The Trump administration’s top two Cabinet secretaries called this week for a cease-fire in Yemen and talks to end the country’s brutal war. Better late than never. But the call comes very late, after a shameful stream of U.S. complicity in the killing, and contains a precondition that makes the gesture seem less than sincere.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a written statement, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis made remarks at a Washington think tank, to the effect that the war must stop. Mattis said all parties should meet in Geneva for talks led by U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths within the next 30 days. Pompeo said these talks should “address the underlying issues of the conflict, the demilitarization of borders, and the concentration of all large weapons under international observation.”
However, the “underlying issues” are precisely what both officials are ignoring. The war, in its current incarnation, has gone on for almost four years, ravaging villages and cities, leaving 50,000 people dead, not counting those killed by disease and starvation, and more than 3 million displaced. Its most recent raging battle, over the Red Sea port of Hodeida, has blocked the import of food and other basic supplies, placing more than 8 million people on the brink of famine.
Mattis condemned Iran for continuing to supply arms to the Houthi rebels of northern Yemen. But he didn’t so much as wave a finger at Saudi Arabia for its airstrikes, which have been enabled by American munitions and intelligence support—and which have also killed many civilians.
Pompeo was a bit more evenhanded in his spread of the blame, though he demanded that, as a prelude to peace talks, the Houthis cease hostilities—then, “subsequently,” the coalition of Saudi and Emirati forces, which are backing Yemen’s displaced government, must cease bombing populated areas. Pompeo would have made a better case had he instead used the word simultaneously. The Houthis are unlikely to stop fighting based on little more than an assurance that their foes will reciprocate at some point in the future.
Neither official said much about the roots of the war, which can be traced back (again, in its current incarnation) to the disastrous decision, in 1990, to unify North and South Yemen, which before then were separate states. The Houthis are Zaydi Muslims, a Shiite sect that has been the dominant force in northern Yemen for centuries, while Sunnis had been the dominant sect in the south. Since unification, the southern Sunnis have ruled, marginalizing the northern Shiites—inspiring revolt, especially since Yemen, the poorest of all the Arab countries, has few resources to share in the first place.
The latest phase of the war began in 2014, when the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The following year, the region’s Sunni and Shiite powers increasingly exploited the fighting as a proxy war for their own all-consuming conflict—and the local combatants eagerly accepted their arms and assistance: the Houthis, supplied by Iran; the Yemen government, by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Early on in this expanded war, President Barack Obama aided the Sunni powers, in part to assure them of continued U.S. support in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, which inspired worries that Washington was forming an alliance with Tehran. After the Saudis started bombing Houthi-held areas indiscriminately, Obama pressured them to stop and, once that failed, cut back on assistance—but didn’t end it.
Trump has taken a harder line on the regional dispute, drawing closer to the Saudis and all but waging war on Iran; in that spirit, he has increased support of the Saudi air war in Yemen. In September, Pompeo signed a certificate, affirming that the Saudis were acting to reduce the harm to civilians; without the certificate, Congress, which has grown increasingly critical of the U.S. role in the war, would have cut off arms sales. Pompeo’s signature came just weeks after two Saudi bombing raids killed scores of civilians—leading all parties to suspect the good faith of any peaceful gesture from Washington.
Here is where Pompeo and Mattis are skirting the key issue, at least the issue on which they could have some direct and immediate impact. Earlier this month, in the wake of the Saudis’ killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and a scholar at the Brookings Institution, suggested suspending U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia as a way of gaining leverage over Riyadh. The Saudi air force, Riedel wrote, “is entirely dependent on American and British support for its air fleet. … If either Washington or London halts the flow of logistics,” its planes and helicopters “will be grounded.”
Khashoggi’s final column before his death was about the war in Yemen, for which he blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally. Salman was the one who pushed for escalating the war against the Houthis, which has been a disaster for the Saudis too, costing the government—by Riedel’s estimate—at least $50 billion a year, with no end in sight.
In a report this past August, a U.N. group condemned the Houthis for their use of wide area–effect weapons in urban warfare, their ballistic missile attacks against Saudi territory, and their restrictions on humanitarian supplies to the city of Taiz. However, the report also found that the Saudi-led airstrikes have killed the most civilians and that the Saudi blockade on air and naval access to Yemen’s ports constitutes a violation of international law.
According to the International Crisis Group, 70 percent of Yemen depends on supplies imported through the blockaded ports, and the current fighting around Hodeida will “likely prove a tipping point for what the UN describes as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.”
The ICG is ecumenical in its condemnation: “Everyone is to blame for the coming fallout,” it concludes in its latest report on the war. The Houthis should be held accountable for refusing to attend peace talks that the U.N. organized last month in Geneva. The Saudis are to blame for their massive bombing. Pompeo made things worse by signing the certification allowing arms sales to go forth, in a reflection of the Trump administration’s tendency to give the Saudis and the Emirates “considerable slack.”
Meanwhile, the Saudis insist that the best route to peace is to bash the Houthis into surrendering their grip on the area around the port. But, for years now, the Houthis—skilled and aggressive fighters—have held on. It is the messiest war in the world and one in which the combined pressure of outside powers could have an effect, since the local combatants couldn’t sustain much of a war without these same powers’ armaments.
It is good that Pompeo and Mattis issued their calls for peace. Pompeo’s marks the first call by the Trump administration for a halt to the Saudi and UAE bombing (however ineffectual the call may be, given its demand that the Houthis stop fighting first). Now they should go further and delink the war from the wider sectarian conflict that’s fueling it—using what pressure they have, including the suspension of arms sales, to move all parties to the peace tables, irrespective of consequences for Saudi or Iranian influence in the region. The human costs are soaring too high for a little geopolitical skirmishing to get in the way of peace.