Houthis raise peace talk fears

Mohammed Ali al-Saqqaf
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It appears that the Iran-backed Houthi militia is not only apprehensive about the peace process, but absolutely terrified of it. The question here is, why does the notion of peace scare the Houthis, and why are they set on rejecting the cease-fire? The cease-fire is a mere initial step that could pave the way for the negotiation process which could end the conflict and help all parties reach a political settlement, whether in terms of formulating a comprehensive Yemeni framework suitable for all parties involved or determining the conditions for achieving peace with neighboring countries and providing guarantees ensuring the stability of the borders.

We can attribute the reasoning behind the Houthis’ rejection of the peace talks to the fact that they are a tiny minority constituting less than 20 percent of the Yemeni population, which is about 26 million citizens. The majority of the Houthis belong to the Shafite, as well as the Zaydi minority. We can even say that the Houthis, also referred to as Ansar Allah, are a minority within the Zaydi minority because of their divergent belief that the legitimate authority should be restricted to the descendants of “Al Hassan and Al Hussein,” or what is often referred to as ‘al-Batnayn’ (the two clans), who consider themselves God’s chosen ones.

Therefore, if peace prevails in Yemen, this will mean a return to the principles of Yemen’s September 1962 revolution that toppled the imamate regime that the Houthis promise they have inherited. If the Houthis succeed in reinstating the rule of the imamate in Yemen, this will take the majority of the Yemeni citizens back half a century.

Missiles and drone aircraft are seen on display at an exhibition at an unidentified location in Yemen in this undated handout photo released by the Houthi Media Office, Sept. 17, 2019. (Reuters)
Missiles and drone aircraft are seen on display at an exhibition at an unidentified location in Yemen in this undated handout photo released by the Houthi Media Office, Sept. 17, 2019. (Reuters)

Some were optimistic when the Houthis participated in the National Dialogue Conference in 2014, which resulted in a decision to establish a modern state built on a federal system that is the first of its kind across all of Yemen (with the exception of the experience of southern Yemen during the period of British occupation). This participation appeared to be a promising step indicating the Houthis willingness to engage in open dialogues.

Despite all of this, the Yemenis, representing all parties, political powers, and factions, gathered again under the supervision of the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar to sign the so-called “Peace and National Partnership Agreement” in Sanaa, on September 21, 2014. This agreement was signed shortly after the Houthis seized the capital city of Sanaa.

In this regard, I would like to highlight the order of signatures in this agreement. The first to sign was the representative of the largest Yemeni party, Dr. Abdul-Karim al-Iryani of the General People's Congress Party, followed by the representative of the Islah Party (from the Islamic Front) Abd al-Wahhab al-Ansi. The signature that came in third was the representative of Ansar Allah, Mahdi al-Mashat, who replaced Saleh al-Samad, in his capacity as the head of the so-called “Supreme Political Council” and son-in-law of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, and this was followed by the signatures of the rest of the political parties and factions.

The irony about the situation is that the agreement was based on the outcomes of the National Dialogue that laid the foundations of a new, federal, and democratic Yemeni state based on the rule of law, equal citizenship, human rights, and good governance.

UN Security Council Resolution No. 2201, dated February 15, 2015, showed that the Houthis did not adhere to the agreement, whose provisions they themselves imposed on the rest of the Yemeni factions. The resolution strongly deplored the unilateral actions taken by the Houthis to dissolve parliament and take over Government institutions, as well as the Houthis' detention of Yemeni government officials and placing them under house arrest.

In terms of the US’s efforts to end the war in Yemen, the real question we must present to Biden’s administration is, how can the Yemenis trust any agreements concluded between the Houthis and the US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking? As we have seen, the Houthis are quick to violate peace agreements that they themselves played a role in concluding, and they have even taken actions that went against their own demands at the expense of the rest of the Yemeni political factions?

Kirsten Fontenrose, a senior researcher on Middle Eastern matters at the Atlantic Council in Washington, who worked in several White House departments as well as the US Department of State during the Bush and Obama administrations, explained that the situation in Yemen was deteriorating because the Houthis have been emboldened by the recent decisions by the Biden administration and their recent military success in Marib.

This served as the nudge the Houthis needed to reject a political settlement that would have been proportional to their actual percentage in the population.

During her interview with Asharq Al-Awsat on March 6, Kirsten added that any political understanding the American administration may now reach could exaggerate the Houthis’ actual representation on the ground. Moreover, she noted that it would only be a matter of a handful of months before the agreement is rejected by other Yemenis.

State Department spokesman Ned Price takes a reporter's question for Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking, Feb. 16, 2021. (Reuters)
State Department spokesman Ned Price takes a reporter's question for Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking, Feb. 16, 2021. (Reuters)

The researcher also indicated that the measures taken by the US administration left Lenderking with few carrots and sticks to motivate the Houthis to end their push in Marib and agree on a political arrangement that is supported by the rest of Yemen.

Fontenrose accused the US’s strategy of providing many favors to the Houthis without asking them for anything in return. The Houthis responded by targeting Riyadh, marching towards Marib, and preventing UN inspectors from accessing the SAFER oil tanker. This means that the US has given away most of its bargaining chips before even kicking off political negotiations.

As the war of attrition continues between the Houthis and the legitimate Yemeni government, the humanitarian crisis has become severely exacerbated, and there are continuous and pressing calls for a ceasefire to end the war. According to the United Nations News Bulletin, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme confirmed in a virtual press conference held last Friday in Washington that if we do not get the money and fuel we need, “we are headed straight toward the biggest famine in modern history.”

Meanwhile, an observer can clearly see that a ceasefire, along with the initiation of a political settlement to the Yemeni crisis, is not something that the Houthis want because it will lead to peace, and peace will most likely reveal the true level of representation of the Ansar Allah movement in the Yemeni political scene.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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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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