LONDON - Western diplomats say they’re confident Saudi-led forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen will acquiesce to a U.S. demand to halt four years of bloodshed within 30 days — and they expect all the warring factions to meet for talks in Sweden next month.
The U.S. call Tuesday for a cease-fire in Yemen, which was coordinated with Britain and France, is sparking cautious hopes that a breakthrough is now possible in the international effort to end a disastrous war which has left more than 10,000 dead from the fighting and more than 50,000 dead from starvation.
U.N. agencies and private relief organizations estimate 14 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation with around 130 children dying every day because of malnutrition.
Diplomats acknowledge the possible breakthrough owes much to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who worked for The Washington Post, saying it has given them a greater opportunity to push harder for an end to the conflict. Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the BBC Wednesday that Khashoggi’s death has helped the U.S. and to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. “We are in a position to ask them to do things," he said during the interview.
He said it was too early to be optimistic, but “there is opportunity now.”
The four-year-old war in Yemen has pitted the officially recognized government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the Houthis, members of a Shi’ite offshoot who have been supported by Iran.
The Houthis are strongest in the West of the country and in recent weeks Saudi-led ground forces have closed in on the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, while mounting a blockade at sea, aggravating the humanitarian crisis. The port is the entry point for three quarters of imports into the war-wrecked country.
The U.S. call for a cease-fire came just a day after the Saudi-led military coalition said it was preparing a new offensive on the city “within days” and had sent more than 10,000 new troops towards Hodeida for the renewed assault.
Speaking in Washington Tuesday U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said 30 days from now “we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a cease-fire, based on a pullback from the border and then based on a ceasing of the dropping of bombs that will permit the special envoy to get them together in Sweden and end this war. ...We have mired in this problem long enough.”
Diplomats say they sense now that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has overseen the Saudi military effort in Yemen, may willing to end Riyadh’s intervention as a way to rehabilitate himself in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing.
The self-exiled dissident journalist Khashoggi was killed four weeks ago in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, where he’d gone to collect documents allowing him to re-marry. His killing, allegedly by Saudi agents, some of whom have served in the past as bodyguards for the crown prince, was belatedly acknowledged by the Saudi government after leaks to the media by Turkish officials providing details of the gruesome murder.
“Saudi Arabia is on the back foot because of the Khashoggi affair,” a former British diplomat who has served in the Gulf kingdom told VOA. He pointed out that while there have been efforts in the past to end the war, this latest call for an end to the fighting marked the first time that the U.S. has asked the Saudis to halt their airstrikes within a timetable.
Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Shannon also believes the Khashoggi killing is connected, although not directly. “The reality is that the fighting in Yemen has been extremely unpopular in Congress and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which has horrified the U.S. Congress, has created a bigger problem for the Saudis which has to be dealt with. The administration is very intent on trying to clear some of this out and address the most immediate problem that they can address easily and that is the question of Yemen,” he said.
The U.S. call for an end to the fighting was matched by strong messages from Washington’s Western allies. In Paris, the French defense minister, Florence Parly, said this week, “We have applied relentless pressure in support of the U.N. in order to find a political solution because the military situation is a stalemate. This war must stop now.”
The U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said Wednesday that he was “pretty sure” that all the warring parties will agree to meet for consultations in Sweden. He has said he also believes the Houthis are likely to agree to de-escalation and to move back missiles from close to the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been firing missiles at Saudi towns.
The last time Griffiths tried to arrange peace talks was in September but the Houthis refused to show up for the negotiations in Geneva.
The coordinated U.S.-led Western pressure for a cease-fire has been hailed as significant by David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary and now the president of the International Rescue Committee. “It is the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years. It is a very welcome recognition that current policy is failing and needs urgently to be changed to focus on a diplomatic solution,” he added. He is urging Washington and London to draft a U.N. security council resolution to formalize the cease-fire demand.