UN’s Grundberg Faces a Stalemate in Northern Yemen and Collapse of Riyadh Agreement


Tue, 24-08-2021 06:47 PM, Aden

Fernando Carvajal (South24)

Nearly six and a half years into the war, Yemen’s stalemate exacerbates the Humanitarian crisis as security continues to deteriorate. The fight for Marib city rages on, threatening thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the flow of fuel and electricity. Failure of talks hosted in Muscat over the past three months paint a dim picture as Sweden’s Hans Grundberg is set to become the fourth UN Special Envoy to Yemen. Last but not least, renewed tensions between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government threaten to derail efforts by Saudi Arabia to set a course that facilitates their exit from the conflict. 

While most observers point to a new crossroads, some optimistic as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths moves on, others more pessimistic as the humanitarian crisis deepens across Yemen, but what we can definitely point to is a stalemate (1), both along battle fronts and the political track. The situation in Marib, where both sides claim progress along the main road or in Sirwah, has produced a stalemate in talks between Houthis and Saudi Arabia. This has allowed Houthis to escalate battles in southwestern al-Baydha province, deflecting international attention from Marib. The new Special Envoy appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres faces an environment that is far more fragmented since Stockholm in 2018. Furthermore, we can expect the STC to exert more pressure on the UN for a more inclusive dialogue as the Riyadh Agreement of November 2019 collapses. 

Fighting in Marib 

Fighting rages on throughout Marib province. Since March 2020 Houthis have managed to control the entire western region of Marib, claiming as of early May 2021 to be within 12 kilometers from Marib city and all around the Marib Damn. Over this summer, government forces loyal to president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi claim to have pushed Houthis back along the main road into Marib city and west from Marib Dam toward Sirwah. The back-and-forth claims by all sides in recent months have led to a stalemate that has brought both some relief for the international community regarding the safety of IDP camps and further concern over the lack of progress on the peace track. 

While Houthis spent most of 2020 consolidating power in western al-Jawf and western Marib, buffer zones along the borders with Amran, Sa’dah and Sana’a provinces, the international community was not highly alarmed by their progress on the ground. It was not until early this year that UN agencies sounded alarms over humanitarian access and conditions at IDP camps around the Marib Dam and along the main road to Marib city. The Saudi-led Coalition attempted to rally tribes from Murad, in southern Marib, to halt the Houthi advance from al-Jawf but failed, prompting mobilization of troops from the Western Coast to Marib. The arrival of troops and supplies also failed to counter Houthi progress, dealing high casualties on both sides. In order to cover their advance, and in an attempt to demoralize the civilian population, Houthis launched a series of strikes using drones and missiles on targets inside Marib city. Houthis claimed they targeted military facilities in the city center, homes of military leaders and governor Sultan al-Aradha. Yet, a number of the missiles failed to hit their targets, causing hundreds of civilian deaths throughout the city. Houthi leaders merely reported the intended targets, never claiming targeting errors hitting civilian areas. These incidents highlighted deteriorating targeting capabilities by Houthis, which may have led Houthis to decrease dependence on missiles strikes to cover their advance. Use of drones also appears to have decreased in Marib as government forces improved their ability to shoot them down. 

Early this month, Houthis proposed a ceasefire (2) but continue to blame pro-government forces for refusing to negotiate. This approach by Houthis primarily aims to flip the media narratives that have long blamed Houthis for refusing Saudi Arabia’s terms and US talks in Muscat since late March. The stalemate to date sees no real movement along battle fronts or talks between rivals. Since Saudi Arabia’s unilateral peace initiative announced on 22 March 2021 from Riyadh the UN and US Special Envoys reached out to Houthi officials, like Mohammed Abdulalam, based in Muscat, but all offers have been rejected with Houthis demanding all restrictions on Hodeida port and Sana’a airport be lifted before any progress on a ceasefire. 

The approach by the US and Saudi Arabia has also shifted this year from previous negotiations by directly involving Iran. Previously, the Obama administration faced resistance from Saudi Arabia (and Israel) regarding inclusion of Iran, while the hostile approach taken by the Trump administration naturally marginalized the Islamic Republic. But president Biden, and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), have used talks on the JCPOA (3), and direct talks between Saudi and Iran (4), to leverage Iranian influence over Houthis in efforts to reach a ceasefire in Marib and negotiate a return to comprehensive peace talks under UN auspices. Interesting enough, whatever leverage the US and Saudi Arabia thought they could exert over Iran to pressure Houthis was diluted from start as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths appears to have pre-empted the US and Saudi with his visit to Tehran in February 2021 (5). In hindsight, while Griffith’s office initially claimed the visit was planned prior to the announcement of Biden’s Special Envoy (6), it seems it was not coordinated with members of the Security Council, president Hadi or Saudi Arabia. 

Prospects as new UN envoy is appointed

The role of the UN Special Envoy has become increasingly controversial as the conflict prolongs. From Jamal Ben Omar (7) to Ismail Ould Check Ahmed (8) and Martin Griffiths (9) we have seen the disappointment among Yemenis over failures to sustain successful peace talks between rivals since 2012. The newly appointed Envoy, Hans Grundberg (10) (Sweden’s former point man on the Gulf region) will encounter a much different Yemen than his three predecessors. Houthi officials have already indicated they will refuse meetings with Grundberg until Hodeida port and Sana’a airport are addressed. 

