Sanaa, Yemen – Four years of war have taken a devastating toll on Yemen, a nation the Romans once described as “Happy Arabia”.
In a nation of 28 million, a staggering 22 million people are currently in need of some form of assistance to survive.
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Air raids have flattened businesses and factories, millions of children are out of school, and the UN has warned that if the fighting continues, famine and hunger could engulf the country within the next three months.
In an attempt to alleviate the suffering, representatives from the country’s warring sides agreed earlier this month in Sweden to implement a ceasefire in the city of Hodeidah and its surrounding governorate, a major humanitarian lifeline for Yemen.
Delegates from the Houthi rebel movement and the Yemeni government agreed to withdraw their troops from the flashpoint city and allow Hodeidah’s ports to be managed and monitored with UN support.
While it was the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts since the conflict erupted in late 2014, the future of Yemen still hangs in the balance.
Amid this uncertainty, Al Jazeera spoke to Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthi rebels’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, about the ceasefire in Hodeidah, his movement’s relationship with Iran, and the Houthis’ endgame in Yemen.
Al Jazeera: Why did you accept the UN plan for Hodeidah which meant your forces would relinquish control of the port and leave the city?
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi: What is being said is incorrect since it was never agreed to relinquish control of the port of Hodeidah as the question claims.
Instead, there will be a natural level of monitoring in the normal framework of the port, just like you have with the monitoring of any election. The evidence for this is that there will be a [UN] coordination committee that will be doing the monitoring, and that role will in no way mean a violation of sovereignty as some people claim.
Moreover, this comes in the specific role set by the Sweden agreement, and this agreement is to resolve the conflict, and as the text of the agreement stated, this will apply in Hodeidah only.
Al Jazeera: Did your withdrawal stem from the losses your forces sustained in the days leading up to the talks, or because you knew your forces would lose should fighting continue?
Al-Houthi: Our role today is to talk about peace, not otherwise.
We consider war to be a bad choice, but it was imposed on us. Even the Security Council is now talking about peace and that the first and only option for Yemen is peace.
We have put forward initiatives for peace, such as stopping the firing of missiles and flying unmanned aircraft, all to prove to the world that we are willing to engage in peace, but also, do not fear war.
As for Hodeidah, our forces were there on an exceptional basis, and that is not how the governorate of Hodeidah should be.
We were in Hodeidah before the aggression (Saudi-UAE coalition) attacked it. Therefore, the redeployment of forces is to resolve the conflict. If the matter had to do with, as mentioned in your question, battlefield losses and other matters, we would have demanded that the agreement cover all fronts, but instead, we accepted a partial ceasefire in Hodeidah, with the understanding that there would be subsequent steps taken for a ceasefire implemented on all fronts.
We are telling you: Rest assured, there is no such thing [as our forces suffering losses]. We remain at full force and have strong options. However, when we offer such things, we merely offer it within the context of our free interaction in seeking lasting peace, and to get our society, nation and people out of the famine and siege imposed on them.
Al Jazeera: The spokesman for your movement, Mohammad Abdul Salam, told Al Jazeera in Sweden earlier this month that he would like to see a transitional government representing “all political parties”. Can you describe what this would look like?
Al-Houthi: For the proposal of the government, yes, we submitted it as an initiative, I presented and submitted it to the Security Council, as well as to the UN envoy and others. We presented the formation of a government, the holding of elections and other steps.
As for how would that government be and what it would look like, this is subject to an agreement, through dialogue with other international parties, through agreement with those who were mentioned in the initiative, taking into consideration the domestic situation of local Yemeni parties.
God willing, the situation for the government, if it is composed of technocrats so as not to be subject to quotas and partisan tendencies, will be sound and it will be a government that can manage the transition phase and move on to elections. It will have a specific programme and mechanisms to implement it from the first time it meets.
Al Jazeera: Would this new government be democratic, chosen through free and fair elections? Or will this lead to a Houthi-controlled Yemen?
Al-Houthi: I think that the government during the transition will be consensual because post-war Yemen will need consensus to allow it to prepare for elections.
We welcome the holding of serious elections that can reshape the House of Representatives and other electoral boards in the Republic of Yemen.
Al Jazeera: What is the relationship between the Houthi movement and the Saudis? Is Mohammad Abdul Salam still holding secret talks with the Saudis and Emiratis in Oman?
Al-Houthi: I do not think there were secret talks, as you claim. What talks there were, those were talks that were held in Kuwait.
