Calls for a cease-fire in Yemen reflect the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which, at least outwardly, took a turn for the worse following the execution of Jamal Khashoggi. Still, opposition to Iran will continue to trump all other issues between these two countries. This does not bode well for Yemen.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen, and its transformation into an international conflict, have garnered more attention in the press over the past several months because of the increasing and staggering human cost of the war. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and international reaction, has put increasing pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the architect of the kingdom’s intervention in Yemen that began in March of 2015. In the wake of increasing evidence that the Saudi government, and the Crown Prince in particular, were directly involved in ordering Khashoggi’s murder, the young royal is under siege on a range of his initiatives, including Yemen. The U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, Michael Pompeo and James Mattis have called for a ceasefire in Yemen and the beginning of talks within thirty days. The question now is whether the factions in Yemen – both Sunni groups aligned with the House of Saud and others closer to Qatar and Turkey – as well as the Iranian-backed Houthis see it in their interest to pause the fighting and make an attempt at discussing some sort of political settlement. The war and its outcome – either through violence or negotiations – or its continuation will have significant impact on several states in the region.
It appears unlikely that any particular faction is going to “win” on the battlefield in Yemen – meaning being able to take over the entire country and successfully control it politically. Even if the Saudi-led coalition were to pull back somewhat in the face of political pressure from the U.S. and UK, neither Riyadh nor Washington or London are going to be willing to give the Iranian-backed Houthis a free hand. In addition, even absent Saudi action, it is doubtful that the minority Houthis – even with other Yemeni political support – will have sufficient forces to establish control over the entire country. The Saudi-led coalition and its allies, despite overwhelming air superiority and intelligence and logistical support from the United States, have basically fought to a deadlock while inflicting horrible casualties. This lack of a clear “win” – coupled with the fallout from the Khashoggi murder – will stymie both Crown Prince bin Salman’s rise in the kingdom and will embolden Saudi Arabia’s adversaries in the region – both Sunni states (Qatar and Turkey) and Iran. Think of Yemen as having the potential to be for Prince bin Salman what Vietnam was for Nixon or Afghanistan was for the aging Soviet leadership.
For Iran, Yemen has been and remains a low-cost way to cause trouble for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As a bonus for Tehran, its involvement in Yemen also tweaks the United States. While Washington has called for a near-term ceasefire, it is not at all clear what leverage it has over the Houthis or Iran to bring this about. The Trump administration is under international pressure to back away from the Saudi regime, and it has key Senators of both parties calling for reductions in military support and arms sales to Riyadh. Washington does not have any other levers to use with Tehran that it is not already implementing as part of its broader “get tough” policy and as part of its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Given Washington’s broader policy toward Tehran, the Trump administration is not going to offer any carrots to Iran to bring it to the negotiating table. The most likely outcome, very unfortunately for the suffering people of Yemen, is at best a short lull in the fighting followed by talks that go nowhere followed by a rise in violence yet again.