Wednesday’s deadly attack on Aden airport reminds us that certain players in Yemen’s conflict aim to make 2021 another year of suffering. The attack, which killed 26 people and injured dozens, struck as members of the country’s new unity government prepared to disembark their plane. It was a sobering attempt to sabotage the return of legitimate governance to the nation. For those who committed the attack, Yemen is better off without the stability of a functioning state. This immoral conviction would leave ordinary Yemenis facing another year blighted by rampant Covid-19, cholera, terrorism, famine and poverty.
The arrival of the Cabinet was the first stage in a plan to make 2021 a better year for the country. It was admirably formed to patch over differences between the Yemeni government, headed by President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, and the Southern Transitional Council, a group that represents parts of the south of the country. President Hadi told his new ministers last Saturday that his priorities are reviving government institutions and the economy, and restoring security. He spoke of his desire to see Aden "free from all military units", and that there be "no more blood".
Such building of consensus stands against the obstinate nihilism of groups such as the Iran-backed Houthis, who are the prime suspects for the attack. The fact that the blast also killed workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross demonstrates that its perpetrators are willing to target the non-military workers who protect the well-being of the country’s citizens, many of whom rely on such international organisations to survive.
That a group would target one of the few rays of hope in Yemen, shows how determined some are to prolonging the crisis. The departing Trump administration is considering whether it should label the Houthis a terrorist organisation. The US should factor into its decision the likelihood that they were behind Wednesday’s attack, in a blatant attempt to stall progress in the conflict’s resolution.
Treating groups like the Houthis as anything other than militant spoilers is becoming increasingly difficult. The organisation has routinely and cynically raised hopes that it was open to negotiations. Such overtones can no longer be taken seriously. Claims that the Houthis are capable of acting rationally at a negotiating table are undermined, for example, by their handling of the FSO Safer crisis, in which a decaying tanker under their control off the coast of Yemen risks causing one of the most damaging oil spills in history. For the Houthis, the ship is not a crisis that threatens the water supply and ecology of the entire region. It is instead a bargaining chip that can be used to further their narrow cause.
It is possible to hope that 2021 could be a better year for Yemen. However, the scale of Houthi opposition to a durable resolution must be recognised. As the conflict, instigated by the Houthi coup, enters its eighth year, serious questions need to be raised about whether the group will ever be willing to act as constructive players in a negotiated peace. The conflict is, of course, complex. But with mounting suspicions that the group are behind Wednesday’s attack, the Houthi movement should be called out for what it really is.