At least ten dead soldiers – this is the result of renewed fighting in Yemen between the insurgent Houthis and government troops in the province of Marib east of the capital Sana’a, which was reported by news agencies on Wednesday. Fighting broke out only a short time after both sides declared a rapprochement.
An agreement had been reached on the exchange of around 900 prisoners, the chairman of the Houthi committee responsible for the exchange, Abdul-Kadir al-Murtada, announced on Monday.
The Houthi rebels control much of northwestern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. The agreement was preceded by negotiations in Geneva supervised by the United Nations.
According to the joint agreement, the exchange – if it stays that way despite the recent outbreak of violence – is to be implemented in three weeks, after which further negotiations are to follow. According to government negotiator Majid Fadail, four journalists who had been sentenced to death by the Houthis are also to be released. In addition, high-ranking military representatives of the government are to be released, including a former defense minister.
The success at the negotiating table is also due to the recent diplomatic rapprochement between the rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, indicated the UN mediator Hans Grundberg. “Yemen now has a framework in which serious steps forward are possible,” said the diplomat in Geneva.
Almost two weeks ago, after mediation by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced their rapprochement. Both regional powers are repeatedly accused of waging a kind of proxy war in Yemen for influence in the region. While Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni government in the civil war that broke out in 2014, Iran is on the side of the Houthis.
Expert: War is Saudi-Arabiens economision in the way
The fact that high-ranking government officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia have now signed an agreement is also interpreted by many observers as a potential chance for an end to the Yemen war. After all, the foreign ministers of both countries want to meet promptly and also agreed to reopen their embassies in the other country within two months.
In fact, both sides, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are interested in ending the war, says Simon Engelkes, a Middle East expert at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and co-author of a recently published article Study on the recent rapprochement between the two countries. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants to put his country on an economic and social modernization course. Both Iranian and Houthi attacks on the kingdom and the costly, unpopular war in Yemen itself stand in the way of this vision.
At the same time, as part of the Chinese-brokered agreement, Iran agreed to stop covert arms sales to its Houthis allies in Yemen, Engelkes argues. “This will not end the conflict overnight, but the resumption of diplomatic relations and direct channels of communication at the highest level – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has already invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit – opens up the prospect of a war for the first time after eight years peace,” said Engelkes.
Cinzia Bianco, golf expert at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, sees it similarly. In fact, she says, the war could end at a regional level. An end to the cross-border attacks on Saudi territory is conceivable as a response to the end of the Saudi bombing raids on Yemen.” Saudi Arabia could also be willing to accept the Houthis as a political actor for the future of Yemen. However: “All these possible ones Developments have nothing to do with local dynamics in Yemen itself. It can therefore not be ruled out that there will be further fighting between local groups even after the Saudi Houthi deal has been signed.” In fact, this is exactly what happened.
The local actors – the Houthis and the government – are basically interested in a peace agreement, says Cinzia Bianco. It is unclear, however, whether the Houthis in particular are satisfied with their current sphere of power. They could foreseeably try to conquer other regions, such as the Marib region in the north or Shabwah in the south of the country. Both regions have oil deposits. Other groups could also try to secure their sphere of influence. It is conceivable that Iran and Saudi Arabia will withdraw from the war in Yemen. “But there is still the local level in Yemen itself. And there are no guarantees for its development.”
people hope for peace
Nevertheless, many people in Yemen have high hopes for the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Najat Muhammad for example. The woman in her mid-thirties has been collecting discarded water bottles for four years, selling them to feed her four children. Her husband joined government forces in early 2015 but was captured by the Houthis in 2018.
“With every prisoner exchange, I hope he comes back to me and the kids. When he disappeared, I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. He doesn’t even know what she looks like,” she tells DW. She does not know whether he will be released as a result of the exchange of prisoners negotiated in Geneva. She hopes so, she says.
Mutahar’s family is also hoping for their son’s return. For three years she has had no information about his whereabouts. The 28-year-old had joined the Houthis, but was then taken prisoner of war. The family now hopes that they will finally be able to hug him again soon, his sister told DW.
Editorial assistance: Safia Mahdi, Sanaa