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Why the US call for Yemen ceasefire is doomed to fail

Mike Pompeo's call for an end to fighting has an eye on the mid-terms but is likely to fall on deaf ears among the combatants and will not hasten talks any time soon

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s carefully crafted statement calling for a “peaceful solution” in Yemen breaks months of silence from the Trump administration over the conflict. US pressure comes as the Saudi-United Arab Emirates alliance deploys over 10,000 troops towards the west coast of Yemen, in another attempt to retake the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port city. 

An optimistic deadline

Pompeo’s call is significant, as it urges all parties to the conflict to support Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to bring peace in Yemen. The Houthis were called out first to cease their asymmetric attacks using drones and missiles against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, adding, “Subsequently, coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen.”

James Mattis, US defence secretary, weighed in saying parties in Yemen need to join UN-led peace talks "in the next 30 days". An optimistic deadline, one that would be celebrated if achieved. The recent attempts to start talks between Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthis in Geneva failed miserably. 

There are two overarching reasons for the US policy shift on Yemen. First, the congressional and political pressure in the US. Second, Mattis and Pompeo are using the post-Khashoggi extrajudicial killing backlash to reign in MBS’s reckless policy in Yemen

There are two overarching reasons for the US policy shift on Yemen. First, the congressional and political pressure in the US is influencing the Trump administration to find a fix before the mid-term elections. Second, Mattis and Pompeo are using the post-Khashoggi extrajudicial killing backlash as leverage to reign in Mohammed bin Salman's reckless policy in Yemen.

With the spotlight on Mohammed bin Salman's viability to remain as crown prince and looming concerns over the succession of his father, the US is not only seeking stability in a key Middle East ally, but engineering a mitigation strategy for domestic political dynamics where the alliance with Riyadh has become increasingly toxic.

Adding to this, US diplomatic pressure has arisen at all angles to rescind Saudi Arabia’s political and economic blockade on Qatar.

Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Said Al-Jaber (C) arrives in the southern Yemeni port of Aden to oversee an aid delivery of fuel from Saudi Arabia on 29 October, 2018 (AFP)

But above all, US support for the Saudi-led coalition isn’t working. More than three years in and the conflict remains at a stalemate. All previous UN special envoys and talks about peace talks have failed. The UN says the Saudi-led coalition may have committed war crimes, while the Saudi blockade on ports has brought its southern neighbour to the brink of famine, affecting over 14 million Yemenis. 

Stronger message

The US war on terror strategy in Yemen is in retreat. The US entered Yemen broadly to neutralise Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but "secret deals" were cut with Al-Qaeda as part of the civil war by the Saudi-led coalition to manipulate territorial dynamics against the Houthis. This directly blurs the US counterterrorism objective versus Saudi-led strategies to win the war. 

One must question whether, if Pompeo is attempting to bring an end to the war, why is the US still refuelling Saudi-led coalition aircraft? Surely a concrete step such as ending refuelling would send a stronger message to stop bombing of densely populated areas in Yemen. Pompeo’s vision for parties to "replace conflict with compromise" punches above its weight in Yemen.

Focusing only on the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis isn’t necessarily pragmatic either, as conflict tensions exist between Hadi, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), late president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyal forces and tribal militias scattered in between.

The major question is how the Iranians will react to the mounting pressure on the Houthis. Iranian fatigue in Syria and Iraq amid on-going economic sanctions will not spur on a swift response

For the Houthis, US calls for peace are the height of hypocrisy. Hussain al-Bukhaiti, a Yemen-based journalist and Houthi supporter, told me that Pompeo’s remarks are a "cover up for a new forthcoming operation in Hodeidah". He added: "To ask the Houthis to stop missile attacks in return for the coalition to only stop bombing highly populated areas is a US project to contain the war in Yemen.

"If the US want to bring peace in Yemen, they can start by stopping the supply of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition," he added. 

Back in August, the head of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, claimed the US is obstructing dialogue on Yemen’s peace prospects.

A child suffering from a diphtheria infection lies on a bed, amid an acute diphtheria outbreak, at a hospital in the capital Sanaa, on 19 October, 2018 (AFP)

An anti-US campaign was then launched dubbed "America is killing the Yemeni people". Having won many hearts and minds to the Houthi side, with US bombs found in the wreckage of the school bus destroyed by a Saudi strike that killed 40 children in August, Pompeo’s "forgive and forget" compromise idea will not go down well in Houthi territory.

Based on my own engagement with the Houthis, there’s a clear rift between the political bureau and military wing, especially on whether to take part in peace talks or continue fighting the Saudi-led coalition.

Game changer

Speaking to Salem Thabet al-Awlaki on Thursday, the official spokesperson for the UAE-backed STC explained "the specifics of the American call to stop the war are not clear". Although the STC will remain committed to the UN-led peace process, it will not drop its "self-determination goals" to see secession from north Yemen. 

Despite the US pressure on Yemen, there’s been no official response from these groups. Whatever the measure, all parties in Yemen should give peace a chance. The major question is how the Iranians will react to the mounting pressure on the Houthis. Iranian fatigue in Syria and Iraq amid ongoing economic sanctions will not spur a swift response.

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The Houthis' asymmetric warfare policy announced last year will not be halted any time soon. It seeks to drain the Saudi-led coalition’s economy, and is a game changer in the conflict.

The Houthis have executed several missiles inside Saudi Arabia, and two drones were confirmed destroyed by Saudi Arabia at Abha International Airport and Jizan. Such strikes remain an active threat to the Saudi-led coalition.

Houthi drones and missiles are the only strategy that appears to be working for them on the military front. After Pompeo’s failed attempt to address it this week, the Houthis will continue using it.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are escalating strikes against the Houthis, including in the capital Sanaa. Time will tell how the parties will respond by the end of the month.

-Khalil Dewan is a consultant analyst with the Middle East and North Africa desk at IHS Markit Country Risk. His work focuses on the conflict in Yemen and the Qatar-Gulf crisis with a special interest in conflict analysis, political, security and violent risk. He tweets @KhalilDewan.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Yemeni soldiers loyal to Ansar Allah (Houthis) march in the capital Sanaa on 16 October 2018 to show support against the Saudi-led intervention in the country (AFP)