Political Settlement and Houthi Disarmament in Yemen
In his final briefing to the UN Security Council in February 2018, former UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said it was “evident at the end of consultations – in Kuwait in April–August 2016 – that the Houthis were not ready at this stage to give concessions on security or be part of a collective security plan.”
The brief showed that the issue of the Houthis’ arms was the main reason behind the failure of consultations in Kuwait and effectively terminated any hope of reaching a political solution to end the war and achieve peace in Yemen; the Houthis refused to agree to security arrangements that involved their disarmament and withdrawal from cities.
Therefore, what are the implications of this issue for efforts to reach a political settlement, and to what extent are the Houthis ready to give substantial concessions in this regard in light of recent military developments and political efforts by the current UN envoy, Martin Griffiths?
The arms impasse: Lessons from previous negotiations
When pressured in relation to their arms, the Houthis usually claim that they are willing to hand over their arms only to a government which they constitute a fundamental part of. This means that an agreement must be reached first on political arrangements, including the formation of a government and presidential council agreed upon by all before disarmament.
Furthermore, the issue of surrendering medium and heavy weapons causes additional complications for the political settlement, for the following reasons:
- The Houthis put their armed militias on an equal footing with the official army of the internationally recognized legitimate government. They say that this army – not the armed groups affiliated with the legitimate government alone – must give up its heavy weapons to the interim government under the supervision of the higher security and military committee, a proposal rejected by the legitimate government because such an arrangement would undermine the legal basis of its army and put it on a par with the militias.
- The Houthis demand that all security and military units must come under the control of the higher security and military committee, not the interim government. This makes the government’s aim of securing the weapons difficult and reflects the anticipation of the Houthis that they will not receive broad representation in the interim government – particularly in ministries such as defense and interior.
- The Houthis link arrangements to surrender heavy and medium weapons – partially or totally – to the implementation of the political aspect of the settlement agreement after its signature, the national dialogue among Yemeni factions on the constitution, the form of the state, and transitional justice, among other issues. This means that any problems in implementing the settlement agreement may be used as a pretext for the Houthis to retain their weapons and return to square one.
- The Houthis have not listed ballistic missiles within their heavy weapons. They consider them to be “sovereign” weapons for deterrence and regional balance, and they do not feature in the proposed arms arrangements; rather, the matter is linked to the withdrawal of the military presence of Arab Coalition forces in Yemen, the abandonment of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter and an end to the siege.
The developing Houthi position regarding weapons
The Houthi leadership claims that “giving up weapons” is out of the question. They are filled with illusions of victory and divine empowerment. The following indications affirm that the Houthis are adamant about this position and adopt a “traditional” approach to the issue – based on the launch of political arrangements before any agreement on security measures:
- In reference to giving up the group’s arms, Houthi spokesperson Mohammad Abdel Salam stated on June 15, 2018 that “any talk in the media about demands or pressure is not true and unnegotiable.” Abdel Salam clearly denied that the UN envoy had presented such demands in recent meetings with the Houthi leadership.
- In an interview with the Iranian channel Al-Alam in early July 2018, Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi – head of the so-called Higher Revolutionary Committee – ignored the issue of disarmament entirely. Instead, he called for an end to the supply of weapons to the Arab Coalition countries and reverted to his initiative presented to the UN Secretary General in February 2018, which did not include any article about surrendering arms.
- The Houthis regard demands by the legitimate government for their disarmament and withdrawal from Al-Hudaydah as “pre-conditions” that complicate the resumption of talks. This notion was expressed by Mahdi Al-Mashat, head of the so-called Higher Political Council during his meeting with Griffiths in Sana’a on July 3, 2018.
Deferring the issue of disarmament in the UN envoy’s peace efforts
It is unlikely that the UN envoy has discussed seriously the handover of arms during his meetings with the Houthi leadership over the past few weeks. However, he may do so should there be stronger indicators of possible direct negotiations between the warring parties in the coming weeks. This would also depend on what progress he may achieve on other fronts such as confidence-building measures (the exchange of prisoners, for instance), reaching a ceasefire agreement and ending the current tension in Al-Hudaydah.
Due to these related complications, it is unlikely that the handover of arms will be a practical starting point in Griffiths’ current efforts to rekindle peace talks between the two sides. This sensitive issue is important to all parties, even when dealing with UN proposals on other aspects of the conflict. The Yemeni government has always identified the handover of arms by the Houthi militia as a top priority, while the latter has always sent signals that their position on disarmament is non-negotiable. Therefore, the handover of arms by all parties will not be given priority in the confidence-building process, as the UN envoy hopes. This obliges Griffiths to propose a new set of more pragmatic ideas to soften the position of both parties on this issue, possibly building on the framework sought by his predecessor, Wald El-Sheikh, that envisaged political arrangements being conducted concurrently with security procedures.
What arms arrangements will the Houthis accept?
The Houthis exhibit a high degree of indifference on the issue. Their leader, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, stated in his speech on July 13th, that he does not have high hopes for Griffiths’ peace efforts. This simply suggests that the group is likely to distance itself in advance from any involvement in positive peace proposals that may help the parties to solve the problem of arms and other thorny issues.
However, arrangements that the Houthis may accept include the following, which include the arms issue in short- or long-term negotiations (which seem uncertain despite the relentless efforts of the UN envoy in this regard):
- A withdraw from specified areas (expandable) while retaining heavy arms as an interim step taken in parallel with success in forming a government and implementing the agreed political arrangements with regard to the presidency.
- Establishing a military commission that includes independent members and representatives of all parties which would be entrusted with the mission of collecting arms from popular committees that belong to the militia. However, this process would exclude the arms of pro-Houthi former Yemeni army units that operate under the command of the defense ministry in Sana’a. The Houthis would insist that these forces be treated the same as the internationally recognized government forces in terms of their medium and heavy arms.
- Linking the gradual handover of heavy arms with actual steps to restructure the Yemeni army in an arrangement wherein Houthi popular committees are integrated into its units and pro-Houthi military leaders assume high-level command posts.
- All Yemeni armed factions handover their heavy arms to the military commission before their disbandment.
- Linking the handover of ballistic missiles to the declaration of an end to military operations in the country, while ensuring these missiles will not be decommissioned or dismantled.
- A national reconciliation agreement that ensures Houthi fighters will not be held accountable for any military actions or war crimes.
Overall, these outcomes are not ideal for the Houthis; but their lack of trust in other parties – including the international community and the UN – makes an ideal arrangement impractical. Moreover, entering into this process without adequate reward would be seen as political suicide. They would in any case lose many of their fighters and undermine their revolutionary discourse, which they adeptly use to mobilize supporters. This is perhaps why the Houthis are more likely to reject any settlement of the arms issue.
The Houthis would only accept such a settlement if they found themselves in an unfavorable military situation and were internally divided, and then only if regional actors played a more constructive role and other parties offer substantial concessions. Of course, the forthcoming negotiations will not establish such conditions.