After nearly a year of unrelenting carnage, the UN on Wednesday announced a "last chance" cessation of hostilities between Yemen's warring parties to start next month, and said it planned to convene peace talks shortly after.
Speaking to reporters in New York, the UN's Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said that Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, as well as representatives of the Houthi rebels and the party of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had agreed to a nationwide ceasefire starting at midnight on April 10, to be followed on April 18 by talks in Kuwait.
"This is really our last chance," said Ould Cheikh Ahmed. "The war in Yemen must be brought to an end before it does irreparable damage to the future of Yemen and the region."
Previous UN-brokered deals to bring the sides together have failed, but this round of talks resulted in large part from direct communication between the Saudi government, which supports Hadi, and the Houthis, who've been lent support by soldiers loyal to Saleh. According to sources close to the envoy, most of the substantive discussions in recent weeks have not involved Ould Cheikh Ahmed, despite his claim to oversight of peace efforts.
More than 3,200 civilians have been killed since a Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen in March of 2015. According to the UN, the majority of those deaths resulted from coalition airstrikes. Last week, UN investigators confirmed the deaths of more than 100 civilians, including at least 24 children, in a coalition attack that obliterated a market in northwest Yemen.
Shortly after the airstrike, Saudi officials said that major combat operations would soon end in Yemen. But having achieved few if any of its objectives, it was unclear if the coalition would in fact cease its bombing campaign.
Speaking by Skype at an event organized by Human Rights Watch (HRW) before Ould Cheikh Ahmed's press conference, HRW's Yemen researcher Belkis Wille said that bombings continued unabated in the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa. At the event at the UN Secretariat, reporters were shown VICE on HBO's documentary Return from Yemen, which depicts the toll of the air war in the country. This week, Human Rights Watch joined a chorus of advocates calling for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia in light of what they said were violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by the coalition in Yemen.
"It is time for the US, the UK, for France, for all the countries that are providing weapons to Saudi Arabia to suspend all arms sales," said Philippe Bolopion, Deputy Director for Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch.
Bolopion added that the US in particular, which has sold over $100 billion in arms to Riyadh since 2010 and provides intelligence to the coalition and refuels its jets, "may be a party to the conflict in Yemen," and therefore complicit in human rights violations. Efforts to establish an independent, international inquiry into violations within Yemen have been blocked at the UN by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
Earlier this month, the Saudi government said that it had held talks with Houthi representatives in a border area inside Saudi Arabia. Fighting along the frontier, which until recently witnessed regular Houthi incursions and missile fire, has noticeably quieted in March. While Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that was a positive sign, the rest of the country remains wracked by violence. Fighting continues in the besieged city of Taiz, and extremists groups, including al Qaeda's local affiliate and members of the Islamic State, are able to operate in many areas with impunity.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the franchise is known, has for years been considered by Washington to be the group's most dangerous branch. Yet, AQAP has emerged as one of the few winners of the US-backed war. Since the start of 2015, it has seized swaths of land in the country's south and west, including Yemen's third largest city, Mukalla, along the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters have launched deadly attacks in the port city of Aden, where the government of Hadi is meant to be temporarily based.
"When you have al Qaeda digging in and forming roots and building institutions, it's going to represent a massive challenge to whoever is Yemen's next government," said Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "There's a lot of magical thinking from various factions that this problem will just go away."
Though the UN claims the ceasefire would be nationwide, it would not include those groups, and the main belligerents in contact with the UN could have difficulty controlling armed groups aligned against one side or another but with varying allegiances.
Still, Baron said there was reason for guarded optimism.
"The fact that the deescalation on the border has held is significant," he said. "The question, though, is whether all of these negotiations are happening in good faith or whether people are negotiating. It remains to be seen whether any of Yemen's key political factions are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to pull the country out of a crisis."