July 26, 2022

IntelBrief: United Nations Tries to Consolidate and Extend Truce in Yemen

AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

Bottom Line up Front

  • The United Nations and a multilateral grouping known as “the Quint” are seeking to convert a truce in Yemen into a longer-term ceasefire and substantive talks on a permanent settlement to the conflict.
  • Although the city of Taiz remains largely cut off, the truce has improved the humanitarian situation for many Yemenis.
  • Some of the truce terms have not been fully implemented, threatening an extension of the agreement beyond August 2.
  • A collapse of the truce in Yemen would tarnish President Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia and his engagement with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).

U.N. mediators, U.S. officials, and regional leaders have applauded the benefits of the ongoing truce in the Yemen conflict that, despite occasional breaches and incomplete implementation, has generally held. The truce began on April 2 as a two-month break from fighting during Ramadan and was subsequently extended, for another two months, until August 2. The calm has measurably improved the humanitarian situation for the Yemeni population, which has been devastated by eight years of conflict. According to the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, the truce has resulted in a “significant reduction” in civilian casualties, and those casualties that have occurred have been mostly the result of landmines and unexploded munitions. The terms of the truce stipulated that 36 fuel tankers should enter the port of Hudaydah during the four-month period and, to date, 26 vessels have delivered more than 720,000 metric tons of fuel derivatives, with more on the way. By contrast, in all of 2021, only 470,000 metric tons of fuel were delivered by the 23 tankers that made port calls at Hudaydah. U.N. officials have highlighted the importance of guaranteeing access to fuel, as global fuel prices rise as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine. The improved energy flow has helped to avoid disruptions in essential public services that depend partly on fuel, such as water, healthcare, electricity, and transportation. Another notable benefit of the break in fighting has been the resumption of civilian flights between Yemen and neighboring countries. Thousands of Yemenis have been able to reunite with families abroad and receive outside medical treatment by taking advantage of flights from Sanaa to countries including Jordan and Egypt.

The success of the truce and the associated confidence building measures have prompted the United Nations and regional and international stakeholders to pursue a six-month extension. Mediators still hope to use the truce to accelerate talks between the parties on a permanent settlement for the conflict. On July 18, a group of stakeholders formed in 2016 and known as “The Quint” (United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) issued a communiqué after their virtual meeting, stating: “The Quint fully supported the U.N. Special Envoy’s efforts to extend and expand the truce on 02 August, in addition to the full implementation of all terms of the truce. The Quint agreed that a permanent ceasefire and a durable political settlement must be the ultimate objectives of the U.N.-led process, and that such a settlement should build on past agreements and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.” The Quint also welcomed Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s joint $3 billion economic support package for Yemen, announced in April, and an additional Saudi commitment of a $200 million grant to provide oil derivatives to operate electric power stations in Yemen. These pledges were announced during President Biden’s mid-July trip to Saudi Arabia.

Some, however, have criticized the truce’s failure to produce sustained or substantive talks on a permanent settlement, while others maintain that the truce has not been fully implemented and might not be extended, risking a return to fighting. U.N. officials say that they continue to receive reports from both sides about alleged violations such as direct and indirect fire, drone attacks, reconnaissance overflights, and the construction of new fortifications and trenches. The parties also allegedly continue to send reinforcements to key terrain along the frontline, including in Marib, Hudaydah, and Taiz. U.N. and other mediators also accuse the Iran-backed Houthis of failing to meet the obligations under the truce to end the blockade of the city of Taiz and to allow the free movement of civilians in areas under Houthi control. On the other hand, U.N. mediators have been able to convene military representatives from the two sides to discuss the formation of a “Joint Coordination Room,” that would be tasked with de-escalating incidents. It is possible that mediators might agree to another two-month ceasefire extension, even if there is no agreement on the U.N.-proposed six-month period.

A collapse of the truce in Yemen would represent a significant setback for U.S. policy and threaten the rapprochement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that accompanied President Biden’s mid-July trip to the Kingdom. Saudi support for the truce enabled President Biden to justify the trip and his direct engagement with MBS there, despite U.S. assertions that MBS approved the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The Yemen conflict reportedly constituted a significant agenda item during the President’s meetings in the Kingdom. During the trip, MBS and other Saudi leaders pledged to U.S. officials to “do everything possible to extend and strengthen the U.N.-mediated truce [in Yemen], which has led to fifteen weeks of peace, the quietest period in Yemen in years, and translate it into a durable ceasefire and political process.” However, even though Saudi leaders would undoubtedly cite actions by the Houthis and their backers in Tehran for a collapse of the truce, the return of warfare to Yemen would tarnish the Biden visit and the restoration of U.S. relations with MBS. U.S. critics of President Biden’s decision to engage with him would no doubt blame MBS and his partners in the UAE for a resumption of hostilities. Any renewed recriminations of MBS would threaten a broad range of U.S. objectives, including a hoped-for increase in oil production, cooperation to counter Iran’s growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles and armed drones, and joint investments and development projects.