Mr. Grundberg arrives at a time when Houthis are far more emboldened. The Sana’a-based authorities have taken well over twenty percent more territory since December 2018, when Sweden hosted the Stockholm talks (11). The alliance of convenience between Houthis and Tehran has evolved into a publicly acknowledged military alliance (12), with more formal ceremonial relations (13) since the arrival of Hasan irlu, Iran’s Ambassador in Sana’a, in October 2020 (14). While Grundberg served as the EU Ambassador to Yemen since 2019 and knows the parties, it will be interesting to see if he can take a leading role, as his predecessors, or turn to support efforts by the US and Saudi Arabia in talks with Houthis and Iran. 

So far, we have not seen any signs of Grundberg’s potential approach since UN Secretary-General Guterres chose the Swedish diplomat to succeed Martin Griffiths. Saudi officials have held meetings with Sweden’s Foreign Minister (15) and Ambassador (16) in recent months, but not Grundberg. The former EU Ambassador to Yemen did hold meetings with Houthis in 2020 (17) and visited Aden early this year (18), possibly a glimpse of hope for southerners demanding more attention from the international community. Although Grundberg has previously met Aidarous al-Zubaidi in Riyadh, he did not meet publicly with any members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) while in Aden. He did hold direct talks with Supreme Political Council (SPC) president Mahdi Mashat in Sana’a.
While most may expect Grundberg to tackle the stalemate in Mareb right away, he will be forced to deal with the underlying issues holding back Houthis and president Hadi’s government. Houthis have demanded a lifting of restrictions on Hodeidah seaport and Sana’a international airport, which Saudi Arabia (and president Hadi) have agreed to begin talks on mechanisms to lift the restrictions, but only after a return to implementing the three components of the Stockholm plan (19). Many in Hadi’s government claim Stockholm is now irrelevant, as Houthis have failed to implement any of the points agreed in 2018. While Houthis have used the plan to deter military operations around the city of Hodeida, which some pro-Coalition elements are once again aiming to restart in order to pressure Houthis and possibly stretch Houthi forces along other fronts. The new UN Envoy will also have to balance growing tensions between Coalition partners and fractures within Hadi’s government, primarily tension between the Islah party and the STC. 

The imminent collapse of the Riyadh Agreement

A major challenge for Mr. Hans Grundberg will be defining the scope of his mandate, as the situation across Yemen is far different even from what Griffiths encountered in 2018. UN Security Council resolutions, like 2216 (2015), have yet to adapt to the current fragmented conflict, preventing a comprehensive approach dealing with the Southern Cause and the conflict between the Islah and the STC. 

Martin Griffiths’ failure to address tensions in the south and fractures within the Coalition since 2018, among many other issues, not only led to expanded control of territory by Houthis, but also empowered factions leading to a proliferation of militias. Furthermore, the new UN Special Envoy arrives amid a series of failed talks hosted in Muscat, and a breakdown of Riyadh Agreement of 2019 (20). The Southern Issue has remained outside the main scope of the Envoy’s mandate, allowing Saudi Arabia to take the lead as mediator between the secessionist faction and president Hadi’s government. Brokered by Saudi Arabia, with no role for Martin Griffiths, the Riyadh Agreement has failed over the past two year to quell the rivalry between the STC and the Islamist party, Islah. This rivalry is seen as outside the scope of the conflict with Houthis, but undoubtedly plays a major role in prolonging the armed conflict by allowing Houthis military and political advantages as their rival forces fracture and fight each other. 

Houthi "rebels” continue to insist that direct talks with Saudi Arabia must precede any talks between Yemeni factions. This is a major issue Mr. Grundberg must address from the onset as it directly challenges the role of the UN as prescribed by the GCC Initiative of 2011, the National Dialogue process and UNSC Resolution 2216. Also, the role of Iran, legitimized by Griffiths’ visit in February, merely bolsters the position of Houthis during negotiations and directly undermines the role of the Office of the UN Envoy. Again, Grundberg must define his role as either supporting US and Saudi efforts or as the lead actor in mediation, and frame that process carefully in order to marginalize any potential spoilers. If Grundberg is unable to re-insert his Office as the lead mediator, no actor will accept the UN Envoy as a neutral party with sufficient influence to lead any talks. The stalemate in Marib at the moment should not be seen as a possible ceasefire either, Houthis have merely diverted our attention to battle fronts in southern al-Baydha, while strengthening their hand for any talks on the situation in Marib and extract maximum benefits, such as the re-opening of Sana’a international airport and lifting of all restrictions on Hodeidah seaport. 

While many are hopeful Mr. Grundberg can reverse the course following Griffiths’ exit, there is no clear sign of an agenda shifting directions any time soon. An advantage for Grundberg is the fact he has been close to the situation in Yemen for over two years. There will be no surprises for him as he arrives at his office in Amman, Jordan or as he begins his visits to Riyadh, and possibly Abu Dhabi. In his new role, he must also manage relations with the UN Security Council as experts and humanitarian agencies demand changes to UN resolutions and a shift from the sanctions regime in order to facilitate the humanitarian response, particularly throughout Houthi held territory.

Fernando Carvajal
served as Armed Groups and Regional Expert on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen between April 2017 and March 2019.

-Photo: Hans Grundberg, Yemen's new envoy (twitter.com)

YemenHouthisMaribRiyadh AgreementYemen War