The war in Yemen is in its eighth year and shows no signs of ending anytime soon. In the endless cycle of violence, there have been increasingly louder calls for talks and negotiations with the Houthis as a means to end the conflict.
However, before asserting the need for talks, there must be an appreciation for the previous meetings that took place before in the conflict, and an even greater appreciation and blunt recognition as to why they emphatically failed.
The National Dialogue
Yemen was not immune to the Arab Spring wave unfolding in the region. Just like the Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, and Syrians, the Yemenis also took to the streets demanding the fall of the regime and a transition towards a democratic system that could offer solutions to rampant unemployment and deteriorating living standards.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime was toppled via a negotiated settlement brokered by the United Nations (UN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2012. A National Dialogue Conference subsequently agreed that vice-President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi would take charge of the transition period. According to the agreement, he would run alone in a symbolic election in order to create renewed legitimacy and then lead the country to nationwide elections.
The Houthis were seeking to restore their control over their stronghold in Saada.
Meanwhile, the Houthis were wrestling with the fallout from their sixth armed attempt at seizing Yemen, which had ended in defeat. They were therefore engaged in seeking to restore their control over their stronghold in the capital city of north Yemen, Saada, against local tribes that had been backed by the central government in Sana’a.
Despite the Houthis’ relentless aggression over the past decade and their blunt refusal to put down arms, they were invited to participate and engage in the National Dialogue Conference, which included political parties across the spectrum, as well as civil society actors and activists. The Houthis agreed and thereby went from being an armed tribal faction to a “legitimate” political actor.
However, the group feared that a nationwide political settlement would restrict their ability to launch another armed attempt to assert control over all of Yemen. Moreover, as a minority faction, they have an acute awareness that a democratic process is unlikely to ever deliver them to power, so long as they maintain a narrow clan-based sectarian identity.
As the dialogue began to reach its end, the Houthis became critical of the process. At the same time, their war in Saada against the local tribes had spilled over into the National Dialogue Conference proceedings with the assassination of a Houthi representative in Sana’a. Against this backdrop, the Houthis withdrew from the dialogue and returned to Saada where the war in the area was turning in their favor.
The Houthis partnered up with the ousted dictator and former enemy Ali Abdullah Saleh to launch a swift military campaign
When the rest of the parties (bar the Southern Separatists) announced unanimously that they would respect the outcomes of the National Dialogue, the Houthis instead began their military campaign in the North. The group partnered up with the ousted dictator and former long-time enemy Ali Abdullah Saleh to launch a swift military campaign in which they successfully seized Jawf, Amran, and eventually the capital itself by September the same year.
National Peace and Cooperation Agreement
By September 2014, the Houthis had become the most potent military force in Yemen. They had stormed the capital and seized the government buildings and institutions. And they ostensibly asserted that they had come to fix the democratic transition after protests had broken out over rising living costs and the lifting of fuel subsidies.
President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi signed the UN-brokered “National Peace and Cooperation” agreement in which a new government would be formed, and the Houthis would then subsequently withdraw. The agreement suggested that there would be a new political dialogue and accord. Under the auspices of the UN, Yemen’s political parties expressed a willingness to engage with the new accord, even as Hadi was being accused of caving to Houthi coercion.
The Houthis instead proceeded to attack and imprison political opponents.
However, under the umbrella of this agreement which produced a technocratic government, the Houthis instead proceeded to attack and imprison political opponents, force the President to resign then place him under house arrest, and cement their military control of the capital.
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Three years after the Saudi intervention in 2015 that drove the Houthis back from the Southern capital Aden, the war raged in the vital port city of Hodeida. For the Houthis, Hodeida was, and remains, absolutely essential to their control of the North. Hodeida provides access to the sea and is, therefore, a vital supply line. It would be practically impossible militarily for the Houthis to hold onto the capital Sanaa if Hodeida is restored to government forces.
