Many years ago, Abdel Halim Khaddam was defending Hafez al-Assad for dear life in Paris. I was struck when he said that Hafez al-Assad used to meticulously examine the outcomes of any ties Syria was going to engage in, weighing their benefits and consequences on Syria’s role and interests. Khaddam also mentioned that al-Assad was paranoid about handing over Syria’s fate to any international or regional entity. And when I asked Khaddam about Syria’s ties with the Soviet Union, he said that the USSR was Syria’s weapon supplier and that the two countries had an alliance balancing their respective interests. Khaddam added that what distinguished Hafez al-Assad was that he refused to turn from an ally to an agent; an ally can express and defend his opinion and reject anything that violates his interests, whereas an agent is just an executor who is forced to play roles that do not serve his country or interests, like Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
According to Khaddam, the Syrian regime did not fall in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union for numerous reasons, namely because it was not an agent of the Soviet policy. He noted that Hafez al-Assad used to deliberately send messages to Western powers through Lebanese and regional events, stating and affirming that it is pointless for the West to try and address Damascus through Moscow because Damascus makes its own decisions and Western leaders are free to address it directly. Khaddam spared no details talking about being a principal or an agent, pointing out that an agent loses his right to have the last word in determining his future, defending his interests, and making decisions of war and peace.
The principal vs agent comparison brings to mind many scenarios in today’s world with Yemen on the top of the list. Even though the Biden administration is interested in ending the war in Yemen and is taking steps it deems useful in this regard, the current escalation by the Iran-backed Houthi militia indicates an agent’s behavior. There are many calls for a peaceful solution to end the Yemen war based on a settlement that accommodates all parties. The concerned countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are in favor of a solution. However, Houthis’ response remains unchanged as they attempt to use their arsenal to target civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia, such as the Abha International Airport. The Houthi escalation is intended to be a reminder that their role is that of an agent and it is limited to escalation while the talks to find a solution should be made with Tehran.
The situation in Yemen is now clearer than ever before. The commitment of Houthis to escalation and using missiles and car bombs partially explains the reason behind the Yemen war. This war erupted because a minority carried out a coup to topple the legitimate leadership in the hopes of turning Yemen into the center of Iran's project to encircle influential countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s penetration is an Iranian endeavor to compensate for its failed attempt to encircle Saudi Arabia through Bahrain. Anyone following military and political developments in the past six years can discern that the Houthi agent is pushing Yemen into an agenda beyond its capacity.
The picture is truly bleak. Yemen has more missiles than it has universities, hospitals, and clinics. It has a huge number of people willing to try and cross the border time and time again, taking routes that can only be described as suicidal. It has a large base of young people who, due to poverty or misinformation, are engaging in a war that only worsens the situation in their country. Even the Houthi leadership is chanting some slogans without realizing how irrelevant they are.
It is indeed a tragedy for one to repeat “death to America” while it is one’s people who die. For example, Castro’s Cuba, which opposed “the American enemy” for decades and collected billions of dollars for assuming the role of a Soviet agent, is now looking forward to improving its ties with the “enemy of the people” while requesting the removal of any obstacles that are hindering better exchanges and interactions.
Here is another example worth pondering over, no one fought the Americans as fiercely and successfully as the Vietnamese, winning the war and forcing US forces out of Vietnam. Now, however, the descendants of the victorious General Vo Nguyen Giap are yearning for better ties with the “Great Satan,” and are dreaming of attracting investors and tourists, discarding their old fear for their identity and revolutionary purity. They are also dreaming of military cooperation with the US, so they do not remain an easy prey to China if it ever felt the need for control. We are living in a different world; it is one of interests, numbers, opportunities, and improving people's lives, not a world of hiding behind empty slogans. In the grip of the Houthis, Yemen is nothing like Castro's country or Ho Chi Minh’s country. Let us not delve too much into the differences. Castro was the leader of a revolution that made Cubans hopeful and his national legitimacy topped any other characteristic. The agent’s role was imposed on Cuba because of confrontation with the US. The same can be said of the Vietnamese regime that reunified its country. Houthi-controlled Yemen is a different story. The main justification for the existence of the group currently controlling the fate of Yemen is its role as an agent for Iran, which has increased its attacks in the region, especially after the US toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Yemen deserves a chance to catch its breath and end the agonies of war. It needs to compensate for lost decades and to overcome the ruinous aftermaths of the Houthi adventure. Yemen needs to heal its wounds perpetrated by unfamiliar policies and attempts to metamorphose it. While observing Yemen, one can predict that the US special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, will discover what the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths certainly already knows, which is that the Houthi ballistics are aimed at hastening the removal of economic sanctions on Iran and Washington's return to the nuclear deal, without any consideration for the ballistic agenda or destabilizing the region. It is questionable to seek a solution with an agent, and it is more tragic to accept a solution with conditions imposed by the party that appointed the agent.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.