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It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace
It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

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Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
     
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
     
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

It’s Time for the European Union to Push Yemen Towards Peace

Originally published in IRIN

After more than three years of fighting, Yemen is teetering on the cusp of an even fiercer war. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition is poised for an offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah that could plunge Yemen into greater turmoil, deepen its humanitarian crisis, and provoke a surge in cross-border missile attacks by the Houthi rebels.

The European Union and its member states have a chance to stop the conflict from sliding into a lethal new stage; now is the time to take action. All sides have declared a readiness to engage in talks (with various conditions), but they need to be nudged towards the table before a full-fledged battle for Hodeidah breaks out.

As the outlines of a new UN peace plan have begun to surface, the EU should use the fact that it has maintained decent relationships with the warring parties to resume the UN-led peace process, moribund since 2016. This must be done before an assault on the port that could scuttle potential talks, especially if the rebels make good on their threats to attack coalition warships and oil tankers, or if one of their missile strikes on Saudi Arabia results in high civilian casualties.

Since Houthi rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (their erstwhile wartime ally) in December last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their Yemeni partners have been acting as if the tide has turned in their favour. They have tried to entice Saleh supporters into their camp, encouraged intra-Houthi rifts, and targeted Houthi leadership. In April, they killed Saleh al-Sammad, the de facto Houthi president who was known as a moderate.

Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis.

On the ground, coalition-backed local forces have achieved some tactical victories since Saleh’s death, especially along the Red Sea coast. But they have failed to decisively shift the military balance to their advantage.

Not only would fighting over Hodeidah put off any prospect of peace, but it would also compound an already acute humanitarian crisis. The port, which has been under an on-off Saudi blockade, is a choke point for goods entering the Houthi-controlled north and a lifeline for the 60 percent of Yemen’s 27 million plus population who live there.

The UN has already called Yemen’s humanitarian crisis the worst in the world. The prolonged fighting that would likely ensue from an assault on Hodeidah would only exacerbate the suffering.

Despite the prospect of intensified warfare, the Houthis have stated publicly and privately their readiness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and re-engage with the UN process, led by the recently appointed special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths. It remains unclear if the Houthis’ newly expressed appetite for talks stems from heightened military pressure or from an increased confidence from the death of Saleh, whom they suspected of dealing with Riyadh behind their backs. Either way, this opportunity for a return to the negotiating table ought not to be squandered.

The EU and its member states are uniquely placed to steer things in that direction. The bloc has maintained working relations with the warring sides, including the Houthis, and is therefore seen as relatively neutral, unlike the United States, whose support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been critical to the coalition’s war effort.

The EU should reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.

The EU has also provided consistent support for UN efforts to broker a ceasefire and mediate peace talks. As a non-belligerent, the EU should now reiterate its firm public position against a coalition assault on Hodeidah, building on its access to all sides and using its influence in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.

In return for a halt to such an assault, the EU should press the Houthis to stop missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea, and to accept an on-shore UN inspection mechanism that would intercept weapons deliveries through Hodeidah. An agreement along these lines could be a stepping stone toward resuming political talks on a broader range of issues, including the handing over of heavy weaponry by all fighting groups.

Moreover, European states, in particular UN Security Council members such as the United Kingdom (the penholder on the Yemen crisis), should press for a new resolution that would support a more inclusive political process. The current framework for negotiations is based on the fundamentally flawed Security Council Resolution 2216. The April 2015 resolution limits talks to the now defunct Houthi/Saleh bloc and the internationally recognised government of deposed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which fails to recognise the full range of Yemeni forces on the ground. And it places unrealistic preconditions on the Houthis, including the injunction that they withdraw from territories they control and hand over their weapons before the talking can begin.

The fourth year in Yemen’s war is on course to be just as devastating as the previous three, if not a lot worse. But a concerted European effort at bringing the belligerents back to the table might just deter them from further foolhardy military pursuits and revive what is now a political process on life support.