Written by Declan Walsh
An internationally backed cease-fire in the key Yemen port of Hodeida got off to a shaky start Tuesday when fighting erupted moments after it took effect at midnight.
The clashes died down hours later, and by late Tuesday, residents of the war-torn port were enjoying their first respite from a fight that has raged since June, displacing at least 550,000 people and leading to thousands of civilian deaths.
The truce, agreed to in Sweden last week by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and its Houthi foes, is intended to ensure humanitarian access to Hodeida, which is the conduit for 70 percent of aid to Yemen. The deal has stoked hopes the belligerents could start full-blown talks to end a war that has driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
But the cessation of hostilities, which followed a weekend of heavy combat in the city, is fragile. And the sporadic bursts of gunfire that rang out even late Tuesday were a reminder that without concerted international support, heavy fighting could resume there.
What’s the plan to make the cease-fire stick?
At the talks in Sweden last week, the warring parties agreed to withdraw their troops in Hodeida to the city limits within 21 days under the supervision of a United Nations-led committee. The U.N. envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, says he wants that committee to be headed by Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general who previously led U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo and along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
To make the deal stick, Griffiths is hoping to get the Security Council to pass a resolution supporting the latest peace efforts. More broadly, he’s hoping to build on a surge of international attention on Yemen in recent weeks that culminated, on Dec. 13, in a stunning move in Washington, when the Senate voted for the United States to end all military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The resolution, which had bipartisan support, will likely have a symbolic rather than concrete impact, at least until a new House is sworn in. But it did send a sobering signal to President Donald Trump, a staunch Saudi ally, that his Yemen policy is now a matter of intense scrutiny.
Why such strong global interest in Yemen now?
One reason: The prospect of a catastrophic famine has focused minds.
A recent U.N. food survey found that 16 million Yemenis are living with food shortages, including 5 million in pre-famine conditions and 63,500 more who are starving to death. Those figures have increased by 42 percent since the last survey in March 2017, and have raised the prospect of a nationwide famine.
Distressing photos of skeletal children, like Amal Hussain, 7, who died in October, have galvanized public attention on a crisis that, until recently, was overshadowed by other Middle Eastern conflict zones like Syria and Iraq.
But the new focus on Yemen is also a product of international politics.
Global revulsion at the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October set off a wave of hostility directed at the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA believes is responsible for the killing.
For at least some American senators, voting to stop all assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a way of registering their anger at the crown prince, and at Trump’s refusal to take punitive action despite mounting evidence of his role in Khashoggi’s death.
So this is good news for war-weary Yemenis, right?
Yes and no. The sudden international focus on Yemen pressured both sides to come to the negotiating table. The Trump administration, hoping to dampen criticism of its support for the Saudis, recently stopped refueling coalition warplanes over Yemen in an effort to stem the shocking rate of civilian casualties. Thousands have died since 2015, often killed with U.S.-supplied weapons and munitions.
But there are also worries the two sides will struggle to deliver on the promises made in Sweden — and that if the fighting does resume, it could be fiercer and exact a higher human cost than ever.
Previous cease-fires, most recently in 2016, have crumbled. Experts say that, despite the peace moves, both sides are still motivated to continue the war.
In the past six months Saudi Arabia’s chief ally, the United Arab Emirates, has led a military force which has fought to the gates of Hodeida, hoping to snatch the city from Houthi control, which would be a major blow to that group. But Yemen analysts say it is unclear whether the loss of the city would cause the Houthis to give in, or fight even harder.
And even as Hodeida fell quiet, fighting continued on other fronts in Yemen, like in the northern province of Hajjah.
What’s next for Hodeida?
On Tuesday, anxious city residents waited to see if the truce would hold. Some said that Houthi militias had arrested dozens of people from the eastern and southern neighborhoods where fighting has raged in recent weeks.
Anwar Salem, a schoolteacher, said the gunfire that rang out Tuesday night was among the heaviest he had ever heard. “You could hear it from everywhere,” he said.
Last week in Sweden, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres exulted as Houthi and Yemen government representatives smiled and shook hands in Sweden. Now he has the harder task of turning those gestures into on-the-ground realities.
The Security Council is considering a resolution, drafted by Britain, that calls for plans for a peace-monitoring force in Hodeida to be put forth by the end of the month. Analysts say he needs to move swiftly.
“The biggest reason for optimism right now is that both sides have agreed to meet again in January,” said Farea al-Muslimi of the Sana Center for Strategic Studies. “Otherwise, it all depends on so many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. So we will have to see.”