President Saleh's Missed Opportunity: Yemen's Decision to Reject an al Houthi Cease-fire

February 4, 2010

Sa'ada, Yemen - the stronghold of the al Houthi rebels (photo by Retlaw Snellac, available at Flickr).
 

Yemen seems to be moving past another opportunity to seek a peaceful resolution to the al Houthi conflict.  Abdul Malik al Houthi, the rebel leader, has announced his willingness to accept the conditions laid down by Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh in August and reiterated in January as the basis for a cease-fire.  Saleh has responded by insisting that the rebels must fulfill all of those conditions – as opposed to announcing a willingness to accept them –before any cease-fire.  He is retaining the right, in other words, to continue military operations against the rebels even as they try to meet his conditions, assuming they do.  Both sides can make valid arguments about the details and timeline of cease-fire negotiations, and Saleh certainly has reason to doubt the good intentions of the rebels, who have violated cease-fire agreements before.  But Saleh’s reaction to the most recent al Houthi offer raises clearly a disturbing question:  Is there any settlement of the conflict Saleh will accept other than the annihilation of the insurgents?  If not—and there is little evidence that Saleh has defined any more limited bases for agreement—then the prospects for winding this conflict up are dim indeed, a fact with important ramifications for American counter-terrorism strategy in the region.

Saleh announced six conditions for “unconditional peace” and the return of the al Houthi rebels to the status of normal citizens on August 21, 2009.[1]  He reiterated and slightly revised the conditions on January 1, 2010.  The revised conditions were:

    1- a full cease-fire, the reestablishment of safe passage on roads, and the surrender of mountain strongholds.

    2- full withdrawal from all districts occupied, with no further interference with the responsibilities of local authorities.

    3- the return of all military and public equipments seized during hostilities.

    4- the release of all the detained civilians and soldiers

    5- an agreement to abide by the constitution, order and law.

    6- cessation of attacks within all Saudi Arabian territories.[2]

The al Houthi leader announced on January 30, 2010 that he was willing to accept the “five points” Saleh had announced as the basis for a cease-fire.[3]  Saleh responded on January 31 that there was “no obstacle” to a cease-fire but that the rebels must comply with all of his conditions before any cease-fire came into effect.  The Yemeni government added emphasis to the “sixth condition,” namely that the al Houthis stop attacking the territory of Saudi Arabia and claimed that Abdul Malik had ignored this condition.[4]  The claim that the rebels were refusing to accept this “sixth condition” was made despite the fact that the al Houthis had offered a cease-fire to the Saudis on January 27, and the Saudi defense minister announced the successful completion of Saudi military operations along the Yemeni border and the withdrawal of Saudi troops—as well as the cessation of fighting.[5]  On January 31 a Yemeni spokesman called this sixth condition “a key demand we cannot make concessions on” saying “they ignore one of the six conditions,” while Saudi military officials reported that the al Houthis were still firing on Saudi troops in Saudi territory.[6]  Abdul Malik al Houthi reiterated his commitment to the cease-fire with Saudi on February 2.[7]

The point is not to try to sort through this web of contradictions and accusations.  Such tensions and intentional and unintentional confusion often accompany serious efforts at ending conflict.  The trouble is that President Saleh’s behavior suggests that he will accept nothing less than the complete defeat of the insurgency and their unconditional surrender.  His response to Abdul Malik’s offer was, in effect, a demand that the al Houthis unilaterally abandon all of their positions and assets before the Yemeni government even undertook to stop attacking them, let alone meeting any other conditions that a deal would putatively impose on Saleh.  The only kind of insurgency that accepts such terms is an insurgency that has already been completely defeated, for the terms amount to complete disarmament in the midst of potential conflict.

If Saleh were serious about finding a negotiated end to the conflict, it appears that he has an opportunity.  The two sides are close enough in their offers and demands now that a negotiation process could begin.  A successful process would require confidence-building measures on both sides and the elaboration of a series of phases in which both sides could demonstrate good faith while ending conflict area-by-area.  It appears that such a process is what Abdul Malik is offering.  His sincerity, as well as his ability to deliver on any promises he makes, would be put to the test in the course of the process, as would Saleh’s.

But Abdul Malik naturally wants the fighting to stop before he surrenders to Saleh’s conditions completely.  He may fear losing the bargaining position that his group’s status as a fighting organization provides, or he may simply fear effectively throwing himself on the mercy of a government that named its most recent operation against him “Scorched Earth.”  Saleh is effectively rejecting that demand by refusing to commit to a cease-fire before the al Houthis have fully complied with his conditions.  The Yemeni government argues that granting a cease-fire on these terms would simply allow the rebels to “buy time” and regroup. 

Cease-fires do allow insurgent groups to buy time.  That is the risk any government takes when negotiating with insurgents.  It is in reality the price the government must pay to end the fighting earlier than an all-out military effort could do.  If Saleh is really unwilling to take this risk now, it is hard to see how he intends to end this conflict other than by annihilating the rebels.  If his terms for peace really are unconditional surrender then the al Houthis will probably keep fighting until they can fight no more.

That would bode ill for American efforts to persuade Saleh to wind up the al Houthi conflict and turn his attention fully against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  If he chooses to fight the al Houthis to the finish, he will never be able to focus on AQAP—finishing off the al Houthis, even if it is possible, will require the full effort of the small and limited Yemeni military for many years.  If American counter-terrorism strategy rests on getting Saleh to bring the al Houthi conflict to an end, the U.S. must now make every effort to persuade, cajole, and incentivize Saleh to define an end-state for the conflict short of the total destruction of his internal opponents.  But any such American efforts require assuring Saleh that the U.S. will assist him to achieve any reasonable end-state he defines, while also assuring him that the U.S. will not help him pursue a war of annihilation. 



[1]“In his address on Ramadan, Saleh to rebels: come back to the right path,” www.almotamar.net, Saturday, 22-August-2009.
[2] “Ceasefire offered to al-Houthis,” 5 January 2010, (http://www.yobserver.com/front-page/10017885.html).
[3] “Yemen Shia rebels make ceasefire offer,” BBC, 30 January 2010 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8489361.stm). 
[4] “Yemen offers ceasefire to rebels,” Al Jazeera, 31 January 2010, (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/01/2010131153840590785.html).
[5] “Saudi-Houthi border fighting ends,” Al Jazeera, 27 January 2010, (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/01/2010127124547864341.html).
[6] “Yemen offers ceasefire to rebels,” Al Jazeera, 31 January 2010, (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/01/2010131153840590785.html).
[7] “Yemen rebels pledge not to attack Saudi Arabia,” AFP, 2 February 2010, (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jAUPUNKz9ipHIsUtERq6gVm0V_Ig).