In Yemen, can the Houthi leadership abandon radicalism?

Soon after taking over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in September last year, the northern Houthi rebels included the strategically important and energy rich Marib govornate in their plans.

Since late 2014, the strong local resistance in Marib against both the Houthis and the military forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh managed to halt their advance (at the time rumoured to aim as far as Hadhramaut in the southeast). Yet it did not prevent the Houthi-Saleh forces from eventually taking control of some areas of the governorate.

Now, however, the tables have turned and the Houthis find themselves on the retreat in Marib, facing a determined counteroffensive by local tribes (which have received strong logistical support from the Arab coalition), pro-government forces and the coalition's ground and aerial units. In the grand scheme of things, this key fight is the likely prelude to the chapter every party to the conflict should want to avoid: the battle for control of Sanaa, which sits about 35 miles from the border of Marib province.

A distant political solution

How and when the current conflict will end remains uncertain and so does the political future of the Houthis. Not only the country-wide military offensive the group led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi launched in tandem with the forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh did not go as planned, it also made a lot of enemies for the group in the process. The very fact they allied themselves with Saleh, against whom the rebel group fought six wars between 2004 and 2011 and Yemenis of all stripes rebelled during Yemen’s uprisings, completely discredited the Houthis’ claim they are fighting the corruption of the old system.

The friends of the Houthis now may no longer be their friends in the future.

Manuel Almeida

Also, in Yemen, tribal and other local alliances often shift mercurially when there is the realization the power balance might be changing, so the friends of the Houthis now may no longer be their friends in the future. This maxim applies to the members of the General People’s Congress and the military and security forces that remained loyal to the former president’s camp.

No less significant, the Arab coalition and pro-government forces have intensified the military pressure on the Houthis and dealt the rebel group important blows (starting in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen abandoned by the Houthis in late July).

If reason is any guide then, even in a time of war, there seem to be many reasons for the Houthis to consider a political settlement. On the table since April has been a proposed solution well-known to the Houthis: U.N. Security Resolution 2216. It calls all Yemeni parties, but the Houthis in particular, to withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict (including Sanaa), relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate government of Yemen and fully implement previous Council resolutions.

Resolution 2216, the terms of which have been endorsed by the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition, provides general guidelines and key requirements for a political solution. What it does not and cannot do, however, is to offer a specific, practical path to end the hostilities and a decisive move toward political negotiations. On this front, all diplomatic efforts and negotiations so far, including the talks that took place in Oman’s capital of Muscat, have failed to produce tangible results. The next round of talks, supposed to take place this week in Oman, has been cancelled.

A political incentive for the Houthis?

It is unclear whether or not the Houthi leadership sees any real benefit in negotiating a solution to the crisis.

Manuel Almeida

It is becoming evident that no military solution will suit the Houthis, quite the contrary. The best they can achieve at this point is to delay as much as possible the assault on the capital. Yet it is unclear whether or not the Houthi leadership sees any real benefit in negotiating a solution to the crisis.

Part of the problem with reaching a deal with the Houthis is their recent history of violating the terms of the deals their leadership has entered since the group’s southward offensive started in June last year. This continues to generate great scepticism among Yemeni officials and the coalition that the Houthis will honor any commitments. The same goes for Saleh, who was allowed by the GCC to return to Yemen under the condition of staying away from politics, only to facilitate the Houthis’ take-over of Sanaa and then supporting militarily and financially their foolish endeavour.

For all the blame the Houthis will get for the conflict and chaos (after destroying big chunks of Aden, the pro-Houthi forces continue to intentionally destroy civilian areas in Taiz), the Yemeni government or any transitional government should try to avoid a return to the past under Saleh. This of course, when and if the Houthis abandon the capital and Saleh’s forces capitulate. With a complete seclusion of the Houthis in their Saada stronghold, it would only be a matter of time until the next Houthi uprising. It would also provide Iran and Hezbollah with a future opportunity to explore Houthi grievances and threaten Saudi Arabia when the need arises again.

Eventually, the Yemeni government should distinguish the unrepentant radicals among the Houthi leadership from any others willing to compromise. Positions in the government and state apparatus, integration into the military (what is a neglected armed militia that can only fight going to do but fight?) for the rank and file and a serious commitment to address long standing grievances in the north could all be part of a reconciliation strategy.

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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 09:46 - GMT 06:46
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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