Why the Houthis have escalated the Yemen crisis
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: email@example.com. Twitter: @abuhamad1