The leadership of the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen recently released several seemingly de-escalatory announcements aimed at Saudi Arabia. Their declarations took place within a week of the group’s “claimed” attack on Saudi Aramco oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais. The Houthi leadership broadcast a message in which it claimed it would halt attacks against the Kingdom, and invited Riyadh to reciprocate. While at first this appears to be a positive de-escalatory move, there is a concern that this is just Houthi propaganda masquerading as a peace proposal.
The Houthis timed their announcements around two critical dates. The first was Sept. 21, which marked the fifth anniversary of their takeover of Yemen and is considered by most Yemenis as the day of crisis that unleashed the country’s brutal civil war. The second announcement was on Sept. 26, the anniversary of Yemen’s 1962 revolution — a historic day that Yemenis celebrate, as it ended a millennium of theocratic ruling by the imamate and birthed the new Republic of Yemen. By choosing these dates, the Houthis were telling the world that their rebellion is on par with such a significant historical event and that they can behave as statesmen of Yemen, not just militiamen.
On a broader level, the timing of the announcement temporarily put everyone at ease and allowed a sigh of relief after the Sept. 14 attack on the oil installations in northeast Saudi Arabia, which caused significant damage and briefly halted production. By making these statements, the Houthis were able to kill two birds with one stone. First, they managed to diffuse the negative attention they had received due to their role in the Aramco attack, as the media shifted its focus from the Houthis’ dangerous intentions in advancing Iran’s goals to their desire to de-escalate. Second, the Houthis aimed to prove to their followers that they are independent of Iran, and capable of making their own decisions with their main regional adversary to achieve peace in Yemen. The irony, however, is that it is most likely that Iran has asked the Houthis to issue these announcements in order to move on from the Aramco attacks news cycle.
The shift in reporting has benefited the Houthis, who are working diligently to present an image of a flexible non-state actor that is able to negotiate. Most of all, it is meant to signal to the international community a flexible attitude and willingness for peace. However, it is prudent to remain skeptical. Just days before these declarations, the Wall Street Journal reported that Houthi officials told foreign diplomats that Iran was preparing to attack the Kingdom.
In addition, evidence uncovered from the Abqaiq and Khurais installations points the finger toward Iran as the culprit for the attacks, not the Houthis. For this reason, assurances about halting attacks on Saudi Arabia has to come from the Houthis’ patrons in Tehran if they are to mean anything. The Houthis’ continuous deceitful claims and covering for Iran points to a fundamental lack of trust between the militia and Saudi Arabia, which cannot be addressed without an international mediation process and transparent discourse.
Although it did not diffuse all the tensions, the Houthis’ initiative was allegedly met with a counterproposal from the Kingdom, in which it would consider a partial cease-fire in four areas, including the capital Sanaa, according to the Wall Street Journal. If this report is accurate, it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is also willing to negotiate a de-escalation, while maintaining the ability to protect itself and its interests.
However, the Houthis’ desire to de-escalate should be questioned given its leadership’s response, which was to quickly deny the reports and make a declaration — this time from Mohammed Al-Houthi — that it cannot accept any agreement short of a nationwide cease-fire, putting things back to square one. It is believed that the UN special envoy for Yemen’s two-day visit to Sanaa this week was meant to discuss this proposal and the possibility of de-escalation in the region.
The Houthis aim to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its intervention and abandon its ally, the government of Yemen. The Houthis are signaling their willingness to talk to the Kingdom should the latter forget about Yemen’s internal strife and focus on its own security instead. In fact, since their announcements, the Houthis have escalated their attacks in Hodeidah city, jeopardizing a UN-brokered cease-fire. They continue to have a monopoly on violence in large areas in the north of the country and are active in their militarization of citizens, including women and children, to achieve Iran’s expansionist goals.
For Yemen’s Houthis, peace is to recognize that they have absolute power.
Through their vacuous announcements, they are essentially trying to make peace on their own terms. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too. However tempting it is to find a quick solution with the Houthi militias, there is more to peace with Saudi Arabia than a thin, conditional promise of “halting attacks,” such as actually seeking peace and good neighborly relations.
Any agreement with the Saudis will have to go beyond an assurance to stop threatening the Kingdom into a plan to demilitarize, hand over or destroy weapons under international agreements, and show a willingness to stop doing Iran’s bidding. Short of this, there is nothing really in the Houthis’ deal that represents anything but propaganda. The world must not fall for their tactics.
• Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
This article was originally published in the Arab News