This is no time to appease Yemen’s Houthi rebels
The UN-brokered Yemen peace talks, which were scheduled to start last Thursday, never materialized because the Houthi representatives did not show up. There is nothing new about failed UN meetings or a breakdown in mediation efforts, but this failure was played out in slow motion over three days on television screens for all to see.
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths had invited the Yemeni government, as well as representatives of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the G-19 nations most interested in the Yemen conflict, Yemeni civil society representatives, journalists and international and regional organizations. The representatives of the international community and the internationally recognized government of Yemen waited in vain as a UN plane was parked at Sanaa airport ready to fly the Houthi delegation to Geneva, but the Houthis kept raising new demands to be immediately met or else they would not leave Sanaa.
There is no doubt that the Houthi rebels bear the primary responsibility for the failure of the talks, but the UN team has also been blamed for mishandling the affair. If the international team could not organize a relatively small logistical issue, such as ensuring that the parties kept their word in at least showing up for the talks, how are they expected to handle the substantive issues underlying the search for a political solution?
Khaled Al-Yamani, Yemen’s Foreign Minister, took the UN to task for not being firm enough with the Houthis — a critique that has been frequently directed at the UN during its dealings with the Houthis. Critics have described the UN’s actions as repeatedly rewarding their intransigence. Appeasing the Houthis and tolerating their failure to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 2216 has failed to persuade them to take a seat at the negotiating table. Resolution 2216 was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, meaning it can be implemented by the use of force and, if this is not respected, what future does UN mediation have in Yemen?
Following the failure of the talks in Geneva, the UN envoy refrained from publicly disclosing the reasons. Instead, he announced that he was going to Sanaa to have separate consultations with the Houthis.
Dave Harden, an expert on the region and until recently a senior official at the US Agency for International Aid, said that the UN Envoy to Yemen “got it wrong,” adding: “Negotiators can't reward bad behavior nor want peace more than the parties,” which is something he learned from decades of experience. According to Harden, “that is not how one should negotiate (if you are the special envoy).” It is clear that Griffiths fell into a trap laid by the Houthis, which changed the “negotiating dynamics in their favor.”
Although the Houthis’ no-show may have won them the first round, the value of these posturing tactics will ultimately be short-lived and could even backfire, as they have demonstrated that they are not serious about finding a political solution to end the conflict.
The Houthis think that peace will reduce them to their actual size in Yemeni politics, meaning they will have to give up their control of much of the country and the government revenues they have been appropriating since 2014
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Sadly, as Harden pointed out, it is ordinary Yemenis who will bear the brunt of the continuing conflict.
UN mediators should keep in mind that the Houthis will continue to obstruct peace efforts for two main reasons. Firstly, the Houthis think that peace will reduce them to their actual size in Yemeni politics, meaning they will have to give up their control of much of the country and the government revenues they have been appropriating since 2014. Secondly, with Iran facing US sanctions, the Houthis represent valuable chips that Tehran believes it can use against the US. For Iran to buck US efforts to counter its military presence and meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors, it needs to strengthen its regional alliances and keep as many proxies as possible to project power regionally.
On Sunday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sounded defiant in an address to Iranian air force commanders, saying that Iran needed to boost its personnel and buy more military equipment, presumably to prepare for a war with the US. In such a case, it would encourage its clients, such as the Houthis, to disrupt peace efforts.
Iran’s defiant stance comes as its foreign exchange rate is collapsing and as foreign investors are pulling out in response to US sanctions and pressure. The US actions are starting to bite, even before the onset of oil sanctions, which are due to take effect in early November.
As such, Griffiths should be applying more pressure to the Houthis, not appeasing them. They should be pushed to implement Resolution 2216, which is a key part of the peace formula. Concessions to the Houthi rebels will only embolden them to continue to make a mockery of the UN and specifically its special envoy, as they did in Geneva.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1