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Friday, 22 November 2019

Houthi tactical turn

In the wake of the Aramco strikes, the Houthi movement has proclaimed a new initiative for a ceasefire. How genuine the initiative is, however, is open to question

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 26 Sep 2019
Houthi tactical turn
Yemeni men chant as they hold up Kalashinkovs during a tribal meeting in Sanaa on Saturday (photo: AFP)
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To mark the fifth anniversary of the Houthi coup on 21 September 2014, Ansar Allah movement leader Abdel Malek Al-Houthi approved a peace initiative announced by Mahdi Al-Mashat, president of the Houthis’ political wing, the Supreme Political Council. The initiative, which offers to stop drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, comes a week after attacks against Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia for which the Houthis claimed responsibility, a claim that met with widespread scepticism.

Saudi Arabia doubts the sincerity of the initiative because it doubts the credibility of the party that made it. “We’ll judge by deeds, not by words,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir.

On the other hand, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths welcomed the initiative which “in good faith, could send a powerful message of the will to end the war” and stressed “the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity and moving forward with all necessary steps to reduce violence, military escalation and unhelpful rhetoric”.

When contextualising Al-Mashat’s remarks, this is not really a fully-fledged initiative in the proper sense but rather more of a declaration of a unilateral ceasefire that awaits a reciprocal response from Riyadh. It is a tactic to avert Saudi retaliation for the Aramco strikes even if Riyadh holds Iran responsible for them.

Coming as it does on the anniversary of the Houthi takeover in Yemen or, in Houthi rhetoric, the “21 September Revolution”, the “initiative” is being billed as an act of magnanimity, regardless of how starkly this contrasts with the Houthis’ tone following the Aramco attacks when they vowed more of the same. One is also struck by the irony of a “peace” initiative launched from a podium celebrating a militant uprising against the legitimate government. Nor was it possible to mistake the haughty tones that accompanied the initiative, as exemplified by the warning by Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, chairman of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee of Yemen, that if the Saudis “refuse the initiative we will do them more harm”.

This is not the first time the Houthis have made such an initiative. Houthi officials announced a similarly worded one in 2018 after the Saudi-led coalition launched the operation to liberate Hodeida. However, as soon as the operation ground to a halt, the Houthis reverted to form.

In addition to the desire to avert an overwhelming military retaliation for the Aramco attacks, the Houthi initiative is motivated by a number of other aims. The Houthis suspect a deliberate attempt to exclude them from the equations of regional influence after a number of regional and international powers claimed that the Aramco strikes were beyond the Houthi militia’s capabilities. The initiative appears to be a propaganda instrument intended to leverage the Houthis back into the picture.

In light of the foregoing, it would be wise to handle the initiative with care, as it probably is no more than a tactical manoeuvre intended to reset the negotiating track in accordance with the equations that informed the six meetings at sea with the Redeployment Coordination Committee. The Houthis hope that, this way, they can preserve their military gains. However, such a manoeuvre would undermine any political agreement in the future. For example, if forced to hand over heavy weapons under a peace plan, they will still be in a position to turn to their arsenals of conventional weapons and expand, or threaten to expand, the war theatre as a means to bend the will of international powers. Recently, Griffiths has begun to push for a plan that has been foreshadowed in the talks in Kuwait and in the plan the former US secretary of state proposed in Oman. It involves disarming the Houthi militia of heavy weapons in accordance with a UN supervised mechanism, sponsoring a dialogue with other political forces, and incorporating the movement into the Yemeni polity as a political party, as opposed to a sectarian group.

It should also be borne in mind that, if the Houthis are projecting a desire for a peace process today, they have never adhered to a peace drive or proposal in the five years since the coup. They turned against the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA), intended to include them in the political process, the day after it was signed in 2014. In the five years since then, they have failed to commit to any of the outputs from successive rounds of talks, from Kuwait to Oman to Sweden, and even bilateral talks and direct talks with Saudi Arabia, as occurred in Abha in 2016.

Bearing this in mind, another political aim of the initiative, as a tactical move, is to position themselves a step ahead of other parties as an advocate of a peace in the event of a new process, such as that proposed by Washington in Oman or the one mentioned by Griffiths in his recent letter to The New York Times. Then they will rush to the negotiating table, win a new round of extra time and accumulate more credentials for their self-acclaimed legitimacy.

But there might also be material motives behind the initiative. The Houthi militia is contending with the dilemma of the interruption of Iranian supplies of weaponry — drones and ballistic missiles above all — due to intensive maritime surveillance thanks to the stronger US naval deployment in the Gulf. The Arab coalition’s targeting of Houthi arms and ammunitions stores have also wreaked a toll. The militia forces, themselves, are feeling the attrition of constant battle to defend the areas they control. If the advances of pro-government forces are slow and have little immediate impact, the persistence of this march, in itself, exerts heavy pressure.

The cautious Saudi reaction to the initiative is consistent with the experience from past initiatives. Regionally and internationally, there has been no positive response of note, while Griffiths’ response was, in part, an expected formality and, in part, a means to coax the Houthis into being more responsive on the outcomes of the Stockholm agreement. As the situation stands, the initiative is unlikely to stimulate action.

As to where the Houthis will take it from here, it is possible to envision two courses of action. One is to take incremental measures to establish the credibility of the initiative and encourage support. For example, they could demonstrate a certain flexibility towards the Stockholm agenda, especially as concerns the release of the POWs they have recently sentenced to death and most of whom are named in the prisoner lists they submitted to the Yemeni government. They might also offer concessions on the question of redeployment in Hodeida, although such concessions are likely to be minimal or, if somewhat more substantial, they will still be little more than ploys to gain time so that they can catch their breath and consolidate their military positions.

The second course of action will be contingent on forthcoming reactions to the initiative, or on regional developments related to Iran. It should be borne in mind here that this is the first time the Houthi leadership has taken a decision of this nature so publicly. It is as though the leadership were preparing its followers for all eventualities. If the other side takes the Houthis up on their initiative, they can boast of their power to set the course of the peace process and control what shapes it. On the other hand, if forced to pay penalties, they will be able to justify that as well to their public. Ultimately, whatever happens will depend largely on Iran and reactions to Iran, the real master of the Houthi militia.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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