A decisive choice awaits Yemen’s Houthis

Next month will mark a year since the northern Houthi militias, aided by security forces loyal to the deposed leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and placed the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. Emboldened by what they misleadingly took as an unequivocal demonstration of their unmatched power, the pro-Houthi forces embarked in March this year on a military offensive toward the south.

It is evident that the Houthis’ military route, disastrous for Yemen as a whole, has also brought no benefits to the group. The Houthis’ fortunes took a decisive turn for the worse when pro-government and southern separatist forces recaptured the former southern capital of Aden late last month.

Backed by the Saudi-led coalition, which has now deployed ground forces and armed vehicles, the pro-government military units and southern militias took advantage of the momentum to press forward against positions controlled either by the Houthis or military units loyal to Saleh.

Over the last couple of weeks, pro-government forces have taken al-Anad military airbase (Yemen’s biggest) and together with southern militias regained control of various southern provinces including Abyan, Lahj and al-Dalea. With the recapture of much of the central Ibb province on Sunday, pro-government forces are now less than 100 miles away from Sanaa. As a result, the Houthi leadership has declared a state of emergency in the capital.

While it is now clearer than ever that the militarism of the Houthis and its so-called revolutionary ideology will not pay off, it is far from guaranteed that the group’s hardline leadership will acknowledge this fact any time soon, even with its key alliance with Saleh already hanging by a thread.

Not decisive

That stubbornness might not be decisive to the outcome of the conflict, but it can prove to be very costly, especially for Sanaa and its people. Dislodging the pro-Houthi forces from the capital and its surroundings by force would be an extremely messy business, with an inevitable heavy toll on civilian lives and property. The same holds if the ground war spreads further north into the Houthi’s strongholds.

Realistically speaking, the Houthi’s inclusion will most likely depend on their next steps and their ability to offer serious guarantees their diplomatic priorities no longer reside on cultivating close ties with Iran and Hezbollah

Manuel Almeida

As usual, rumors abound regarding current events in the Yemeni capital. Some believe that pro-Saleh security forces are ready to turn against the Houthis at any moment. Such a twist of events would not be unexpected, given that the alliance between Saleh’s cohort and the Houthis is purely circumstantial, dictated first and foremost by necessity and the former president’s desperate attempt to regain power for his faction.

The withdrawal by pro-Saleh Republican Guard and Special Forces from the outskirts of Aden in the end of June, which left Houthi fighters on their own, is one of the various indications that the reports about the faltering Houthi-Saleh alliance have at least some degree of truth to them.

Old process

Another big question, which will arise sooner or later, is whether or not the Houthis will be allowed to return to the GCC-backed political transition process they have once embraced. So far, there are divergent indications from Yemeni government figures and GCC officials about this matter. This decision the Houthi leadership will need to make, between “fighting till the end” and fully embracing negotiations to find a political solution to the crisis and respecting the demands of UN Security Council resolution 2216, may play an important role in defining the Houthi’s future role in Yemen’s political process.

There should be an effort to include the Houthis in any future political process, as well as a genuine attempt to address some of the grievances that led them to wage successive wars against Saleh’s government, provided they show a real flexibility and willingness to compromise.

Sceptics should think about how Saleh and his government’s sidelining of the Houthis for years contributed to their radicalization. Yet, realistically speaking, the Houthi’s inclusion will most likely depend on their next steps and their ability to offer serious guarantees their diplomatic priorities no longer reside on cultivating close ties with Iran and Hezbollah. The group’s young leader, the irreverent Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, faces a stark choice between pragmatism and radicalism.


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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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