In 2018, government forces had managed to create enough military momentum to threaten the Houthis in Hodeida. Such was the scale of the momentum that it appeared that government forces would take the city, and thereby turn the tide of war in favor of the internationally-recognized government that the Houthis had overthrown. Given the importance of the city, the Houthis desperately sought to hold on as the UAE and Saudi Arabia committed more resources to propel the government forces to a decisive victory.
Advocates for the government argued that the Houthis were seeking to buy time and not negotiating with the UN.
Facing defeat, the Houthis pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke. They informed the despairing UN envoy that they were prepared to talk and negotiate. The UN envoy seized the opportunity to demand that government forces cease the offensive and come to the table. Advocates for the internationally-recognized government railed at what they perceived to be the naivety of the UN envoy, arguing that the Houthis were only seeking to buy time and not seriously considering negotiating with the organization.
The UN envoy accused these critics of being over-critical. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi relented under international pressure and lifted the siege on Hodeida. The internationally-recognized government then traveled to Stockholm for talks with the Houthis. The talks resulted in a ceasefire agreement that was greeted with fanfare. Hodeida’s port would be placed under UN control, and a prisoner exchange would take place.
Yet the Stockholm agreement was never implemented. The Houthis refused to withdraw. When the UN force was deployed in Hodeida, it came under fire. The Houthis had successfully reinforced their presence during the negotiation period and reorganized their battle lines in the territories that had appeared to be on the verge of breaking before the UN envoy intervention.
In effect, the Stockholm agreement had rescued the Houthis, who then proceeded to embark on a military campaign to seize the resource-rich province of Ma’rib.
In effect, the Stockholm agreement had rescued the Houthis.
The Stockholm agreement is also believed to have been the turning point for the UAE, which became convinced that the international community had no intention of restoring the internationally-recognized government and that UN policies favored the entrenchment of the Houthis. UAE support for separatism became subsequently more pronounced, and in 2019, they bombed government forces to reinforce the coup by the southern separatists in Aden.
What’s to Come in 2022
The Houthis are well aware that this seventh attempt at seizing Yemen by force is their most successful ever. They are now in control of Jawf, Amran, Hodeida, Sana’a, and Al-Bayda and continue to control significant parts of Taiz. The group has made a concerted military effort to seize the resource-rich province of Ma’rib, which would enable them to establish autonomy in the North in the event of any negotiated settlement.
They are also aware that Yemen’s international narrative centers around Saudi Arabia and its transgressions – not on Yemen itself and its unique dynamics. The Houthis have thrived on the binary of “Saudi versus the Houthis,” which removes the agency of Yemenis that lament the actions of both.
There is international indifference to the legitimacy of the internationally-recognized government that was agreed upon in the National Dialogue. The global focus is on the symptoms of war that include the humanitarian crisis and famine, but not on the cause of war which is the relentless ambition of the Houthis.
In terms of solutions, the focus is on initiating new talks with the Houthis, regardless of previously similar negotiations or any appreciation as to why they had failed despite offering significant concessions to the Houthis. The irony is that this has had the awkward effect of rendering the internationally-recognized government impotent, expanding the role of Saudi Arabia that talk advocates want to contain, laying the groundwork for separatism that these same talk advocates have sought to prevent, and making the very coup that talk advocates are against a reality.
The Houthis are ideologically committed to hereditary rule in Yemen… even if it plunges the country into war.
The Houthis are an organization ideologically committed to establishing hereditary rule in Yemen on the basis of a divine right that belongs solely to the Houthi family. Therefore, talks, negotiations, and political processes are all seen by the Houthis as legitimate tactics in pursuit of this wider goal that they perceive as noble and pleasing to God, even if it plunges the country into an unholy, catastrophic, and ignoble war.
As the Houthis continue to suffer military setbacks as a result of a frustrated Biden administration, which is increasingly inclined to allow Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue military operations, the Houthis will naturally become more inclined to negotiate. However, if history is any indication, such talks will be greeted with international approval which will lead to the Houthis using the opportunity to further fortify their military gains yet again and make preparations to secure even more. A solution or strategy to produce an outcome otherwise remains elusive.