Why the Houthis have es­ca­lated the Ye­men cri­sis

Arab News - - OPINION - Ab­del aziz aluwaiSheg | Spe­cial to arab NewS

By co­in­cid­ing at­tacks with UN en­voy’s first visit, rebels wanted to send a mes­sage that they have no plans to sub­mit to the in­ter­na­tional will to dis­arm and dis­pose of their bal­lis­tic mis­sile ar­se­nal.

WHILE the new UN Spe­cial En­voy for Ye­men Martin Grif­fiths was on his first visit to Sana’a on March 25, Houthi mili­tias fired seven bal­lis­tic mis­siles aimed at four Saudi cities — the largest num­ber of mis­siles launched in one day since the be­gin­ning of the war. Later in the week, the Houthis fired more mis­siles at Saudi Ara­bia, and their state­ments in­di­cated they in­tend to con­tinue the mis­sile at­tacks against Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE.

Why the es­ca­la­tion? And why now?

First, the Houthis wanted to nip Grif­fiths’ mis­sion in the bud. With this es­ca­la­tion, they wanted to send a mes­sage to the UN that they have no plans to sub­mit to the in­ter­na­tional will to dis­arm and dis­pose of their bal­lis­tic mis­sile ar­se­nal, as man­dated by Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 2216. The res­o­lu­tion also bars other coun­tries from sup­ply­ing them with weapons, in­clud­ing bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

The war has been a boon for the rebels. They have never been able to con­trol such large swaths of Ye­meni ter­ri­tory — about 20 per­cent of its to­tal land. And through con­trol of the gov­ern­ment’s re­sources, such as taxes and fees, and prof­i­teer­ing in the black mar­ket, mili­tia lead­ers have amassed large for­tunes. Hodei­dah port alone pro­vides them with nearly a bil­lion dol­lars an­nu­ally in fees and other levies. The sanc­tions im­posed on those lead­ers by the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil have not been im­ple­mented.

Sec­ond, their pa­tron and chief sup­porter, Iran, is fac­ing pres­sure from the United States over the nu­clear deal, its bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram, and its desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the re­gion. It is in Iran’s in­ter­est to keep the pot boil­ing in Ye­men to scut­tle the re­newed US ef­forts to con­front its ac­tiv­i­ties and rene­go­ti­ate the nu­clear deal. It thinks that, by show­ing re­solve in Ye­men, it can force the US to change course, as hap­pened in Syria, for ex­am­ple.

Third, the Houthi mili­tias’ ef­forts to in­tim­i­date and black­mail the UN have been suc­cess­ful in the past be­cause the UN thought it needed their co­op­er­a­tion to de­liver badly needed aid in ar­eas un­der their con­trol. As such, the Houthis used the suf­fer­ing of civil­ians to their ad­van­tage. By threat­en­ing to end co­op­er­a­tion in al­low­ing the pas­sage of aid, they cowed the UN into ac­qui­esc­ing to their bel­liger­ent tac­tics.

Fourth, the Houthis be­lieved that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity was not united in its de­ter­mi­na­tion to end their re­bel­lion. Just a few days be­fore they launched their March 25 mis­sile vol­ley against Saudi Ara­bia, the Houthis played host to sev­eral Euro­pean diplo­mats, led by the Euro­pean Union’s en­voy to Ye­men. The in­ten­tions of the diplo­mats aside, the Houthis touted the visit as a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory. The fact that the Euro­pean diplo­mats vis­ited Ye­men just be­fore the new UN en­voy did was seen by the Houthis as a clear demon­stra­tion that Europe had its own diplo­matic chan­nels that they could play against the UN.

Since the con­flict be­gan, the EU’s diplo­macy has un­in­ten­tion­ally up­staged and un­der­mined UN me­di­a­tion ef­forts in the eyes of Ye­meni rebels. In its at­tempts to woo the Houthis and con­vince them to reach a po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mise, the EU has pro­vided the Houthis with the po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial where­withal to avoid deal­ing se­ri­ously with the UN.

Thus, Houthi prof­i­teer­ing, Iran’s med­dling, UN ap­pease­ment, and the EU’s al­ter­na­tive diplo­macy are the four fac­tors that ap­pear to be de­rail­ing Grif­fiths’ first visit to Ye­men.

If the UN’s new spe­cial en­voy is go­ing to suc­ceed, he has to be in charge of the me­di­a­tion process. As rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral, he is re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing about a res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict ac­cord­ing to the terms of Res­o­lu­tion 2216, based on the GCC Ini­tia­tive and its im­ple­men­ta­tion mech­a­nisms, and the out­comes of the Ye­meni Na­tional Di­a­logue Con­fer­ence. Th­ese key doc­u­ments rep­re­sent the in­ter­na­tional, re­gional and na­tional con­sen­sus.

Un­less the Houthis are faced with the risk of los­ing their main sources of war prof­its, they may not ever come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble to try and reach a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion. Sim­i­larly, un­less there are real con­se­quences for its con­tin­ued arm­ing of the Houthis with bal­lis­tic mis­siles and other strate­gic weapons, Iran will con­tinue to frus­trate UN me­di­a­tion. With­out unity among the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing Europe, Grif­fiths’ mis­sion is in dan­ger, just as the pre­vi­ous UN en­voy was un­der­mined by dif­fer­ences within the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

For­tu­nately for Ye­men, and de­spite the mis­sile at­tacks and the lack of progress on the po­lit­i­cal track, Saudi Ara­bia an­nounced that it was go­ing ahead with its pre­vi­ously an­nounced hu­man­i­tar­ian assistance plans. On March 28, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man and UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Antonio Guter­res wit­nessed the sign­ing in New York of an agree­ment whereby Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE will pro­vide $1 bil­lion, or about 33 per­cent of the to­tal cost of the 2018 UN Hu­man­i­tar­ian Re­sponse Plan for Ye­men.

On Tues­day, an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence will be held in Geneva to mo­bi­lize the funds needed to cover the re­main­ing two-thirds of the money. The UN plan will pro­vide ur­gently needed assistance in Ye­men, in­clud­ing in the ar­eas un­der rebel con­trol.

The con­fer­ence is also im­por­tant in that it could demon­strate in­ter­na­tional unity in fac­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter in Ye­men and sin­gle out the main cul­prits in per­pet­u­at­ing that cri­sis, the Houthi mili­tias.

Ab­del Aziz Aluwaisheg is a colum­nist for Arab News. His email ad­dress: aluwaisheg@gmail.com. Twit­ter: @abuhamad1

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