Yemen: US talks with the Houthis could open way to end war
For the first time in four years, the US says it has entered talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
“We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen,” the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Schenker, said during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia. “We are also having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually accepted negotiated solution to the conflict.”
After years of unconditionally supporting the Saudi-led coalition, the US administration might have taken this step in an effort to bolster President Donald Trump’s fortunes ahead of the 2020 election.
The US administration is aware of the public anger over its involvement in the Yemen war, which has fuelled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. US arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, and the blocking of congressional resolutions concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, have led to widespread condemnation.
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul last year put more pressure on Washington to withdraw its support for Riyadh, reawakening the world to the impacts of a largely forgotten war.
At a time when Riyadh has failed in its mission in Yemen, it may be looking for a way to end the war
Schenker’s recent remarks followed a declaration by the United Nations that the US, Britain and France might have been complicit in war crimes in Yemen by arming and providing intelligence and logistics support to a Saudi-led coalition that starves civilians as a war tactic.
With the US presidential election due next year, the administration may be trying to shift public opinion in its favour. If the administration is able to secure an agreement that could help bring an end to the conflict, Trump would surely use that as fodder in his re-election campaign.
A political solution is the best option for peace to prevail in Yemen, officials have said. “The Yemen war has no military solution. The longer it continues as a military-only endeavour, the longer it will last,” a former deputy assistant secretary of state, Joel Rubin, told me. “It’s long overdue for the US to be talking with the Houthis and all the parties to finally end this shameful war.”
The World Health Organization recently noted that 35,000 cancer patients have been deprived of treatment in Yemen - just the latest devastating data that stresses the need to end the conflict. Now there may be a chance - but will the Houthis really accept the US as a mediator?
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, cast doubt on the prospect. “There are no talks between us and the US and we would not accept any talks on the basis that America would be a mediator, because it is a party to the aggression on Yemen,” he told me.
“Everyone knows that the war against Yemen has not been declared by Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, but by Washington on the basis of the main participation of four countries - USA, UK, Saudi Arabia and UAE.”
Bukhaiti, however, added that the Houthis may accept a bilateral dialogue with the US to stop the war and lift the siege on Yemen.
As such, it appears the US mission to hold talks with the Houthis will be difficult - and the chances of success far from certain.
At a time when Riyadh has failed in its mission in Yemen, it may be looking for a way to end the war. The Houthis are much stronger now than they were in 2015. The coalition, meanwhile, is divided more than ever before. Apart from worsening its reputation globally, Riyadh has gained nothing from this conflict.
The Saudis may be ready to sit down with the Houthis, for the sake of finding an end to the conflict. But the Houthis are aware that US involvement has prolonged the war. If Washington had been firm in putting boundaries on Riyadh, there is no chance that its indiscriminate bombing campaign would have been as intense during this war, now in its fifth year.
The Saudi-led coalition should stop bombing civilians and move to lift the siege on Yemen. Violence is not a solution, but a factor that only further complicates the conflict. Only talks can stop the death toll from increasing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.