After over four years of fighting in Yemen, the central conflict is drawing to a close with peace talks ongoing. However the prospect of a peace accord leaves the question of how Houthi rebels and their Supreme Political Council will play into the future of Yemen’s government. Yemen is currently split amongst several groups, each vying for control of the nation, but none are able to secure more than a section of the country.
The Supreme Transitional Council, a separatist movement, recently signed a power-sharing agreement with the Yemen government in a mediated negotiation in Riyadh. Under this deal, armies from each side would be placed under the control of the defence and interior ministries while returning power over Aden to the internationally-recognized government. The STC and the government have been allied against the Houthis since August and an agreement between the STC and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s office would give them more power. They not only have to contend with the rebel faction, but also Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda, which control a large swatch of eastern part of the state.
Critically, the agreement calls for the formation of a government led by 24 ministers equally comprised of both the STC and Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia’s military coalition will help enforce the deal. Although both sides have engaged each other on the battlefield, they have a common enemy in the Houthi faction.
Just as Yemen is divided into factions, so are the alliances as well. Like the STC and Sana’a government, these can be equally as complicated. Although both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been arming Yemeni militias against Iran-backed Houthis, in the larger picture, they each support different sides. While Riyadh puts it weight behind the recognized government, Abu Dhabi funds the STC.
Ending the Rebellion
Houthi rebels, propped up by funding and weapons from Tehran, began the Yemen Civil War by seizing the capital of Sana’a. After overthrowing Hadi’s government, the militia forged its way south, running Hadi out of the country. Now that the separatist movement and official government have signed a peace agreement, the Houthis faction is the last remaining piece to the Yemen puzzle.
In September, the Houthis offered to halt attacks on Saudi Arabia after claiming responsibility for drone strikes on Saudi Aramaco oil facilities. Officials from Riyadh and the Houthi government began discussions in Oman. For Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to end the fighting represents a victory on two fronts. First, it would help stabilize the region and be considered a win over Iran. Houthis were emboldened by support from Tehran and Riyadh views the Yemen Civil War as a proxy war with its longtime adversary. By bringing it to an end, Saudi Arabia would remove the most dangerous threat Iran poses to the kingdom. Iran’s proxy network is far-reaching, but the Houthi fighters have proven most-capable of attacking Saudi Arabia directly.
Secondly, a peace deal between the Saudis and Houthis would provide Riyadh with a reasonable exit from the Yemen conflict. Once the STC and Hadi’s government implement their power-sharing deal, the Houthis are one of the last militias left for Saudi Arabia to be tied to. The kingdom’s military action in Yemen and its involvement with supplying Hadi’s forces has turned the international community against Riyadh and its suppliers. Protests and legislative action in western states have combined to pressure both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their involvement.
The peace discussion in Oman includes concessions such as reopening the Sana’a airport, removing missile and drone equipment, and a security zone along the Saudi – Yemen border.
Amidst Saudi discussions with Houthis via Oman, the framework for a new Yemeni government is beginning to take shape. As the agreement between the STC and Hadi administration includes provisions for 12 ministers from both sides, there seems to be little room left for the Houthis. However, Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates, said it is important to use the momentum from the STC peace deal to fuel further political solutions. Ultimately, Houthis are part of Yemen just as much as those fighting for Hadi or the STC and any political deal must take the rebel faction into consideration.
“Such an agreement must take account of the legitimate aspirations of all parts of Yemeni society. That includes the Houthis,” Gargash said. “Houthis militias have wrecked havoc on the country, but they are a part of Yemeni society and they will have a role in its future.”
The Houthis reportedly are asking for a power-sharing agreement, likely one similar to the STC’s, according to the International Crisis Group. However because the Houthis have not yet engaged either the STC or Hadi’s government yet, only Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. A peace deal with Riyadh would possibly lend some weight to the Houthis at the negotiating table. Since the Saudis have credibility with the Hadi administration, they could pressure Hadi’s government to include the Houthis in some form, perhaps with 12 ministers of their own.
Gargash also emphasized the importance of bringing other international players, including Iran, to the table. Such talks could happen after a peaceful government is restored to Sana’a.
“Gulf states need to be at the negotiating table,” he said. “This moment requires a renewed, robust and realistic diplomatic effort to reach a more sustainable agreement.”
The recent developments of peace talks between warring factions in Yemen signal there is hope for peace, but more than that, they indicate that power players behind the militias are committed to ending the calamity. Going forward from the STC – Hadi agreement, other actors such as the Houthis will follow suit in securing peace if regional governments act in good faith at pursuing it.