Are the Houthis in Yemen (un)willing for an end of the war?

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani (left) and head rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam (right) shake hands under the eyes of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, during peace talks Thursday at Johannesburg Castle in Rimbo, Sweden.

А week has passed since the start of the renewed UN-sponsored peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties. The gathering held in Rimbo, Sweden intended to help launch a political process to end nearly four years of conflict. Since the peace process has been ongoing for years, few are expecting that the negotiations will lead to a significant change.

The peace talks in Sweden are the first to be attended by representatives from both Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Iran-aligned Houthi group – so far the peace process was marked by a couple of unsuccessful ceasefire agreements, withdraws from peace deals and a lot of empty promises. That’s what has been achieved for more than three years since failed attempts for talks in Switzerland in 2015, Kuwait – 2016 and Switzerland again this year which were boycotted by the Houthi rebels.

“Both the Houthis and Hadi government have a long history of claiming to be ready to negotiate an end to the war and of accusing each other of intransigence and unreliability. But while continuing the war will come at a cost for both of them, the prolonged fighting will be a boon for Iran. The Islamic republic has used its support for the Houthis to make inroads in Yemen and aspires to turn the group into a regional proxy militia, like the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. The Houthis, however, diverge from Iran in culture and in politics; necessity, rather than ideological affinity, underpins their alliance with Tehran. The end of hostilities will reduce their need for military and economic aid, undermining Iran’s plans to cultivate an ally that it can use against Saudi Arabia much as it has used Hezbollah against Israel.”, claimed the geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor.

Although the Houthis act like they are open to negotiations, it actually seems they are not ready to turn their backs on Iran even if Iran’s economic weakness was supposedly what brought them to the negotiations table. Their unwillingness for peace has been proved in many occasions during the last three years – the last two UN envoys were forced out of the country by the Iran-linked Houthis another example was the visit of Martin Griffiths’ predecessor, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed when his envoy was hit with a barrage of gunfire. That’s why it is of a great importance the international community to put more pressure on Iran as it has done with Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi’s case. Iran’s absence from the peace process and the ignorance of its support to the Houthis is the first failure of the UN-brokered efforts.

As a second breakdown can be considered the limited perspective of the conference – the U.N. envoy is seeking agreement on reopening Sanaa airport, swapping prisoners and securing a truce in the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, now a focus of the war.

„Updates on the talks consistently change, the full agenda has not been shared, but humanitarian issues have been the main focus so far. Anyway proposals for a political framework have not been discussed yet.”, wrote the independent Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser after spending one week in Rimbo covering the talks, revealing another issue of what happened during that week in Sweden.

Despite all of the pessimism surrounding the talks, this time it was actually different and we can’t say that they were abortive again. Some real agreements have been made and we are finally starting to see results. “It took many false starts and missed opportunities before the opposing sides agreed to come together and offered us a glimmer of hope to restart a peace process in Yemen. It is an important beginning to see warring parties sit together and talk – a conversation that requires both sides to suspend their belief in the possibility of a military victory.”, said UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths at the beginning of the talks and his words were not far from the truth after all.

Not all of the initial objectives are achieved but there is a significant progress. Deals were reached for a prisoner swap of thousands and resumption of oil and gas exports. Finally, during the last day of the peace talks in Rimbo, the parties reached an agreement on an immediate cease-fire in the city of Hodeidah, the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa, a mutual redeployment of forces to be carried out from the cities. Both parties committed to remove any military reinforcements and manifestations from the cities. Parties shall also commit to facilitate and support the work of the UN in Hodeidah.

But still, there is the feeling that the Houthis do not aim the peace in their home country. Sabotaging the peace process was also fueled by recent revelations by the UN that they are using Iranian-made weapons. In that case, an end of the war would mean a locked market for Iran’s arms industry. Another reason not to believe the Houthi’s intentions was the unearthing of their network of secret prisons by an investigation of the Associated Press. A proof that they are not defending the people of Yemen but using them for their own political ambitions to make a profitable business out of Yemen and the lives of civilians.

Without a doubt, the peace talks are a step in the right direction, but it will be a long and challenging road with many obstacles like the above mentioned. If the international community keeps underestimating Iran’s role in the conflict, everything that has been achieved so far could be in vain.  After that week in Sweden, there are still many challenges to be faced. It’s a crucial moment for Yemen – politically and militarily – and it must be taken advantage of before the opportunity disappears and Yemen fades out of the public eye.