Followers of the Houthi demonstrate against the Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in Sanaa on April 1, 2015. Photo Credit: Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters
By: Tim Cook, Columnist
The Houthi movement in Yemen may concede to negotiating a settlement with the Saudi-led coalition due to internal rifts and the Saudi-led coalition’s near encirclement of the critically important, Houthi-controlled port of Hudaydah. The Houthis aim to wear the momentum of Saudi-led coalition military offensives with weapons such as roadside bombs and IEDs. Their goal is to force the Saudi-led coalition to acknowledge a legitimate Houthi role in Yemen’s government and military and as well as maintain their own economic independence by retaining a port.[i] However, as the Houthis lose territory and critical personnel, they find less advantages to prolonging the conflict and may accede to international pressure to participate in a negotiated settlement to avoid additional power losses. Thus, despite the Houthi’s previous reticence to participate in negotiations, talks between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition are scheduled to take place on December 6, 2018.[ii] [iii] [iv]
The inability of the Houthis to reverse recent gains by the Saudi-led coalition has caused greater disaffection within the Houthi-led movement against its own leaders. Rather than forging a consolidated path forward, the Houthi leadership has responded by turning against each other. The Houthi leadership dismissed former chief of staff of the Yemeni army, Major General Yehya Al-Shami on November 27th of this year and placed him under house arrest. The Houthi leaders appear to have blamed Al-Shami for various defeats including their losses around the critical port city of Hudaydah.[v][vi] Al-Shami’s clan has a significant amount of representation within the Houthi government.[vii] This means that Al-Shami’s dismissal threatens to alienate numerous other key members of his clan from the Houthi cause. Some repercussions of Yehya Al-Shami’s dismissal have already surfaced. Ibrahim Al-Shami, another member of the Al-Shami who commanded Houthi forces in Durahmi, directly south of Hudaydah, defected to pro-Hadi forces on 29 November. The dissent within the Al-Shami clan comes a little over two weeks after the former Information Minister in the Houthi government, Abdul Salam Ali Jaber, defected to Saudi Arabia,[viii] an event which further exposes the disintegration of the Houthi leadership.
The Houthis are reportedly growing increasingly suspicious of officials within their own government who do not belong to the Houthis own Zaidi sect of Islam.[ix] While sectarianism explains some defections, it is by no means the only source of power struggles within the Houthi alliance. In December of 2017, the Houthi’s coalition government with former Yemeni president Ali Abudllah Saleh, himself a Zaidi, broke down. Before Saleh’s defeat and subsequent death, the Houthis could blame the dysfunction in their government on their shared power arrangement with the former president; now the Houthis no longer have a convenient scapegoat to deflect popular discontent within the territory they administer.[x]
As fighting intensifies around Hudaydah, the Houthis face the prospect that fighting will be intense enough that shipments into the port cease completely. Northern Yemen’s civilian population relies on shipments of food and medical supplies through the port to stave off famine and alleviate an ongoing cholera epidemic. The Houthis increasingly fear the populace they administer, in particular loyalists of former President Saleh, who may incite uprisings against the Houthis in the capital Sana’a. Furthermore, the worsening of the humanitarian crisis could be enough to turn much of the population of Northern Yemen completely against the Houthis.[xi] Popular discontent could spread further among officials within the government as well, as they will not be able to gain revenue from manipulating the distribution of food, fuel and medicine that come through the port.[xii] This would diminish the profitability continuing to collaborate with the Houthis, producing further defections. [xiii] If the price of these losses is considered too great by the Houthi leadership, it would greater incentivize them to take talks seriously.
One of the most important impediments remaining to talks is the wide gulf between Houthi demands and what the Saudi-led coalition is willing to concede. The Houthis demand that any peace deal would entail the resignation of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi and Vice President Ali-Mohsen, the reintegration of the Houthis into the government and the integration of Houthi forces into a united Yemeni military. The Saudi-led coalition, by contrast, wants the Houthis to disarm as a condition for peace[xiv] Even as incompatible as these stances are, the Houthis are increasingly likely to be the ones to make concessions in order to avoid prolonging the conflict. The degradation of the will of the Houthis and their supporters to fight is one of the most important reasons that this round of talks is more likely to occur at all.
If negotiations do not make any headway and the Saudi-led coalition is able to capture Hudaydah without a negotiated settlement, the rate of defection from the Houthis will likely continue or even accelerate. The Houthis would thus benefit greatly from a willingness to make political concessions before they lose this critical city, as its loss would lead to starvation in and isolation of their remaining territory.
[i] Michael Knights, “How the Houthis Defend Hodeidah and How the Coalition Is Outfoxing them,” The National, June 21, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/how-the-houthis-defend-hodeidah-and-how-the-coalition-is-outfoxing-them-1.742833.
[ii] Al Jazeera, “Houthi Chief Raise Hopes for Yemen Peace Talks: Report,” GCC News | Al Jazeera, November 29, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/11/saudi-tv-report-houthi-chief-raise-hopes-yemen-peace-talks-181129173340138.html.
[iii] Mohamed Ghobari, “Yemen Talks Set to Start in Sweden after Wounded Houthis Evacuated,” Reuters, December 03, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/sweden-set-to-host-yemen-peace-talks-as-coalition-agrees-houthi-wounded-evacuation-idUSKBN1O10V3.
[iv] Middle East Eye, “Yemen peace talks to begin Thursday in Sweden, UN confirms,” Middle East Eye, December 5, 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/yemen-peace-talks-begin-thursday-sweden-un-confirms-313386996
[viii] “Houthi Minister Defects amid ‘more Divisions’ in Yemen.” Middle East Monitor. November 12, 2018, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20181112-houthi-minister-defects-amid-more-divisions-in-yemen/.
[ix] Ramadan Al Sherbini, “Yemen Defections Hint at Al Houthi Collapse.” GulfNews. November 12, 2018., https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/yemen/yemen-defections-hint-at-al-houthi-collapse-1.60322501.
[x] Gamal Gasim, “The Ramifications of the Death of Yemen’s Saleh.” GCC News | Al Jazeera. December 05, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/ramifications-death-yemen-saleh-171205080651133.html.
[xii] “The Assault on Al Hudaydah: Surfacing America’s Partnership Problems.” Critical Threats. June 13, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/the-assault-on-al-hudaydah-surfacing-americas-partnership-problems.
[xiii] Ramadan Al Sherbini, “Yemen Defections Hint at Al Houthi Collapse,” GulfNews, November 12, 2018, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/yemen/yemen-defections-hint-at-al-houthi-collapse-1.60322501.
[xiv] Elana DeLozier, “Framing Yemen Peace Negotiations.” The Washington Institute, May 31, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/framing-yemen-peace-negotiations.