Between October 15 and 16, 2020, a prisoner exchange, seen as “the largest […] swap in the five-year conflict” , took place in Yemen between the Houthi rebels and the pro-government fighters. The meeting between the two sides and the subsequent deal was supervised by the United Nations, which was finalized in Switzerland, and was signed in 2018 with the commitment of exchanging about 15,000 prisoners, but was partly completed. About 1,081 prisoners in total were exchanged 680 Houthi rebels, and 400 pro-government fighters, including 15 Saudis and two US hostages. According to reports, this swap is seen as “the largest […] swap in the five-year conflict”. Even though this event is being considered by many as a milestone that “rais [es] hopes that the country’s stalled peace process can be revived”,  others believe instead that “none [of the efforts] have resulted in a lasting de-escalation of violence or real progress toward a political solution”.
Therefore, it becomes important to ask what effects the prisoner exchange plays on the current Yemeni conflict. Accordingly, the next article will analyze the conflict in Yemen and understand both warring sides and their status quo with the prisoner exchange. Secondly, the article will explore the 2018 deal and its subsequent commitment for prisoner swap linked to the impact it might have or not have on the current conflict and the geopolitical situation. Additionally, it will be argued that, although this prisoner’s exchange can be considered as a milestone for the Yemeni conflict, it will unfortunately only have a short-term impact on the conflict if not all the other prominent factors will be considered.
THE YEMENI CONFLICT
The Arab Spring revolution eventually led President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for more than 21 years, to resign and hand over the presidency to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2011. Although it was seen as a huge improvement and success for Yemen’s society and welfare, President Hadi faced various difficulties, including dealing with corruption, unemployment, and food scarcity.
The conflict broke out in September 2014, when the Houthi movement, or also “Ansar Allah”, invaded and took control of the capital Sanaa. The Houthi rebels, who represent the Shia Muslim minority and were also supported by disappointed Yemeni Sunnis, seized the opportunity to take control of the country. In March 2015, President Hadi fled to the city of Aden and received military help from his ally Saudi Arabia, who began a military intervention on March 26, 2015. The military help comes also from the fear and concern that the Shia rebel group would allegedly be supported military by Iran. Although it was expected to last a couple of weeks, the conflict is still ongoing as of 2020. Although the coalition succeeded in pushing the rebels as far away as possible from the south of Yemen, the Houthi rebels still keep controlling a vast area of the country. In 2018, the two warring sides agreed to have talks amid a ceasefire, also called the “Stockholm agreement”. The agreement “required [the Houthis] to redeploy their forces from Hudaydah, establish a prisoner exchange mechanism, and to address the situation in Taiz”. Although the prisoner swap has already taken place, the city of Hudayda is still in the hands of the Houthi rebels, “raising fears that the Stockholm agreement will collapse and that the battle for Hudaydah will resume”. In addition to that, in the last two years, the coalition and the rebels have been fighting each other, making it impossible to end the civil war. From the data, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) declared in October 2019 that the conflict caused more than 100,000 fatalities, making it one of the most lethal conflicts of the year. In addition to that, famine and poor hygiene have caused the death of thousands of civilians, including children.
THE PRISONER EXCHANGE AND THE FUTURE OF YEMEN
The major prisoner exchange, which was agreed on in 2018 and only implemented in 2020, is seen as a prominent milestone of the conflict. This swap is crucial and prominent in the story of the conflict, as it shows that the two warring sides are willing to take a step into cooperation and possibly make peace between each other. Seen as positive by the international community and as a sign of cooperation and hope, according to reports, it seems that a new draft of a ceasefire is being drafted at the beginning of November. This is most probably being influenced by the success of the prisoner exchange, which has pushed the two sides to “prepar[e] for a new round of consultations between the Yemeni government and the Houthis this November in Switzerland”. Another factor that might have influenced the prisoner exchange and the subsequent future meetings between the two sides is the critical economic and social crisis, from which the Yemeni population is greatly suffering. As such, the prisoner exchange might alleviate the heaviness of the conflict and might help bring in a ceasefire, which, according to unconfirmed reports, would expand “the circle of humanitarian and economic measures to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people”.  In addition to that and related to the new talks between the two warring sides, Saudi Arabia has declared to rebuild the transport network in Yemen, which has been destroyed from the conflict.
Even though many prisoners of war have been released and brought back to their home country, there are still many people imprisoned. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres received the news of the prisoner swap positively, considering it an “important step” towards peace in Yemen. Additionally, he also recommends “finalize the joint declaration, consisting of a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian measures, as well as the resumption of a comprehensive, inclusive political process to end the war”.
As such, given the motivation and precedents of both warring sides, the prisoner exchange has a prominent and influential effect on the current geopolitical situation in Yemen. The two warring sides are expected to have more rounds of peace talks, including more prisoner exchanges, given the positive outcome of the latest one. In addition to that, both sides might commit to a temporary ceasefire on all fronts.
Nevertheless, according to experts, the exchange will have a short-term effect on the ongoing conflict. In fact, the two factors that cause difficulties in ending the conflict are “[Houthi] empowerment and government fragmentation”. In this situation and given the obstacles, it is recommended to incorporate in the mediation talks more of Yemeni parties, from political ones to societal ones, so “it could incentivize the Houthis and the government alike to start making deals with local foes and allies to improve their overall negotiating power”. In addition to that, it is recommended to have “interim governance arrangements that avoid rapid recentralisation of power in Sanaa to the benefit of just one or two groups”.
Related to this, the swap might have also a negative effect on the geopolitical dimension. Seen as a step towards peacebuilding, Iran has allegedly intensified cooperating with the Houthi rebels, as “an effort to signal the threat it could pose to its Gulf rivals vis-à-vis al Houthi attacks”. The country also has allegedly appointed Hassan Erlou, member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as the new ambassador of Sanaa, which could allegedly “advice the al Houthis on their advance toward the internationally recognized Yemeni government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen”.
The prisoner exchange, which took place on October 15-16 2020 after the Stockholm Agreements in 2018, made a huge impact on the current status quo of Yemen. This swap was one of the major exchanges of prisoners of war and it shows the willingness to cooperate between the two warring sides, the Houthi rebels and the pro-government fighters. Nevertheless, the prisoner exchange represents a small image of the huge Yemeni conflict, which started due to political instability and disappointment in the newly placed Yemeni government. The conflict began in 2014 and is still ongoing in 2020, disrupting the population’s life and its security. According to reports, the conflict has already caused the death of more than 100,000 civilians, as well as children.
The prisoner exchange can give some hope for ending the conflict. From one side it can build the steps to a future ceasefire and peace talks, lead to further prisoner swaps, alleviate the suffering of the population by the conflict. But at the same time, there are too many factors playing in the situation. One of them is the role of Iran, which might try allegedly to keep hold of the conflict situation. Furthermore, experts are calling to make several Yemeni parties be included in the mediation talks so that the Houthi rebels and the Hadi fighters will be more motivated locally to make peace and end the conflict. In addition to that, a new interim government would help cease the conflict and make both sides agree. Nevertheless, the road for a peace deal in Yemen is long but not impossible.
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