The Cable

Top State Department Official: Saudis Finally Get That Yemen Is a Problem

The devastating humanitarian situation in war-torn Yemen has become so bleak that Saudi Arabia is now finally serious about finding a political resolution to the crisis, a top State Department diplomat said Wednesday.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, October 28, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Patterson testified on US strategy in the Middle East. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

The devastating humanitarian situation in war-torn Yemen has become so bleak that Saudi Arabia is now finally serious about finding a political resolution to the crisis, a top State Department diplomat said Wednesday.

Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that “there are some hopeful signs” that Riyadh is intent on bringing the conflict to a close.

“Most Saudis understand this can’t go on much longer because it’s going to turn the Yemeni population against them and because they’re going to be responsible for rebuilding the country,” she said.

The comments come amid alarming new evidence of the war’s escalating human cost. The United Nations estimates that at least 5,600 Yemeni civilians have been killed since fighting began between a Saudi-led coalition that supports exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control a number of Yemeni cities. More than 535,000 children face malnutrition, imminent famine, and death, according to UNICEF.

Patterson noted that talks aimed at ending the months of fighting in Yemen will begin in Geneva at the end of October under the auspices of the United Nations. “We talk to the Saudis all the time about this,” she said, pointing to Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Patterson may be on to something.

Later on Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Abel al-Jubeir and British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen is ending due to the U.N. talks, however, they did not say when it would conclude.

 

U.N.-sponsored talks in June failed due to disagreements about the implementation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that called on the Houthis to withdraw from the cities they hold, including Sanaa. On Sunday, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said that all sides had agreed to attend the Geneva talks.

Still, humanitarian groups are sounding the alarm about conditions in the country, which have been worsened by a Saudi blockade of goods and materials into Yemen. The World Food Program estimates that 13 million people do not have adequate access to food. The U.N. says 1.3 million are moderately malnourished. The number of civilian casualties since March is more than 2,600 people, including 502 children, according to the U.N and UNICEF.

The situation is an embarrassment for the United States, which has assisted the Saudi campaign with logistical, intelligence, and political support. Earlier this week, a suspected Saudi airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Yemen, just weeks after another of the relief group’s hospitals was hit in a deadly U.S. strike in Afghanistan. The group says no one was killed in the Yemen strike, but the destruction of the hospital will leave up to 200,000 Yemenis without health care services. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon on Tuesday “condemned the Saudi-led coalition” on the hospital, also known by its French acronym MSF.

Saudi Arabia’s U.N. envoy, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, appeared to confirm the coalition’s responsibility for the strike, telling Vice News on Tuesday that the bombing was a “mistake” caused by the failure of MSF to provide the coalition with their hospital’s accurate GPS coordinates.

But MSF quickly challenged that account, issuing a statement asserting that the “correct GPS coordinates for Haydan hospital were shared with coalition forces. They are sent every week to the coalition operations room, and the last time they were shared was on October 24.”

On Wednesday, Mouallimi told a small group of reporters at the Saudi mission to the U.N. that he was “either misquoted or the quotations were taken out of context” and that the Saudi-led coalition played no role in the strike. He said that he had been questioned by the reporter before Saudi authorities had determined the cause of the strike and that he had simply speculated that “if a strike did take place it would have been by mistake, obviously.”

Since then, he said, the Saudi defense forces confirmed that coalition fighters did not hit the hospital and that the nearest coalition air operations occurred at least 40 kilometers north of the hospital, near the Saudi Yemeni border. Mouallimi also acknowledged that MSF had supplied the coalition with the correct coordinates and he criticized the U.N. chief for jumping to conclusions.

We regret the statement that was attributed to the secretary-general,” Mouallimi told a news conference, adding that he would contact Ban. “How was the hospital hit or damaged? We do not know and we will have a full and transparent investigation carried out by the Yemeni authorities.”

In her testimony, Patterson acknowledged the devastation in the country but said the situation was improving somewhat. “The likelihood of humanitarian disaster and incipient famine seems very acute,” she said. “We have urged the Saudis to improve humanitarian access to Yemen — that is a very urgent priority — and things have become marginally better as more fuel has come in.”

This post has been updated. 

Photo credit: Allison Shelley/Stringer/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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