Taking Out Yemen’s Houthi Leaders Is No Path to Peace

World Politics Review, 01.05.2018
Ellen Laipson, directora del programa de seguriad internacional (U. George Mason)

Houthi mourners chant slogans at the funeral of Saleh al-Sammad, a senior Houthi official who was killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike. (AP/Hani Mohammed)

In recent days, the war in Yemen has worsened, with Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that killed the political leader of the Houthi rebel movement, Saleh al-Sammad, on April 19, and over 50 Houthi militants, including two senior commanders, on April 27. How Yemen’s Houthis respond to the attacks will determine the course of the war in the coming months. But any hopes for movement toward a political solution appear to be dashed, despite quiet efforts by Oman to bring the parties together, and public admonitions by U.S. officials to their Saudi counterparts to focus on bringing this tragic war to an end.

The situation on the ground in Yemen’s four-year-long war is even grimmer than it was a year ago, when it won the dubious distinction of causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. With Houthi missiles hitting targets inside Saudi Arabia, presumably with Iranian assistance, the war is often seen as a proxy contest for regional primacy between Riyadh and Tehran. It’s messier than that, though. On devastated Yemeni territory, battles also pit al-Qaida, the local affiliate of the Islamic State and southern Yemeni secessionists against external forces from the United Arab Emirates and the United States, among others.

But it’s the recent killings of Houthi leaders that raise new concerns about how to bring this war to an end. Does eliminating insurgent leaders facilitate a settlement, or derail its prospects? The Houthis have already replaced Sammad, who headed the Houthi’s Supreme Political Council that effectively governed northern Yemen, with Mahdi al-Mashat, who is generally considered more hard-line. Sammad was the second most valuable target for the coalition, after Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a high-ranking leader. Houthi sources have talked of a “crushing response” to these attacks, and many expect the war to escalate.

Yet just a few months back, there were some discernible signs of a willingness to talk. The Houthis wanted to work with the United Nations and expressed support for Oman hosting quiet talks with the Saudis, and presumably the Emiratis as well. Now Oman and the U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffith, will be scrambling to keep alive even a semblance of a process to defuse the crises and begin more formal political negotiations.

Does decapitating the leadership of an insurgent movement actually work as a tactic to end a war? Of course, the Houthis are no longer just rebels in remote camps in the Yemeni highlands, but a political force that controls the capital, Sanaa, and other strategic locales in the country. So the power dynamic between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, which is trying to restore the previous government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, is a bit different from some civil wars. Nonetheless, are there any useful lessons from Colombia’s very long war against the FARC, or the two decades-long fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Colombia’s war was settled with a landmark peace agreement in 2016, after nearly 50 years of an insurgent struggle, sustained by the drug trade and the perverse war economy that developed over the continued grievances of the guerrillas and their followers. But as peace talks began after 2010, the Colombian military continued to target and kill major FARC military commanders. The logic was that pressure must continue, to give the rebel movement incentives to compromise. Negotiating from strength is often the mantra of the dominant party, usually the state that has more power and expects the insurgent movement to accept defeat and submit to its recognized authority.

That thinking, however, doesn’t always work. It can strengthen the resolve of the fighters to continue their struggle, conveying to their followers that the government still does not accept them as equals, and that peace talks are stacked against the legitimate rights and interests of the rebels. Or it can cause such disarray and chaos among the rebels that a new leadership vacuum is created, making a peace strategy all but impossible.

In Afghanistan, both the U.S. and the central government in Kabul have insisted on these dual tracks: keep military pressure on, including targeting Taliban leaders, while offering peace talks. In mid-2016, then-President Barack Obama went after Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, ordering a drone strike on his hideout in Pakistan. This shift in American strategy—from a more cautious effort to lure the Taliban to the negotiating table—was a gamble, driven by frustration that other incentives were simply not producing results. And two years later, there are still no serious diplomatic efforts underway with the Taliban, which is at least holding its own, if not gaining territory in the country.

Like in Yemen, leaders of the recognized state power and their outside supporters, who all claim to seek a political solution to the crisis, have to carefully calibrate the likely impact of a decapitation campaign on their insurgent adversary. But they often miscalculate, interpreting battlefield successes as demoralizing for the enemy and thus making concessions at the peace table more achievable. The party that believes it represents the legitimate interests of the sovereign state actor—in this case, the Saudis seeking to restore the status quo ante in Yemen—believe the enemy will see the inevitability of defeat.

But Yemen, Afghanistan and Colombia all suggest otherwise. First, battlefield commanders and political leaders can be replaced, as Sammad was by someone apparently even more committed to sustaining the war effort. The FARC fought on, and had a steady supply of commanders ready to keep the fight going, even while participating in peace talks.

Second, sometimes the party with the presumed upper hand misreads the power balance and seeks its enemy’s total defeat. The U.S. and its partner in Kabul will never acknowledge the Taliban as a peer player in Afghan politics, just as Saudi Arabia refuses to recognize the Houthis as a legitimate actor. It’s a fight to the finish, not a delicate balancing act of competing interests.

The U.S. is in a particularly awkward position in Yemen, trying to help the Saudis with more efficient targeting in order to avoid civilian casualties, and then stepping in as the major provider of humanitarian aid to a devastated country and its desperate citizens. Politically, American leaders have been clear that it’s time to find a political settlement, but militarily, the U.S. may be giving the Saudis more confidence and capacity to keep killing. Washington sends a similar signal in Afghanistan.

It is often only in hindsight that the decision to kill rebel leaders is understood to have prolonged wars, by delaying if not derailing the prospects for peace. Decapitating insurgent structures is not the only reason why peace talks are slow and hard, but it conveys a message that talks are not the only way to achieve political goals—and perhaps not the first choice.

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