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Yemen Cease-Fire Is, at Best, First Step on Long Road to Peace


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The coronavirus pandemic may help end one of the world’s nastiest wars.

That hope appeared this week when the main combatants in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, laid out their visions of the path toward peace.

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced a unilateral cease-fire to allow for talks and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Almost simultaneously, the Houthi rebels who control the Yemeni capital unveiled their own eight-page peace plan. The United Nations, which has been struggling for years to quell Yemen’s violence, hopes to convene talks between them as early as next week.

It all sounds like progress, but analysts and diplomats who track Yemen said the distance between the warring sides’ positions and the barriers that need to be cleared are so great that the new moves were — at best — opening gambits.

The war has generated incalculable human suffering since the Saudi-led bombing and blockading of Yemen began in 2015. Ten of thousands of people have died, towns and cities have been destroyed, poverty has spread and diseases like cholera have proved hard to beat because the country’s medical system has been dismantled and many people lack clean water.

That reality would leave Yemen’s 30 million people dangerously vulnerable should the coronavirus take hold, although as of Thursday Yemen had yet to confirm a case of Covid-19, the disease the virus causes.

The Saudi cease-fire announcement came five years after the kingdom and a number of its Arab allies launched a military intervention in Yemen to try to push back the Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The Houthis had stormed the Yemeni capital, Sana, and sent the government into exile.

Now, the Saudis have many reasons to look for a way out, analysts said. The war’s cost has been tremendous, and at a time when the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wants to push through expensive efforts to diversify the Saudi economy.

More recently, the worldwide drop in demand for oil, because of coronavirus lockdowns and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, has exacerbated the fiscal strains, reducing the price of oil to less than half of what the kingdom needs to balance its budget.

Saudi Arabia has long faced international censure for contributing to Yemen’s humanitarian collapse, criticism that would probably intensify if many Yemenis started dying of Covid-19.

But the kingdom may be stuck with an enemy who prefers to keep fighting. Within hours of the cease-fire’s start time of noon Thursday, there were reports of breaches.

The Saudis had told the Houthis in advance that the cease-fire announcement was coming, according to a diplomat with knowledge of the exchange. But Houthi leaders have yet to issue an official response to the initiative.

In a telephone call, Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi leader, dismissed the Saudi announcement as “more of a continuation of the war than a cease-fire.”

“Saudi Arabia is mobilizing its air, navy and armed forces to continue blockading Yemen, which has a far greater impact than the continuation of air bombing,” he said.

Another senior Houthi official, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, released the group’s own peace proposal. It included, among other things, the end of the Saudi-led blockade, the reopening of Yemeni airports, long-term Saudi financial commitments to Yemen’s reconstruction and direct talks between the Saudis and the Houthis about Yemen’s political future — with no direct mention of the Yemeni government.

Those demands indicated that after standing in the face of the Arab world’s richest country and keeping the Yemeni capital for five years, the Houthis were in no mood to offer concessions, analysts said.

“The Saudis are trying to wiggle out of the conflict, and the Houthis are grabbing them by the neck,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana Center for Strategic Studies.

The Houthi position is strengthened by military gains in recent months against the kingdom’s Yemeni allies in key provinces in central Yemen.

“The only thing they are good at is fighting,” Mr. Al-Iryani said of the Houthis, “and they are not going to abandon this comfortable terrain without a comprehensive agreement.”

Other analysts raised other issues that could affect the success of the Saudi cease-fire. For one, who else will honor it remains unknown.

“It is unilateral, so it is not clear what the Houthis reaction is, nor how much buy-in there is from the Yemenis fighting the Houthis on the ground,” said April Longley Alley, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Are other Yemenis on board with this?”

A number of leaders in Yemen’s internationally recognized government said on Thursday that they supported the cease-fire, and Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was reported to have called on loyalist troops to stop fighting. But Mr. Hadi and many of his ministers are in exile in Saudi Arabia and have little control over the fighters on the ground at home.

If the warring parties do decide to engage in talks, which would be conducted via phone and computer linkups, the United Nations has laid the diplomatic groundwork through months of discussions with both sides. But whether they would participate is far from clear.

“Implementing a cease-fire is no small matter, and the first test of this is going to be whether the parties show up for this virtual meeting,” Ms. Alley said.

Even if they do, the cease-fire is unlikely to endure unless it is tied to a larger process aimed at addressing the many issues that have kept Yemenis fighting.

“Without a political process undergirding a cease-fire, without a way out and without very tangible economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures, the cease-fire cannot be durable,” Ms. Alley said.

Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from Al Mukalla, Yemen, and Shuaib Almosawa from Sana.


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