of the truce.

Another major success of the truce was the resumption of commercial flights from Sanaa Airport on April 16, the first in six years. A Saudi-led coalition blockade had banned commercial flights from using the airport.

The flight took off from Sanaa to Amman, Jordan, after the government and the Saudi-led coalition agreed to allow passports issued by the Houthi rebel authorities in the Yemeni capital to be used for travel.

The flight had been initially scheduled for April 2, but it was delayed as the government rejected the use of the Houthi-issued travel documents.

Ahmed, a 31-year-old Sanaa resident, told Al Jazeera that he was now looking forward to being able to travel from the capital rather than go on treacherously long journeys across the front line to airports in government-held areas of the country.

“We’ve been waiting so long for this moment,” Ahmed said. “I am, like so many Yemenis, so happy now because I will be able to travel with my sick father for treatment outside Yemen, specifically to Cairo.”

“My father has refused to travel through the airports in Seiyun or Aden because it takes so long by car and he can’t bear the hardship of long-distance travelling,” he added.

Flights from Sanaa to Cairo, Egypt, resumed on June 1.

No progress in Taiz

However, despite an end to the blockade on Sanaa Airport, the Houthis have not yet agreed to open the main routes leading into Taiz, the country’s third-biggest city.

Removing that blockade, which has been in place since 2015, was supposed to be part of the truce, and the delay in reopening the routes was the main barrier to the extension of the truce.

Last week, thousands of people protested in Taiz, calling for the UN to pressure the Houthis to end the blockade of the city, with many Taizis feeling that their plight has been ignored.

To travel in and out of Taiz, people are forced to use perilous routes through the mountains, and journey times have increased by several hours.

People in Taiz, Yemen, gather for a demonstration demanding the end of a years-long siege
Locals in Taiz are frustrated at what they feel is a lack of attention towards their plight, as most of the roads into the city remain closed [Ahmad al-Basha/AFP]

Taiz has been the central topic at talks that were held in Amman for three days, beginning on May 25, between the government and the Houthis.

However, by the time the talks wrapped up, the two parties had failed to reach an agreement, with the government delegation saying that the Houthis had rejected a proposal to open the main roads that were used prior to 2015 and instead only offered to open minor roads.

The head of the Houthi delegation at the talks, Yahya al-Razami, said that they had instead proposed that roads be opened not just in Taiz but in Marib and al-Dhale, other areas of the country where the Houthis blame the government for road closures.

However, the Yemeni government only discussed the opening of roads “in specific areas, in violation of the truce deal,” al-Razami said, according to the Houthi version of the state news agency Saba.

Road closures in Marib and al-Dhale, however, affect a much smaller number of people than Taiz, which has a larger population.

Civilians in Taiz blame the UN for not pressing hard enough for the Houthis to lift the blockade.

“As a result of the Houthi siege, around four million people are suffering a human tragedy that you can hardly find anywhere else,” said Anwar al-Taj, a resident of the city. “But no pressure is put on the Houthis to force them to open the roads and end the stifling siege on civilians who suffer every day.”

“The United Nations is adopting a policy of double standards. The opening of Sanaa Airport and the port of Hodeidah is a humanitarian mission that the UN took upon itself and was able to implement,” al-Taj added.

Front lines quiet

Despite violations reported by both sides, the front lines have generally seen a reduction in hostilities compared with previous months.

However, the battle for Marib city, the last big city under the total control of the government in northern Yemen, has not stopped although the intensity has reduced.

The Houthis have been trying to capture the city, which has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Houthi-controlled territory, since early 2020.

A government military official in Marib told Al Jazeera that the Houthis had continued to construct new trenches and positions, and were mobilising forces and positioning heavy equipment to the west, south, and north of the city.

Therefore, while beneficial for civilians, the truce has not brought the parties closer to a deal that brings the conflict to an end.

Yemen has been at war since the Houthis took control of Sanaa in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily on the side of the government in 2015 and continues to conduct air attacks across the country, although they have stopped since the onset of the truce.

The war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, according to the UN.

With increasing focus now on how to end the war, Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, says she is wary that the truce might fall apart.

“If the truce is extended without going to the negotiating table, there is a risk of it collapsing,” Shuja al-Deen told Al Jazeera.

“The Saudi-led coalition is arranging for its own withdrawal from the war in Yemen, and does not want to engage in any battles,” she added. “So the government is aware that it can’t stand on its own without the coalition’s fighter jets, as it has failed to build any of its own capabilities over the past few years.”

“The Houthis are ready for war. For them, peace means accepting their conditions, most notably not making any concessions regarding the territory under their control, and that has become their own state.”

Shuja al-Deen said that the Houthi acceptance of the truce may be a result of pressure from Iran, which is seeking to resurrect its nuclear deal with the United States, rather than any internal desire for peace.

“Peace is the only viable option for the Saudi-led coalition, and the government – and the Houthis know that, so they are pressing for as much as they can,” Shuja al-Deen said. “I think they may try again to seize Marib, as their preparations on the ground imply.”

US President Joe Biden praised the ceasefire’s continuation.

“The last two months in Yemen … have been among the most peaceful periods since this terrible war began seven years ago,” he said in a statement. “Thousands of lives have been saved as fighting receded… It’s important that we work from here to make it permanent.”

Source: Al Jazeera