US Sort-Of Pressure Will Change, Not End, Yemeni War

Over the last week, US Secretaries of Defense and State have called for an end to the war in Yemen, sort-of demanding a ceasefire within 30 days, and a plea for sides to come to the negotiating table.  This seemed to be the government taking action at the highest level, as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi turned a sudden spotlight on this ruinous conflict, and the death by hunger of Amal Hussein solidified a flicker of outrage.

In response, Saudi planes pounded San’a, currently occupied by the Houthis. Perhaps more dramatically, they and the coalition have intensified their push to capture al-Hudaydah, about to become an epicenter of the world’s misery.

By all accounts, the coalition have all but surrounded the city, cutting off roads and possibly already cutting off access to the port. The port right now acts as the thinnest of all lifelines for the country, a way to get aid and food into the country. If this is a true siege, as it is shaping up to be, the famine already reaping its way through Yemen will almost certainly intensify.

In a way, this makes a certain amount of sense. If the sides are actually going to come to the negotiating table in 30 days, they’ll want to consolidate as many potential gains as possible. But on the other hand, it seems impossible that the coalition will actually have control of Hudaydah in 30 days, which will feature gruesome street fighting, massive civilian casualties, and increasing desperation as food and medical supplies dwindle.

An actual ceasefire seems like an impossibility, at least if it is dictated by the US. Absent any true pressure on Saudi Arabia, they have no incentive not to keep fighting, or at least keep strangling Yemen in order to create more leverage in negotiations. And if they are fighting, there is no reason why the Houthis would not also keep fighting. There can be no ceasefire when the parties are disincentivized from acting in good faith.

Will the US put actual pressure on Saudi Arabia? It seems doubtful right now. Even if Mattis and Pompeo are acting in good faith (probably and maybe, respectively), without any support from the top, it won’t matter. It’s just empty words, contradicted by a stumbling sociopath. It doesn’t seem like Trump or Jared Kushner are yet ready to give up bin Salman, and are hoping he can just brush past the Khashoggi killing.

And if his top international supporters let him do so, he might survive internal battles.

So despite the US having the only real leverage against the coalition, they seem unwilling to use it. And your mileage may vary in terms of what leverage the Iranians have over the Houthis, but with renewed and insane sanctions on Iran and an increase in hostility, the suppliers are just as much the problem as the combatants.

But let’s say it can happen. Let’s say that the parties are brought to the table, under perhaps the auspices of the UN, and the international aspect of the war is removed. Under intense and sustained (and again, right now unimaginable) pressure from powerful patrons, the coalition leaves Yemen and Iran cuts off the Houthis. Does that end the war?

It does not. The Houthis aren’t likely to retreat back to their northern fastness, the coalition has no way of consolidating the country, and the south still has no incentive to be part of Yemen. And that’s speaking in the broadest possible terms. There are factions and alliances and dalliances in every group, shifting mini-coalitions that will continue to fracture as the fight for a broken country becomes more personal and less coherent.

An actual peace process would have to be the internationalization of aid based on the recognition that 1990’s borders have been erased by this blood-dimmed tide, and aren’t relevant to the future. It is recognizing that there is no central government through whom to distribute life-saving aid to the country.

The mechanisms of how this could work are also hard to imagine, but understanding that reality, and adjusting from there, is the only way to make sure that words aren’t just hollow hopes of irrelevant bureaucrats.