Western views need to realign on Yemen

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The four-year war in Yemen has led to tens of thousands dead with millions forced to flee their homes. In February this year, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said that about 80 percent of the population – 24 million people – are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Peace talks have repeatedly been held around the world but to no avail. The Iran-backed Houthi militia have failed to turn up or failed to sign a peace deal.

In this context, Robert Malley’s recent opinion article in the New York Times entitled “America Should Talk to the Houthis” is a break from the historical relationship between the Houthis and the West. The article was written while Malley was on a visit to Yemen as part of his role as president of the International Crisis Group.

Malley’s call for opening talks with the Houthis might signal a change in attitudes towards the militia, but it is not an accurate representation of the conflict.

“Malley condensed all levels of Yemen’s complicated layers of conflict into one: Saudis versus Houthis. This framing is a gross misrepresentation of the root cause of the conflict,” Fatima al-Asrar, an American-Yemeni policy analyst, told Al Arabiya English.

In the changing discourse on Yemen, the Houthis have benefited from a lack of international understanding of the root cause of the conflict. The war began in 2014 after the Houthis overthrew the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The subsequent intervention by Saudi Arabia and allies was part of an international coalition assembled to combat the Houthis.

Malley’s article was also written exclusively from the Houthi perspective, al-Asrar adds. “Rob Malley was letting us know what the Houthi perspective is. But to what end? What is the purpose of bringing about this logic that obfuscates facts? If his intention was to simply bring about a Houthi narrative, he should have said so, and analyzed it,” she said.

Although the Trump administration remains committed to its Saudi ally, some partisan voices in Congress have been advocating for a change of policy.

No one is willing to extend a show of overt support to the Houthis because of their links to Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, al-Asrar said. However, nearly five years of war have left governments and peace organizations with a feeling of military and policy fatigue.

With the cost of suffering so high, many are looking for any solution to save the Yemeni people from the violent conflict plaguing their country. This may explain why there is a change in the discourse as organizations see negotiating with the Houthis as the lesser of two evils – the first being the war continuing – while turning a blind eye to the Houthis’ violence.

Malley writes in his article: “Americans, understandably, would recoil at the Houthis embracing ‘Death to America’ and ‘Curse the Jews’ as their slogans, scrawled on the city’s walls. But Sana’s residents warmly welcome the rare American visitor.” As al-Asrar pointed out on Twitter, perhaps Malley’s experience was colored by the high profile nature of his visit and ignores the Houthi use of foreign and US prisoners as bargaining chips.

In 2017, American citizen Danny Burch was kidnapped by masked gunmen in the Houthi-controlled capital. Burch was freed in 2019 after two years in captivity. The Houthis have also imprisoned Yemeni journalists.

International organizations, some of whom who have been open to the Houthis, have also been accused of corruption.

More than a dozen UN aid workers deployed to deal with the wartime humanitarian crisis have been accused of joining with combatants on all sides to enrich themselves from the billions of dollars in donated aid flowing into the country, according to individuals with knowledge of internal UN investigations and confidential documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

Al-Asrar added that a solution to the Yemen conflict can only be found should the war be analyzed correctly and challenges weighed carefully. “The International Crisis Group and others must be careful to ensure that a solution is Yemeni-led, and not led by them or others, lest the entire pursuit for peace collapses,” she concluded.

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