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Dhaka Tribune

Yemen prisoner swap sparks hope, but peace remains doubtful

Ripple effects of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement relieve some of the tensions of the ongoing war in Yemen

Update : 24 Mar 2023, 05:39 AM

For hundreds of families with imprisoned family members in Yemen, this week has brought some hope.

"Today is a good day," Hans Grundberg, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, announced on Monday in Geneva. He said he expects hundreds of families to be reunited in the next three weeks, following a UN-brokered prisoner swap between the two main warring parties in Yemen, the government and the Houthi rebels.

The Presidential Leadership Council, which represents the Yemeni government, promised to release 706 detained Houthis, while the Houthi rebels said that they would release 181 prisoners in exchange. 

For their families, this has sparked hope after years of waiting. 

"I am putting all my hopes in this prisoner swap and am waiting for my husband to come home to me and our four children," Najat Muhammad, a 30-year-old mother in Aden told DW, adding that "he hasn't even met our daughter since he joined the army in 2015 while I was pregnant." 

She said that he had been captured in 2018 and imprisoned by the Houthi rebel forces.

During the first three years, he had sent some money home every month, she told DW, but she had not received any information or money for the past four years. 

"I collect and sell discarded water bottles to have money for our food," she said.

The family of the now 28-year-old Houthi fighter Mutahar in Sanaa also hopes to be reunited soon. Mutahar had joined the rebel forces three years ago, at the age of 25, and was imprisoned by government forces soon after. 

His sister told DW that the family was hopeful that they would soon be able to hold him in their arms again. 

The civil war in Yemen broke out in late 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa and took over the government.

The war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates intervened in an effort to restore the former government, which is internationally recognized.

The conflict in Yemen has since been seen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. 

The situation for the population has deteriorated into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, according to the United Nations. It says that around 375,000 people, 1.25% of the total population, have been killed since 2015.

The 2022 World Report by Human Rights Watch stated that children accounted for over half of the 20.7 million Yemenis in dire need of humanitarian assistance or protection.

In April last year, a cease-fire was brokered between the warring parties, but it ended in October after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on extending the truce for another six months. Since then, the country has been nominally back at war, although fighting has not been as intense as before the truce. 

Consequences of Saudi-Iranian thaw

This week's deal to exchange prisoners can be seen as a ripple effect of the recent China-brokered agreement on re-establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran after seven years of frozen ties. 

Observers, however, also point out that Saudi Arabia has been keen to end the war in Yemen for some time, while Iran has also been focusing on domestic politics in view of ongoing demonstrations in the country. 

Experts say that the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the prisoner exchange, could relieve some of the tensions in Yemen, but neither would suffice to end the conflict.

"These agreements have nothing to do with the local dynamics, and it doesn't preclude that even after the Saudi-supported government deal with the Iran-backed Houthis is signed that there will be more fighting locally between local groups," Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

"The Saudi-Iran deal ends the regional dimension of the war in Yemen, but doesn't end the war. It basically ends the Houthis' cross-border attacks into Saudi territory in exchange for the end of Saudi bombing into Yemen and an acceptance of the Houthis as a political actor in the future of Yemen," she said.

Houthis seek more territory

Bianco said the two main actors in Yemen itself, the internationally recognized government and the Houthis were generally "interested in peace" but she was not certain that the latter was yet satisfied with their current territorial control.

The Houthis currently control much of northern and western Yemen.

"After Ramadan [which ends on April 21], they might relaunch an incursion into, for example, the government-held Marib province in the north or Shabwah in the south as these two regions have oil and are therefore interesting," Bianco told DW. 

The rebels did apparently not wait until after Ramadan, which begins on Thursday, to launch an incursion into Marib province.

According to the AFP news agency, at least 10 government soldiers were killed on Tuesday night. 

The analyst Maged Al-Madhaji, a cofounder of the Yemeni think tank Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told AFP that this was "a clear political message that... the Tehran-Riyadh deal does not mean that the rebels will just surrender."

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