The quest for a mirage in Yemen

Because there is no one to tell the Houthis that enough is enough, they will refuse to give up Hodeidah and Sana’a.
Sunday 13/01/2019
A member of the Houthi-allied coast guard force gestures to rebel fighters before they withdraw from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, December 29. (Reuters)
Manoeuvres to buy time. A member of the Houthi-allied coast guard force gestures to rebel fighters before they withdraw from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, December 29. (Reuters)

Anyone who believes it is possible to reach an agreement with the Houthis within the context of the current balance of power in Yemen is looking for a mirage.

If the purpose of the United Nations in Yemen and the international community behind it is to give the impression they are dealing with the disaster unleashed in Yemen, then the secretary-general’s envoy, Martin Griffiths, can get ready for endless shuttle trips between Sana’a and Riyadh.

There are no indications that the Houthis are interested in implementing the latest UN-brokered agreement and yet UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was keen on going to Sweden to witness for himself the signing of the agreement in the presence of British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose country has a special interest in the future of Hodeidah and its port.

The Houthis have done away with the most important parts of this much-touted agreement that places Hodeidah under UN control. They practically smothered the essence of the agreement.

That’s why the deal was not followed up with negotiations for the reopening of Sana’a airport and for exchanging prisoners. The agreement did not prepare for the search of a comprehensive solution to the Yemeni crisis. Yemen, therefore, remains far from regaining its historic “happiness.”

There is a huge problem with Griffiths in Yemen. He does not seem to have a complete picture of the situation. It is true that details must be treated as details but some details turn out to be crucial sometimes, especially in a country that has been fragmented as Yemen has and where details have become obstacles to progress towards a comprehensive solution.

Among the details of great importance in Yemen is the role of the Houthis at local and regional levels. The Houthis have a project for Yemen, all right. It was outlined by their leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi immediately after seizing Sana’a in September 2014.

The goal of the Houthis then was to replace the republican regime in Yemen, which dates to 1962, with their own, born 52 years later in 2014. Al-Houthi announced clearly that the Houthis were writing Yemen’s new history. In Houthi jargon, that means that they wanted to bring back the era of the imamate, even though they do not even have some of the advantages of the Hamid al-Din family, the family of Yemen’s imams.

At the regional level, the Houthis were nothing more than a puppet in the hands of Iran so they tried to expand all across Yemen by striking alliances with certain tribes from southern Yemen. They reached Aden and settled there, then moved on to control the port of Mukalla so Iran could declare that it controlled two vital straits for international navigation — Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb.

The Houthis were driven out of Aden and Mocha by Arab coalition forces but they remained entrenched in Hodeidah. The Arab alliance was pressured, starting last May, not to take Hodeidah and its port.

The question now is why was this pressure exerted and why proceed with the Sweden agreement, which, among other things, means that the Houthis will remain in Sana’a and Hodeidah?

It is no secret that one of the sorry reasons for this outcome is the fact that Griffiths restricted the negotiations to just two parties in the Yemeni conflict — the Houthis and the forces of the so-called legitimacy alliance — so there was a problem of representation.

The “legitimacy” camp, led by an interim president whose mandate was supposed to have ended in 2014, needed to be restructured. It does not represent much of Yemen. The Houthis too do not represent Yemen or even northern Yemen.

One wonders if Griffiths knew these facts or was it perhaps that his goal was to keep the “legitimacy” camp in limbo on the outskirts of Hodeidah until a certain scenario becomes a fait accompli? This scenario calls for establishing a Houthi entity on some part of Yemen while most of the Yemeni coast remains under the control of other forces, in addition to allowing a Houthi presence in Hodeidah under international supervision.

This is then the gist of the final deal that the agreement reached in Sweden was paving the way to. There is only one problem with that and the deal brokers do not seem to give it any consideration: The Houthis cannot be trusted.

Griffiths may have his own agenda that considers that the Houthis are constantly manoeuvring. The evidence for the Houthis’ favourite game is their assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017, after using him to consolidate their control. Once his usefulness was over, they did not hesitate to eliminate him in revenge for the six years of war he had waged against them.

Griffiths’s own agenda could be a sign of a new vision for Yemen. Perhaps he and others concluded there is no hope for the reunification of the country and, therefore, there is no sense avoiding the partitioning of Yemen into smaller entities, one of which would be reserved for the Houthis.

However, because there is no one to tell the Houthis that enough is enough, they will refuse to give up Hodeidah and Sana’a.

Can the Arab coalition accept that some parties are trying to impose as a fait accompli?