What are Yemen’s Houthis preparing for Griffiths?

What is certain is that an independent Houthi entity in Yemen would amount to an invitation to more wars.
Sunday 02/12/2018
UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths (C) walks after meeting with Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee in Sana’a, November 24. (Reuters)
Precarious task. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths (C) walks after meeting with Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee in Sana’a, November 24. (Reuters)

Actions and movements by UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths suggest there are signs of a possible settlement. Griffiths was in Sana’a lately and talked via closed-circuit television with Abdelmalik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi rebel group.

It is no secret that al-Houthi belongs to a doctrinal and sectarian school known for its reliance on duplicitous tactics in negotiations. So what could he be preparing for Griffiths, especially after the latter pressured the Arab coalition to stop a military campaign for the liberation of Hodeidah?

The fact is that the Houthis once again benefited from the semi-truce in Hodeidah. They reinforced their troops and infiltrated the city’s neighbourhoods to transform the battle of Hodeidah into a guerrilla war and make it difficult for Arab coalition planes to bombard their positions.

Griffiths also visited Hodeidah before travelling to Riyadh to meet with representatives of the legitimate Yemeni government, which is headed by Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Judging by his declarations and actions and by those of his entourage, Griffiths is seeking to place Hodeidah under UN control. That would be congruent with his desire to facilitate the transit of humanitarian aid through the city’s port and avoid — for now — addressing the fundamental problem of the role of the Houthis in the future.

Some observers said Griffiths is pursuing a private agenda to have Hodeidah, an important port on the Red Sea, fall under the control of a specific superpower.

What is certain is that the UN envoy has served — knowingly or unknowingly — the Houthis’ interests. The Houthis know that extracting Hodeidah from them will have very important implications for whatever formula is used in a political settlement in Yemen. Indeed, there is a big difference between negotiations taking place while the Houthis control Hodeidah and the same talks with Hodeidah outside their control.

Why does Griffiths insist on providing what the Houthis, who are betting on gaining precious time before anything else, demand? The answer may be that he wishes to bring the situation in Yemen to a stage that it is partitioned into several zones of influence, with one of them coming under the direct control of the Houthis, similar to the situation in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has established its own emirate.

What is happening in Yemen is the retreat of the Iranian project. When the Houthis seized Sana’a in September 2014, they spread in all directions until they were stopped and kicked out of Aden and from Mocha Port on Bab el Mandeb Strait. Now the same forces that drove them back have brought the battle to the port of Hodeidah.

Unfortunately, the situation in Taiz has been stagnating for more than four years. This may be because the Muslim Brotherhood, which still carries weight in the city and its surroundings, might have concluded an undeclared alliance with the Houthis to ensure a place for themselves in a possible settlement formula that gives the Houthis an independent territory.

Where are Griffiths’ efforts leading? If the plan is to reach a formula that would lead to the establishment of a Houthi entity controlled by Iran, like the Gaza Strip, then the road map that he has adopted will lead to that outcome.

Every day that passes, we see Griffiths giving the Houthis more favours, as if Hodeidah must come under the umbrella of the United Nations and other forces that want the city’s port to end up in a situation like the port of Djibouti, where there is a military presence of several forces, led by the United States and France.

We have said it again and again. The Houthis do not represent the entire north of Yemen. No one can ignore their presence. They are part of the Yemeni fabric. They suffered from injustice and deprivation in the past. However, limiting the representation of North Yemen to them will only lead to more complications.

Evidence of this can be found in that the tribes of northern Yemen are becoming uncomfortable with the Houthis. That includes the Tawq tribes who had helped the Houthis encircle former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana’a before his assassination last December.

What is certain is that an independent Houthi entity in Yemen would amount to an invitation to more wars in a country where the sectarian, tribal and regional instincts have been aroused and consolidated in the past few years, since the Muslim Brotherhood sought to topple Saleh’s regime in 2011.

Before 2011, it was difficult to distinguish between a Zaydi and a Shafi’i in Yemen. Now, it has become commonplace to distinguish between a pro-Houthi Zaydi and one who is committed to the original doctrine of his sect.

The Houthis must be an integral part of the solution for Yemen but this solution should not be to do everything possible in order to give them an independent political entity, in return for abandoning Hodeidah to the United Nations or to an international supervision that is unclear whether it would be international or not.