What came through from the Omanis, as messages or inquiries, that is another thing and not considered talks, neither with the Saudis nor with the Emiratis.
Al Jazeera: What can we expect at the peace talks scheduled for January?
Al-Houthi: God willing, we expect that all of the obstacles in the Sweden talks will be overcome. We hope the political framework will be endorsed, as well as the economic mechanism for the disbursement of salaries.
We also hope there will also be an endorsement of a mechanism for reconstruction, that the fighting ceases and the blockade is lifted, including the air blockade, that Sanaa airport is reopened, and a number of other unsolved issues and things that must be made available to the Yemeni people.
The practice of what is happening now is a crime under international and humanitarian law.
Al Jazeera: Your movement has been accused of gross human rights violations, including the torture and killings of your political opponents, human rights activists, and opposition fighters. You said you would carry out an investigation into these allegations, where are you on this investigation?
Al-Houthi: First in principle, as you said, they are allegations.
Secondly, we have called on the Political Council and the Yemeni government to investigate these allegations. A number of committees will meet, and we hope that it has achieved a great deal in alleged illegal practices during the investigations.
There are media outlets that have debunked some of the allegations and lies, such as the accusations of torturing a doctor from Ibb. Some media outlets discovered after investigation and verification, that he is a mentally ill person. You can look into it, yourselves.
Like that, there are many cases that are fabricated and accompanied by a media frenzy while in fact, they are false and incorrect allegations.
However, we have called on the government to investigate the rest of the allegations they are talking about.
Al Jazeera: The Saudis have said the missiles you fired into the kingdom are manufactured in Iran. Did the Iranians send you these missiles? Or are these Yemeni missiles with Iranian technology?
Al-Houthi: With regards to their talk of the missiles being Iranian, etc, I think there is a lot of prejudice. The propaganda that the aggression (Saudi-UAE coalition) attributes to our country is incorrect, and every move they have made is illogical.
I have spoken in multiple interviews on this subject and have repeatedly said: We have a missile brigade and we have missiles, and these were paraded in Sanaa’s Sabaeen Square during some national celebrations.
This is something known about Yemen and not a secret. I also said that the missiles that were launched were Russian and Korean missiles that were in service and stored by the Yemeni army. The army has missile brigades, and the person at the top of the Ministry of Defence pyramid today commands them.
This is no secret or a strange thing for the Yemeni people to be able to develop their capabilities and use their missiles to target [the enemy] as means of deterring the aggression that is directed on our people. The army only launched these missiles to deter the aggression [Saudi-UAE coalition] and not to attack others.
Al Jazeera: What do you make of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s presence in Yemen and its effect on the social, political and security situation in areas such as Al-Mahrah, Socotra, and the port city of Aden?
Al-Houthi: With regards to Saudi Arabia’s presence, to this day, it is the presence of occupiers. The Yemeni people see it as the presence of invaders. It is not seen as a presence in order to support Yemen or to support its people. Their goals are well known and clear, everything they do indicates clearly that this is an occupation, an invasion, and is not in order to protect the Republic of Yemen.
If they wanted, whether the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, to support Yemen, there would have been other ways to support it and strengthen its economy and development. But what they’re doing today, destroying civilian infrastructure, bombing and targeting the Yemeni people, is conclusive evidence that what they are doing doesn’t serve the Yemeni people, now or in the future.
As for their presence, I do not think that it is going to affect the Yemeni people. There have been many countries that invaded our people and we were able to defeat and expel them, and they left our country with their tails between their legs. Yemen, known as the graveyard of invaders in the past, today is still a graveyard for them, and God willing the people of Yemen will be able to achieve their independence and stability.
Al Jazeera: How do you envisage the future of Yemen?
Al-Houthi: Our vision for Yemen’s future is that we wish to see a united, independent and democratic Yemen. A Yemen in which development can be strengthened, a Yemen which can be powerful in its development, in its utilisation of its resources, in the enhancement of its stature and presence, in its reciprocal relationship with its neighbours, brotherly, and friendly states.
That Yemen should not be subject to any trusteeship in the future, that it be free, that it builds its own population. [We want] to see the people of Yemen educated, to see health services reach all villages and regions in all the provinces. Also to see a Yemen free of terrorism, free from extremism, built on the basis of accepting one another.
A Yemen that does not impose its plans or impose anything on others. Rather, a Yemen of dialogue, a Yemen that accepts dialogue with others as peers and in complete sovereignty over its own land. An independent and prosperous Yemen ruled by law where justice prevails, far from destruction, mercenarism and away from being others’ puppets.