Seeing no light at the end of Yemen’s tunnel

The Yemeni crisis seems likely to go on for several years because the option of a comprehensive settlement is delayed.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Houthi fighters ride on the back of a truck as they withdraw from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, December 29. (Reuters)
Biding their time. Houthi fighters ride on the back of a truck as they withdraw from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, December 29. (Reuters)

2018 was a difficult year for Yemen. It ended with negotiations in Sweden that resulted in an agreement about Hodeidah and its port. Under the deal, the Houthis would hand the port to the United Nations, which would ensure that aid gets to the Yemeni citizens.

Will the Houthis give up Hodeidah or is their goal just gaining time, given that the most important element of the deal is the presence of the United Nations in this strategic port on the Red Sea?

The Houthis entered, through the Sweden negotiations, into a deal set up by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. He seems to have adopted a strategy of splitting the Yemeni crisis into small issues to be resolved one by one until reaching a final solution.

It seems that Griffiths is avoiding directly engaging in negotiations for a comprehensive solution lest his mission meets the same fate as those of his predecessors as special envoys for Yemen, Jamal Benomar and Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

Griffiths has halted the military escalation in Hodeidah, where battles between the Houthis and the internationally recognised government forces have subsided. Before the Sweden phase, the government had made considerable progress on the ground but that didn’t mean that a military victory in Hodeidah was imminent.

This relative ceasefire remains Griffiths’ first achievement but he hasn’t achieved any breakthrough on the issue of prisoner exchange between the Houthis and the pro-government forces or on reopening Sana’a airport. In all fairness, we cannot ignore that the UN envoy has laid the foundations for the presence of UN forces in Hodeidah.

If Griffiths split the Yemeni crisis, reducing military escalation and establishing foundations for the presence of “blue helmets” in Hodeidah, it is inevitable to ask whether this price justifies recognising the Houthis as another legitimate authority in Yemen.

This “legitimacy” of the Houthis has turned into a burden on the Arab alliance, which has given a lot to end the Iranian project in Yemen. The Houthis are, of course, the spearhead of this project. The big problem has become the legitimate forces camp. There is a need to reorganise to change the balance of military power in Yemen and to represent the different Yemeni forces that reject the Iranian project. It’s as simple as that.

The legitimate forces camp must be restructured to effectively stop the Houthis and to reach a stage at which Sana’a and its vicinity are no longer the victims of a backward project. This project relies only on hollow slogans such as “Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jews. Victory for Islam.”

How can a Yemeni group raise such a slogan and ignore the fact that there are Yemenis who are Jews?

The Houthis stand by their famous slogan “Death to Israel and damn the Jews,” while their puppeteer, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, tells French newspaper Le Point: “No Iranian official has called for the destruction of Israel and for obliterating it one of these days.”

There seems to be enough justification for Griffiths to fragment the Yemeni crisis but the question that will arise is whether there is a reason to limit the representation of the anti-government opposition to one rebel group, which is just buying time. The goal of this group is to set up a pro-Iranian entity in northern Yemen, with the venerable city of Sana’a as its capital.

The Houthis are procrastinating and buying time, period. They probably believe that what matters to Griffiths above all else is placing the port of Hodeidah under UN supervision. The question of what will later happen in Yemen is left open to how things might evolve.

The Yemeni crisis seems likely to go on for several years because the option of a comprehensive settlement is delayed. Despite that there is no fighting going on right now in Yemen, there is no reason to be optimistic. Everything seems to indicate that the Houthis are preparing for a long stay in Sana’a and its vicinity. They are borrowing a page from Hamas and its reign in Gaza.

2