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A view on Lenderking’s definition of the Houthis

Mohammed Ali al-Saqqaf

Published: Updated:

The statements made by US Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, have stirred much uproar and raised a lot of questions with regard to what was considered an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Houthi-affiliated Ansarullah Movement.

Lenderking’s statement came in the context of his participation in a virtual seminar last Thursday 24 June 2021 with the National Council on US-Arab Relations, during which he said: “On several occasions I have mentioned the legitimacy of the Houthis, and the fact that the United States acknowledges them as a legitimate stakeholder in Yemen. Hence, we recognize them as a group that did accomplish a great deal, and thus no one would dare wish to see them get out of the conflict.”

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Was that a slip of the tongue, or a lack of basic knowledge of the distinction between ‘legitimacy’ and ‘recognition’? Each of the two terms means something else, and thus a differentiation between the connotations and implications of each term should have been made.

In the same vein; why was such a statement issued now? Is it somehow correlated with the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear file? If this was the case, then why was the statement issued now although the Vienna talks have been ongoing for two months? Is the statement somehow linked with the official Iranian elections which resulted in the triumph of a new president who belongs to the extremist branch in the Islamic Republic?

Besides; how is the Houthi Movement being classified by UN resolutions, and does this classification in its essence go in line with the statement of the US special envoy to Yemen, or does it contradict it? Does UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths deal with the Houthis in a manner that complies with his definition of them, like Lenderking, or does his dealing contradict that definition?

These are several questions that are difficult to deal with and reply to in full through a press article. Hence, our answers will be somehow selective and in connection to some of these queries.

Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

To start with, it is not a new thing to acknowledge the Houthi Movement as a player in the current Yemeni crisis, and the Yemeni legitimacy has already acknowledged it as a side that should be negotiated with to reach an understanding that resolves the conflict. This acknowledgement was manifested in several UN-supported international conferences where the Houthis have taken part, be it the various conferences in Geneva, the Kuwait Conference, or the other conference in Stockholm, all of which were held under the supervision of the international mediator without whom the Yemeni sides would not have negotiated face-to-face. Griffiths himself visited Sanaa and Oman several times to meet with Houthi leaders and representatives.

This is a natural procedure during negotiations between sides of a conflict, even if some reject the concept of sitting on the same negotiations table with the other side – a thing that happened in previous stages of the Yemeni legitimacy’s relations with the Houthis. In this context, it is noteworthy that during Vienna’s talks there was no direct US presence among the other delegations that negotiated with the Iranians regarding their nuclear file, which was due to US domestic political reasons related to the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats – particularly with regard to the negotiations with Iran.

It was clear that Lenderking’s meetings in Oman were not confined to Omani officials. In a previous article of mine I wondered if he might have met with Muhammad Abdulsalam, the Houthi representative in the negotiations with the legitimacy. Lenderking himself has constantly denied that such a meeting has ever taken place, because he knows that it would imply the acknowledgement of US President Joe Biden’s administration of the Houthi Movement, which was listed by former US President Donald Trump among the terrorist organizations, hence stipulating the US law not to have any dealings with it.

After the Houthi Movement was excluded from the list of terrorist organizations and Lenderking was assigned as a US special envoy to Yemen he used to deny meeting up with the movement’s representatives, only to admit it recently.

However, admitting that he met them to achieve success for his mission is one thing, and declaring them as a legitimate movement is another. The latter grants them the position of a status quo authority.

This situation raises a question; how can one explain US’s non-recognition of the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the rule of Mao Zedong, a country which contained one quarter of the world’s population, and US’s persistent decision back then to keep the permanent membership seat of the UN for the Chinese Nationalist Government? This situation persisted until 1971, when former US President Richard Nixon has officially recognized the PRC.

 Ebrahim Raisi looks on at a polling station during presidential elections in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Ebrahim Raisi looks on at a polling station during presidential elections in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

The international community itself has recognized the PRC two decades prior to Washington’s decision to follow that step, so how can the US bestow legitimacy upon a coup movement that has overthrown an internationally-recognized and officially elected Yemeni authority?

Recognizing any particular entity is a sovereign decision made by each state in compliance with its political evaluation, but acknowledging a side that takes part in an armed conflict and admitting the necessity of that side’s participation in the quest for a peaceful resolution for the conflict is a totally different thing than officially recognizing its legitimacy – taking into consideration that that side is already controlling parts of a country whose legitimacy the US already recognizes.

In the same vein, the Houthi Movement itself used to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Hadi’s authority, agreeing to participate in the National Dialogue and its endorsements which the presidential decree No. 2140 for 2014 described as “a sort of a roadmap for a constant democratic transition under a Yemeni leadership, a roadmap that is based on commitment to democracy, wise governance, and the rule of law.” Thus, it was no surprise that the US special envoy to Yemen’s statements triggered anger among the Yemenis.

Meanwhile, we do not mean to disregard the humanitarian considerations behind issuing such statements, considerations that need swift reaction. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the humanitarian catastrophe, and due to the seven-year war, has extended to the rest of the liberated Yemeni areas, and that the source of all disasters in Yemen is the Houthi coup against the legitimate authority, a coup which ignited the war in the country.

Were these statements merely a trial balloon to test reactions to them by all sides, or are they correlated with the Iranian Nuclear file and the election of President Ibrahim Raisi in Teheran?

Does the US Administration wish to reach a quick resolution for the Yemeni crisis to dedicate its time and efforts to the major challenge it is facing regarding its ties with Russia and China? If these statements were meant to be trial balloons to assess the reactions of the Yemeni conflict’s sides, it has become clear that they are unacceptable statements. This situation has urged the US State Department to deal with the repercussion of these statements, reiterating that, in line with the rest of the world, it only recognizes the Yemeni legitimate government.

Finally, we conclude this article with an Arab proverb which says: “There is no smoke without fire.”

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

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