By Robert Malley
Aug. 5, 2019
In the fifth year of a pitiless war between Ansar Allah, the Iranian-supported movement known as the Houthis, and the Saudi Arabia-led and United States-backed coalition, Sana, the capital of Yemen, doesn’t see many American visitors. For good reason.
The Houthis control Sana and about a fifth of the country’s landmass in all; a majority of Yemen’s 30.5 million people live in Houthi-controlled areas. Misery extends far beyond. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is ranked the world’s worst by the United Nations: Two-thirds of its population need some form of assistance, 10 million suffer malnutrition. Almost a quarter of a million are starving to death.
Two weeks ago, I travelled with a few colleagues to Sana. Our first impression was of its overwhelming sense of isolation from the outside world. Sana had the air of being stuck several decades in the past even before the war. Since then, its few pockets of modernity — barista-style coffee shops, car showrooms and shopping malls trying to imitate tacky Gulf aesthetics — have either been shuttered or fallen into disrepair.
Land borders with Saudi Arabia are cut off by front-line fighting, as are links to all but one of Yemen’s ports. Sana has a small, badly damaged airport, but Saudi Arabia, which controls the airspace, makes sure that commercial planes neither fly in nor out. The sick, in need of urgent medical care, can’t leave. People separated from loved ones abroad can’t travel.
Isolating Sana carries dire consequences for its inhabitants. Ignoring those who govern it has political costs too. The Houthis bear considerable blame for the tragedy — but they hold the keys to the war’s resolution or extension. An ill-timed or ill-placed Houthi missile or drone strike aimed at Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Red Sea shipping lanes could spark a broader conflict involving the United States, its Gulf allies and Iran. It defies logic for Saudi or American officials not to engage them.
The residents of Sana seem stunned and angry at what they view as the wildly disproportionate international attention garnered by every single Houthi missile or drone attack on Saudi Arabia, compared to the regular, destructive Saudi-led coalition bombings Yemenis have endured since March 2015.
It is hard to know how freely locals can speak. Many perhaps privately fault the Houthis for recklessly taking on their northern neighbour. If so, the sentiment is well hidden. Even the leaders of a party traditionally close to the Saudis and at odds with the Houthis expressed heartfelt fury at Saudi Arabia.
A quip doing the rounds in Sana: If the Saudis just handed me the price of a missile, I would destroy my house for them. Sana residents are exasperated at the bombing of a cemetery: even our dead are unsafe, they tell you.
Houthi supporters are also puzzled as to why their attacks on Saudi Arabia are attributed to Iranian dictates, as if their being at war with the kingdom wasn’t explanation enough. The world’s focus on their cross-border operations has only further convinced them that this is what it will take to attract global interest and get the Saudis to change course. Saudi Arabia has too much to lose to risk it; Yemenis have too little to lose to care.
A visitor in Sana also notices a surprising sense of internal stability. The Houthis are building something akin to a police state — the lack of checkpoints or other markers of security in the capital announcing their effective stranglehold.
Most people in Sana, rightly, consider the United States to be complicit in the war, an enabler of the Saudi-led coalition that wages it. Americans, understandably, would recoil at the Houthis embracing “Death to America” and “Curse the Jews” as their slogans, scrawled as graffiti on the city’s walls. But Sana’s residents warmly welcome the rare American visitor.
The Houthi leadership knows all this — the popular hostility toward the Saudi-led coalition; the remarkable control the movement has achieved — and finds other justifications for self-confidence. Time, they feel, is on their side. Despite formidable military disparities, they have stood up to a coalition of wealthy, powerful states backed and armed by the West.
Front lines are essentially frozen. Their domestic foes, nominally led by the Aden-based, internationally recognized government of President Abd Mansour Hadi, show signs of fracture. The Emiratis recently announced a redeployment that greatly diminishes the risk of a coalition assault on the vital port city of Hudaydah. Anti-Saudi sentiment is rising in the halls of the United States Congress.
Despite their confidence, the Houthis don’t know how or when this war will end. Their singular refrain is that they are ready to talk. Not with Mr. Hadi or his allies, whom they dismiss as “mercenaries” — but with the Saudis, who they claim pull Mr. Hadi’s strings, or with the United States, which they believe pulls the strings of the Saudis.
They offer a road map: They promise to stop cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia if the Saudis halt attacks against them. They will withdraw from Saudi territory. Riyadh will allow Sana airport to reopen. And they will discuss a longer-term relationship that, they assert, will be closer than the Houthis’ relations with Iran.
They talk in one breath about a peaceful settlement and close ties to Saudi Arabia; in another they warn of surprises that lie in store if Riyadh doesn’t agree to a cease-fire. They take offense at being labelled Iranian proxies, but acknowledge the war brought them closer and offer lacklustre denials when asked if Iran supplies them with weapons. At times they emphasize the purely local nature of their fight; at others its more revolutionary, Pan-Islamic identity. Saudi and American officials can be forgiven for being confused.
There is also ambiguity in the Houthis’ description of an eventual internal settlement. Once the war with Saudi Arabia ends, the Houthis claim they will sit down with other Yemenis to negotiate the formation of a technocratic government, new elections and the disarmament of all armed groups. Yet again, the claims are conditional. They say they will give up their heavy weapons once trust has been restored — which, after such brutal fighting, could be a while. Their opponents suspect it will be never: The Houthis will not easily, and certainly not willingly, give up the power they have accumulated.
It is uncertain how the Houthis would respond if the United States stopped assisting the Saudi-led coalition and the coalition ended its campaign. But the past four years give us a pretty good sense of what will occur if not. The Houthis are likely to be stronger, the opposition more fragmented, Iran more influential, Saudi Arabia less safe and more vilified. And the Yemenis more impoverished and desperate.
As we departed Sana, residents repeatedly asked us what the United States would do to end their misery. We wished we could answer.
Robert Malley is the president and C.E.O. of the International Crisis Group.
Source: The New York Times