Houthis will only bow to international pressure if massive and widespread popular protests rise up against them.
The closure of foreign embassies in Sanaa during the past two weeks – including the embassies of key state players such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – has put the Houthis under increased international pressure.
There is a growing demand that the Houthis work with other key actors to resolve the political crisis they created by placing the president and prime minister under strict house arrest.
However, this heavy diplomatic pressure has left Yemenis uncertain about their country’s direction.
In short, Yemenis are asking whether a civil war is inevitable. Yemenis are concerned that the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) threat to cut off all economic assistance to Yemen, coupled with the unprecedented international isolation, will expedite the country’s failure and compel all parties to settle their political differences through violence.
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There are growing doubts among Yemenis that Jamal Benomar – the United Nations Security Council’s special envoy to Yemen – can convince all stakeholders to negotiate and achieve a lasting and effective deal to restore political stability. Confidence is waning and as such, many residents of Sanaa are now fleeing the capital city and their numbers are expected to increase enormously if there is no solution on the horizon.
For many citizens, the threat of a civil war is unquestionably looming over Sanaa and other areas of Yemen. The key to restoring their hope is positive and constructive conflict mediation by the international community.
The most important stakeholders within the international community at this juncture with respect to Yemen are the GCC and Iran. The GCC members, with the exception of Qatar, did not pay adequate attention to the increasing Iranian influence in Yemen through the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, were more concerned with the rise to power of al-Islah – Yemen’s key Islamist political party – and viewed it within the broader context of Muslim Brotherhood empowerment in the region after the outbreak of a series of popular uprisings in some Arab capitals.
Both of these key GCC actors adopted policies of containing the Arab uprising, particularly the Islamists, in countries such as Egypt and Yemen.
In Yemen, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE ignored the Houthis’ rise and the defeat of their traditional patronage – the al-Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen – who are also key Islah allies.
The highly anticipated Houthi-Islah military confrontation is viewed as a double-containment policy, which will lead to the weakening of both sides.
However, Islah has responded by emphasising that it is simply a political party and that the responsibility of defending Sanaa militarily is a government function. This unexpected political move by Islah helped the Houthis to make huge political inroads and later gain control of the capital city on September 21, 2014.
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Thus, the latest GCC ministerial communique, which demanded the adoption of Chapter 7 – the authorisation of the use of force by the UN Security Council – is considered to be too little and too late.
The Houthis are now openly receiving military assistance from Iran and seem less worried about the ramifications of increased international isolation.
However, the GCC actors – especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – are still capable of countering the Houthis’ influence in Yemen by providing arms and financial support to anti-Houthi forces in Hashid, Marib and other key areas.
The sad irony is that although this may prevent the Houthis from gaining control over all of Yemen, it will certainly bring the country much closer to a total civil war.
Will GCC financial and military support of Yemen’s opposition deter the Houthis? It is difficult to say, but it is sometimes true that great battles are won without a fight.
Recently, Russia has expressed increasing concern about Yemen. Russia appears to be searching for a new role in the region, especially given increased American challenges and difficulties since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
While Russia has stood firm in its unwavering support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, they are now reaching out to other Arab countries such as Egypt and Sudan.
Russia has kept its embassy open in Yemen and may work to prevent UN Security Council authorisation of the use of military force against the Houthis.
Russia could extend its umbrella of cooperation with Iran from Syria to Yemen. This Russian and Iranian coordination, if it materialised in Yemen, could embolden the Houthis to take a tougher stand against the international community.
However, the only possible way that the Houthis will retreat from their unilateral constitutional declaration and bow to international political pressure is if the international demand is accompanied by massive and widespread popular protests against the Houthis in Yemen.
This may lead to some violence, especially since the Houthis lack policing skills and resources to counter such protests. Optimistically, this could prompt the Houthis to work with other stakeholders to reach a political deal.
Will the Houthis’ acceptance of any sort of political compromise mean the beginning of their fall? The answer is certainly yes.
Their rapid military victory – indeed with the support of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists in the army – may indicate the possibility of a quick military retreat, given that Saleh now seems to not be on the same page as the Houthis.
For this reason, unless Russia and Iran are directly involved in the overall political pressure against the Houthis, they may see no alternative to standing against the US and the GCC and thus ignoring international pressure and isolation.