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What’s happening with the US-Houthi talks?

June 4, 2015 at 10:18 am

On Sunday, the spokesperson for the Yemeni government-in-exile, Rajeh Badi, told Reuters that it had been told that Houthi representatives had flown to Muscat on a private jet at America’s request for private talks. So far, the details of the talks are unconfirmed, but there has been speculation that US policy is shifting away from support for the Saudi coalition. There is also a common consensus that this is a way to pressure the Hadi government into attending peace talks; a session scheduled to take place in Geneva on 28 May was cancelled after President Hadi refused to take part in talks until the Houthis withdraw fully from the territory that they now control.

From the beginning of the airstrikes, the Saudi coalition has received a lot of support from Washington. On their first day, US Secretary of State John Kerry commended the operation and since then has provided Washington’s Arab allies with logistics and intelligence. Just under a fortnight later, on 8 April, Kerry told PBS Newshour that he was aware of Iran’s support to the Houthis and the threat it poses to Washington’s friends and allies. “Iran needs to recognise that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilised or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries, in other countries,” he warned, removing all pretence of US impartiality.

In later weeks, the American standpoint, though still supportive of Saudi, backed humanitarian ceasefires and the quest for a political solution to the Yemeni question. The passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 recognised the Hadi government as the legitimate government of Yemen and called for the Houthis to end their occupation of the cities they controlled. This means that a political situation under the resolution would put the Houthis at a huge strategic disadvantage, making their illegal power grab a futile move. They are unlikely to settle for a deal that does not put their interests on the table but they need to use more conventional ways than threatening the Saudi border and exerting their destructive power on occupied cities in order to have a larger political platform.

One of the ways in which they have done this is by showing that they are a direct threat to US national security. On the same day as the talks, the US government told the Washington Post that the Houthis were holding four American citizens as hostages, including one with dual Yemeni-US nationality. One man who was arrested initially for overstaying his visa was set to be released and the Houthis partnered with the International Organisation for Migration to arrange for his flight back to America. On 27 May, however, the Houthis withdrew their release promise and claimed that the hostage had been in sensitive regions without permission. One of the regions mentioned was Abyan, a city with “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) presence.

Previously, the American government was working secretly with the humanitarian agencies on the ground as they had no formal contacts to deal directly with the Houthis. It admitted to not knowing if the hostages have been harmed physically or not. Their release has been made a high priority, with State Department spokesperson John Kirby telling CNN, “There’s not a lot I can talk about in terms of specifics, but I can say that we are working very, very hard to ensure their safe return.” When asked about the talks between the Houthis and the US in relation to the issue, he refused to even hint at the matters discussed, returned to the issue of the prisoners and stated simply that all he is allowed to say is that the government is doing all it can to bring the prisoners home.

Realistically speaking, if the talks on Sunday did not mention the prisoners, or even revolved around them, it would be very much out of character for the Americans to sweep the issue under the carpet. By detaining US citizens on Yemeni soil, the Houthis have challenged America’s perceived omnipotence and sent a message that Washington should recognise their own authority and military power. In many ways it is forcing the Americans to take the Houthis seriously and recognise them as political actors with a greater degree of influence than they would like to admit. The fact that the US decided to admit to the kidnappings publically while talks with the Houthis are ongoing implies strongly that this will shape its future strategy for dealing with the militia. They are no longer a group that just threatens regional security; the Houthis also threaten America’s national security.

It’s important to understand that by putting themselves in this situation and kidnapping US citizens the Houthis have taken a huge gamble. They must not forget that they too are perpetrators of war crimes and are already seen as a rogue militia in the eyes of the international community. Their cause is not justified at this stage, meaning that instead of the Americans negotiating and realising their political influence, Washington could do the complete opposite and adopt a more hostile approach towards them. If the talks do entail negotiations on the kidnapping, the Houthis need to recognise their vulnerability on the international platform and the potentially volatile situation in which they have placed themselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.