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Yemen conflict: Can one make peace with the Houthis?

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Despite all their faults, the Houthi movement of northern Yemen, also known as Ansar Allah, a largely Zaydi/Shii coalition of tribes, is neither a proxy for Iran nor a terrorist group. They have in the past formed and broken alliances within Yemen, negotiated and broken truces with Saudi Arabia and their Yemeni rivals, but are, even in that inconsistency, an integral part of the Yemeni tribal and societal fabric. They can and must be included in any discussion of peace — and must be involved in the much needed effort to rebuild the tattered state of Yemen.

The Hodeida truce, the first step in the implementation of the Sweden accords between the Yemen government led by president Hadi and the Ansar Allah movement, led by Abdelmalek al-Houthi, went into effect on December 18. Both sides, however, have since accused each other of breaching the ceasefire.

The handover of the ports of Hodeida has also been problematic, with accusations that the Houthis are handing it over to their own forces rather than to a neutral or mixed force as stipulated by the agreement. A prisoner exchange that was also agreed to in Sweden has yet to be implemented with some disagreement on final lists of prisoners to be freed.{mosads}

To be sure, there are also legitimate concerns that the Hadi government and their Saudi backers may still prefer a total victory over the Houthis and are worried that the agreements being arrived at through UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, are lending too much legitimacy to their enemies.

For the time being, however, both sides have given in to international pressures and are making an effort to implement the accords, hoping for the international community’s acceptance of their legitimacy and their concerns. 

Given the continued recognition of the Hadi government by a majority of UNSC members and of the lack of the same for the Houthis — save for Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps Russia — the most relevant question arises as to the willingness and readiness of the Houthis to accept and implement a final peace agreement to totally end the war. 

Who they are:  The Houthis emerged onto the political scene shortly after the unification of Yemen in 1990. Encouraged at the time by the late president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Hossein Badreddine al-Hothi (the older brother of the current Houthi leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi) became a member of parliament and formed the original Houthi-led coalition, al-Shabab al-Moumenoun (the believing youth). This group was used by Saleh to counter the influence of his main opposition, the Islah party. The instigating factor, and raison d’etre of the group was to lobby against the marginalization of the northern, mainly Zaidi, tribes and the resistance to a Saudi financed effort to allow Sunni fundamentalists to proselytize in their midst in the Saadah region of the country.

The Houthis have certainly been resilient in maintaining unity and cohesion within their coalition for the past decade and a half. Militarily, they survived against the larger more organized army of the central state during six consecutive wars from 2004-2010. Former president Saleh was extremely frustrated with them and often called on us at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa to complain about his losses in men and materiel, accusing Iran of being behind the Houthis.

The line the Saudis have been using with the U.S., that they’re really fighting Iran — and that therefore the U.S. should be fully committed on their side — is not a new one.

At the time, all the intelligence available simply did not justify Saleh’s claim. The situation certainly changed after 2014, with the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, and again in 2015 with the launching of the Saudi/Emirati air war against them. Iran has managed over the past several years to supply the Houthis, with whom they strongly sympathize, with weapons, ammunition, and rocket parts — things they have only been able to smuggle in small quantities given the tight blockade imposed on Yemen.

Lebanese Hezbollah has also been able to provide some technical assistance and strategic advice.

Altogether, however, Iran’s assistance is a far cry from the air, land and sea involvement against the Houthis by the Arab coalition, mercenaries they have hired, and direct assistance provided by the United States and the United Kingdom.{mossecondads}

The Houthi resilience militarily has not, however, been matched by comparable political or governing skills. To begin with, the very takeover of government in 2014, ostensibly to force the government to rescind the lifting of fuel subsidies and to adopt an anti-corruption agenda was clearly a contrived excuse for war — one does not overthrow a government for the sake of political demands which could certainly have been negotiated, with public pressure if necessary. The unstated goal, that of rejecting the Hadi government’s power sharing arrangement which suggested dividing Yemen into six districts — something that would have hemmed the Houthis in to a landlocked governorate and deprived them of resources available in the other regions of the country — was also subject to negotiations and could and should have been handled through diplomacy not violence.

The Houthis come from a relatively isolated part of Yemen, and most of their supporters in the northern region have not travelled much outside the country or had political or governing experience.  As such, the handling of government ministries taken over by them when they entered Sanaa has not been efficient, and their holding of the purse strings has not been without corruption. Perhaps most alarming has been the rough handling of journalists and dissenters — which has garnered them accusations of arbitrary arrest and torture of individuals they suspected of working against them or spying for their enemies.

The UN experts group that studied the violence perpetrated against civilians in the Yemen war laid the blame on the Arab coalition for a majority of civilian casualties caused by the harsh blockade and the often indiscriminate aerial bombardment. The same report, however, also blamed the Houthis for firing wide dispersal weapons into crowded urban areas, causing a large number of civilian casualties, particularly in the Taiz area.

What they are not: For all their faults and the original sin of having precipitated the violence with their coup against the Hadi government, the Houthis are not international terrorists. Through their wars first against and then alongside former president Saleh, they never showed any interest in exporting violence outside their region. Their attacks on Saudi Arabia, to include rocket launches, were undertaken only after Saudi forces attacked them.

Further, despite their anti-American slogans, they have not undertaken any attacks against Americans, whether inside or outside Yemen. The U.S. embassy compound, which has been under their control since 2014, has not been breached, ransacked or otherwise harmed. They have always maintained a readiness for dialogue, albeit they have not gone about it in a very efficient or consistent manner.

The Houthis have been party to several agreements with the central government as well as with Saudi Arabia. In 2010, a truce with then president Saleh ended the six-year war with him, and a prisoner exchange agreement with Saudi government ended the cross-border war between them that flared up in the summer of 2009. In 2016, Mohamed Abdussalam, the Houthi spokesperson, traveled to Saudi Arabia to join peace talks organized by the Saudi government in an attempt to end the war. The Houthis have also on several occasions accepted Qatari and Omani mediation.

All this to say, their profile is not that of a terrorist organization bent only on causing death and destruction.

The Houthis have engaged in peace talks before, are currently involved in implementing the Sweden accords and have also issued invitations to the international media and representatives of western governments to visit Sanaa and observe the situation on the ground for themselves.

Abdulmalek al-Houthi may not be the easiest person to reach, but he surrounds himself with a political council of 10-14 individuals with varying degrees of savviness and the ability to conduct talks and negotiations. The difficulties with this group can and must be surmounted to spare 28 million Yemenis further injury, disease and famine, and to stop the Yemen conflict from spilling over more broadly and spreading chaos throughout the region.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. He retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister Counselor, after 25 years in the Foreign Service. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Follow him on Twitter @khoury_nabeel.

Tags Abdelmalek al-Houthi Houthi movement Houthis Yemeni Civil War Yemeni Crisis

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