Don’t hold your breath for a ceasefire in Yemen

Don’t hold your breath for a ceasefire in Yemen
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Yemen long has been the ultimate Saudi nightmare: Riyadh has feared that huge numbers of its southern neighbor’s impoverished population of 29 million would overrun its borders. That the half of Yemen’s population that is closest to its borders happens to be Zaidi Muslim, an offshoot of Shi’ism, is an additional worry for the kingdom’s elite, who adhere to Sunni Islam’s fundamentalist Wahhabi strain. Riyadh worries about a Shi’a pincer movement — Zaidi Yemen from the south, and an Iranian-backed uprising originating in its oil-rich, Shi’a populated Eastern province.

An additional Saudi concern is that until 1962, Yemen was ruled by Zaidi and Ismaili (another Shi’a variant) imams for about a thousand years; several of these rulers controlled Mecca and its surrounding territories. Memories are long on the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi King Salman’s official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and he certainly intends to protect them against Yemeni encroachment.


Yemen has been a bitterly divided country. Indeed, from 1967 to 1990, Yemen actually was two states, the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), which replaced the British protectorate of Aden. Despite the merger of the two countries, the north has remained a Shi’a stronghold, while the south has a majority-Sunni population. These divisions came to the fore once again in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, when a popular uprising led to the ousting of Yemen’s longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the following year. Saleh was replaced by Saudi-backed Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who never really managed to exert control over the entire country.

In September 2014, Sana’a fell to the Houthis, a powerful Zaidi tribe from Yemen’s north, that had been led by Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, whose 2004 murder at the hands of Saleh’s forces led to an insurrection that the central government was unable to put down. In 2015, the Houthis seized the presidential palace and drove out Hadi. Saleh, meanwhile, aligned himself with the Houthis, only to desert them again in 2017; he was then gunned down by a Houthi sniper.

Hadi, now governing — or claiming to do so — from Aden, called in Saudi and Emirati support in late March 2015. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, supported by a coalition of other Sunni states, unleashed a major bombing campaign against Houthi forces, for which the United States provided logistical support. The Houthis, benefitting from arms supplied by Tehran, persevered, however, and continued to expand their control over Yemeni territory. Although United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces helped pacify Aden and maintain Hadi in nominal power, the air strikes were far less successful, and over time what appeared to be indiscriminate bombing by the Saudis evoked increasing international protests — although the Houthis also were guilty of acting against civilians, as well as firing missiles into Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration had misgivings about aiding the Saudi-UAE air campaign, but reportedly did so to placate the Saudis, who were bitterly opposed to Obama’s determined pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Although the Trump administration has shared Riyadh’s opposition to the deal, it has continued to support Saudi Arabia’s air campaign, in no small part because of the close relationship between Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerRepublicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Iran moves closer to a diplomatic breakthrough that may upset Israel Trump alumni launch America First Policy Institute MORE and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Ever since the civil war began, there have been intermittent calls for a ceasefire that both sides have rejected. The latest such call has come from Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoDNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Dozens of scientists call for deeper investigation into origins of COVID-19, including the lab theory Pence urges 'positive' agenda to counter Biden in first speech since leaving office MORE and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in coordination with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and appears to be a byproduct of the international outcry over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which many observers point out is unlikely to have happened without the crown prince’s knowledge.

Equally important is the fact that Congress has become uneasy about Saudi operations (the UAE withdrew from the air war some time ago) as Yemeni civilian casualties have surpassed the 10,000 mark. For the first time, there is a real possibility that sanctions of some sort will be imposed on Saudi Arabia; Britain already has decided not to continue its arms sales to the kingdom.

There is no indication that either the Houthis or the Saudis are prepared to sit down and negotiate a ceasefire. The Saudis have every reason to fear a Houthi-dominated Yemen, which a ceasefire likely would enshrine. The Houthis feel that they are on the cusp of victory and do not want that snatched away at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, although President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence MORE has said there is a need for a ceasefire, he has given no indication that he is prepared to apply real pressure on the Saudis. And Kushner continues to maintain his relationship with the crown prince, whose support he desperately needs for his yet undisclosed Middle East peace plan.

Hopefully, the latest round of pressure from Washington and London will lead to a ceasefire in Yemen. Nevertheless, it still may be some time coming and, in the meantime, the population of that unhappy country will continue to suffer from disease, privation and untimely death.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.