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Hadi return a ‘red line’ says top Houthi negotiator

As Houthis lose grip on south, MEE speaks to a key peace negotiator about a ceasefire
In Sanaa, where a car bomb went off last week, residents fear that if an armed conflict erupts in the city, the situation could spiral further still, with a mini-civil war (AFP)

SANAA - The Houthis, once a marginalised group from north Yemen, stunned observers last year by first taking control of the capital before marching all the way south to Aden and effectively seizing control of the country.

Now, after six months of Saudi-led air raids against them and heavy fighting, the tide seems to have turned, and in the past few weeks the Houthis have seen their influence wane.

Under heavy air cover from the Saudi-led coalition forces, southerners, tribesmen and recently trained armed units have pushed Houthis and their allied forces from Aden, Dhale, Lahj and Shabwa. On Saturday, forces loyal to Yemen's exiled government retook a fifth southern province and vowed to march on.

Facing the prospect of further defeats, the Houthis last week stepped up attempts to negotiate a ceasefire.

Hamza al-Houthi, a top Houthi politician and negotiator, told Middle East Eye that the Houthis were looking into the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, signed in April, which stipulates withdrawal of armed groups from the cities they seized.

However, while signalling his willingness to strike some kind of deal, he also stressed that the group would not accept an international peacekeeping mission to monitor the ceasefire, instead opting for an "unbiased local force".

The latest rounds of talks began two weeks ago when Houthi negotiating teams and the country's one-time ruling party, the General People’s Congress, arrived in the Omani capital Muscat. They met with the United Nations Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who presented a seven-point initiative, offering a window for a resolution to Yemen's devastating conflict.  

According to Hamza al-Houthi, who is also a senior member of the group's Political Bureau, key issues related to reaching a ceasefire were discussed, with the talks centering on the formation of a new "transitional ruling authority".

"The talks are about the ceasefire and how to make it sustainable," he told Middle East Eye last week. "A second stage will be bringing all political factions to the negotiating table to revive the political process and agree on a new transitional period, all factions without exception."

A polarising year

Tensions in Yemen erupted last September when Houthi militias took over the capital with the aid of allied tribes and with alleged help of the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The UN was able to broker a deal known as Peace and Partnership that stipulated formation of a new national unity government and expanding Houthis’ share of power, in return for Houthis’ withdrawal from the capital and cities they seized.

Instead, the Houthis began to expand their presence. In January, the situation worsened when internationally recognised President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi pushed ahead with a six-region federation which Houthis oppose, clashes erupted in the capital, and Houthis consolidated their grip placing Hadi, the Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and key ministers under house arrest, prompting them to submit resignation.

Hadi was able to escape and flee south to Aden where he rescinded his resignation and announced Aden as his temporary capital. Following deadly suicide bombings in Sanaa, Houthis declared general mobilization and moved to Aden prompting Hadi to flee to Riyadh, and Houthis quickly managed to take over much of southern Yemen.

Since 26 March, when the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign to roll back the Houthi advance, the Arab world's poorest nation has been battered by heavy air raids and ground fighting. The conflict has deeply polarised the nation and left it split along tribal, political, regional and sectarian lines.

International relief groups said the violence so far has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 civilians and injured 19,000. Another 1.3 million Yemenis have been forced to flee their homes, and a total of 21 million people require urgent, live-saving assistance, according to the United Nations. Human rights groups accuse both sides of widespread abuses.

Saudis believe the Houthis are serving as an arm of Iran which, they claim, seeks to expand Shia influence in Saudi's backyard. The Houthis deny that and the level of Iranian support has been hotly contested. The two sides have been exchanging accusations of harbouring terrorism and extremism and the mistrust runs deep.

Many in northern Yemen, which suffered the most from the Saudi-led air campaign, perceive Saudi as a historic enemy to the country, allegedly bankrolling tribal, political and military commanders to keep a strong grip over power. Houthi supporters argue that the coalition is using the Houthis as a pretext to cripple not only the Houthi movement but to demolish the country's infrastructure.

But the picture in vastly different in the south, which has suffered the most from the warfare, and where people largely tend to support the Saudi-led coalition, although not necessarily Hadi.

Houthi red lines

The Saudi-led campaign has now forced much of the Houthi leadership to hide either in northern cities like Saada or in the capital.

In Sanaa, the Houthis have turned al-Jaraf northern district into their stronghold. With the air attacks continuing, the Houthi leaders have been meeting in clinics and residential buildings to try to avoid the worst of the coalition strikes.

The area has also been hit before by suicide attacks and security is tight. Armed checkpoints are scattered throughout with Houthi militiamen stringently checking IDs.

While talks have been happening, there are certain red lines that Hamza al-Houthi says his side will not compromise over.

“Hadi is over. He is out,” he told Middle East Eye.  “Hadi has no place in the future of Yemen ... after summoning the [Saudi-led] assault and triggering all the bloodshed.”

He said that there are pressures from Hadi and Saudis not to start talks from where it ended, in reference to the Partnership and Peace deal. He said that there is an attempt by the government to turn against the peace deal.

“We had a path and a mission,” al-Houthi said, adding, “we had a deal … anything other than resuming this path is not accepted and will not be permitted.”

He also referred to “conditions” imposed by Saudis through their “tools” in reference to the Islamist Islah party. He declined however to list these conditions when asked.  

Split over leadership, Sanaa control

Insiders say that the political factions have now reached consensus on the formation of a Presidential Council, expanding the parliament membership and the creation of a national unity government. What remains is to choose the head of the presidential council.

They say that coalition members are split over who leads the coming transitional period. Saudis insist on the return of Hadi while the Emiratis are pushing for the restoration of Ali Ahmed, the son of the ousted president and former commander of the Republican Guards.

Houthi also said that his group had other "red lines" and would not accept any deal that could undermine "the country's sovereignty and the dignity of the Yemeni people or to give up an inch of the country's land to the occupation”. He declined to elaborate.

However, while his group hoped “that the efforts of the envoy will lead to solutions” he stressed that the Houthis don’t "anticipate much out of the talks".

UN envoy Ahmed is now in Riyadh, where he is presenting to the internationally recognised Hadi government with the Houthi proposal as well as their objections to issues such as the presence of an international peacekeeper.

Control of the capital is destined to be a main sticking point in any negotiations. Sanaa is home to 1.7 million people, and has been one of the cities hardest hit by the Saudi-led airstrikes. For months, residents have been squeezed economically and financially and have suffered through severe fuel and water shortage, a months-long power outage and rocketing prices of basic commodities. Meanwhile, black markets are thriving.

Residents fear that if an armed conflict erupts in the capital, the situation could spiral further still, with a mini-civil war possibly on the cards. 

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