Since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month, Saudi Arabia’s government is facing increasing pressure to end the war in Yemen. In early October as the world began to learn about the killing, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis suggested that all groups participate in UN-led peace talks within 30 days. His words were swiftly followed up by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who called on both the Houthis to stop their activities and the Saudi-UAE coalition to stop their airstrikes. And, it’s not just the U.S., Britain dispatched its Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to Riyadh to press for an end to the war. And, other European countries have weighed in: France has urged an end to the fighting, while Austria has called for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In this backdrop, what is behind the apparent re-engagement on the part of the U.S. administration with the war in Yemen?
Of course, in a word, it’s Congressional pressure on the administration which had been mounting for a couple of years before this. And, it has picked up the pace with the victory of the Democrats in the mid-term elections. The unfortunate murder of Khashoggi also had a speeding up effect. So, that’s not just Congress but it’s the pressure of media and the civil society. From the administration’s point of view what they like to do is protect the relationship with Saudi Arabia and avoid Congressional pressure in January which could result in a cessation of military assistance to Riyadh. For Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, there’s a personal motive as well which is to save Mohammad Bin Salman with whom they have a very special relationship.
Moving forward, the U.S. has announced an end to U.S. refueling of Saudi warplanes engaged in operations in Yemen that seems fairly significant in terms of symbolic value.
How far is the U.S. administration prepared to go to end the war in Yemen?
This actually sounds more impressive than it is in substance. It’s a token gesture because the planes that do the refueling are already in Saudi hands. Saudis have been trained in using them and so really the U.S. saying we’re not going to do this anymore doesn’t mean that the refueling is not actually taking place. So, it was a shot across the bow warning the Saudis that more steps may follow such as scaling down the naval blockade, military sales etc. The administration of Donald Trump left to its own devices probably would not go beyond these symbolic steps but pressure from Congress could well lead to a complete end of military participation in this war by the U.S. and its military assistance.
If we look back it wasn’t that long ago, it was in June this year that the Security Council failed to agree on a statement issued by Sweden. It was U.S. and UK who objected to the statement which called for the Saudi-UAE coalition to implement a ceasefire. What’s changed between June and now? Now the UK and other European countries all are calling for an end to hostilities in Yemen.
What has changed is - in the UK also there is increased pressure from Parliament against the war. There have been discussions both in the House of Commons and House of Lords on the issue. And, of course, the murder of Khashoggi has added fuel to the flames. But, in addition, there are two major factors which have been emerged in the last two or three months which were not there in June. The situation of famine and desperation of millions of Yemenis has now become much more visible.
And, people in the West and elsewhere have become much more aware of it. It’s important to note that people in Yemen have been dying from malnutrition-related diseases as a result of this naval blockade for many months. The UN said in early 2017 that people were on the brink of famine in Yemen. Though they’re still not declaring a famine, the reality is that millions of Yemenis are suffering enormously. And, the majority of them are dying at home. A few have made it to hospitals. Newspapers and television channels have shown them making quite an outcry on the humanitarian situation. This is a further factor that is persuading U.S. and Britain to take some action.
However, by way of the government's response to the invitation to the talks, Mr. Hadi replied that the bases for the talks were three things: the Gulf initiative, the outcome of Yemen’s national dialogue and the United Nation Security Council resolution 2216.
The question arises here: does it mean that these are still viable negotiating frameworks?
Yes, the three references mentioned here haven’t changed now. Two of the three references are sufficiently broad and flexible. So, a basis can be found to discuss namely the GCC agreement. But, elements in it can be found useful and the same goes to the outcome of national dialogue. The main issue that needs to be changed (and one hopes that the new resolution that the British are bringing to the UNSC will at least begin to address this issue) are the two points in 2,216 which basically are preventing an agreement from being reached. One is the assertion of the legitimacy of Hadi and the second and the most important one is the statement that the Houthis have to withdraw all their forces from all the locations where they are which are equivalent to Houthis’ surrender; given that Houthis are controlling maybe two-thirds of the population, they are very unlikely to agree.
Truth to be told: one of the reasons the Houthis are willing to talk is that they’re really at the peak of their power. They made big mistakes almost 12 months ago when they killed Ali Abdullah Saleh and they lost a lot of support as a result. They are not likely to increase their support; they’re not likely to increase territorial control and therefore control of people. Gradually, this is shrinking but by no means sufficient to bring them to defeat. So, from where the Houthis are at the moment, it is the best time to be engaging in talks.
With the whole world watching, there does need to be a complete ceasefire. The ceasefire on one side i.e. - on the Houthi side can’t be a precondition for talks. All sides need to stop shooting. And one of the reasons why we’re not hearing so much about that is that it is so difficult because the coalition itself is made of so many different forces, such as the Giants’ Brigades, the southern backed security forces, various tribal elements, the Yemeni military, the Saudi military, the UAE military etc ---- it is actually very difficult to control all of them. So, naturally, it’s not so well covered in the press. In order for these talks to progress, there need to be equal pressures on both sides. Both sides need to lay down arms and not one side before the other.
Md. Sharif Hasan teaches international relations at the University of Rajshahi.