Report

U.S. Pushes for Cease-Fire in Yemen

The secretaries of defense and state call for an end to the violence.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis addresses a press conference in Prague on Oct. 28. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis addresses a press conference in Prague on Oct. 28. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is ramping up pressure on the parties involved in the three-year conflict in Yemen to end the violence, with both the U.S. secretaries of defense and state calling for a rapid cease-fire.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis appeared to set a 30-day deadline for a cease-fire between the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels during an event at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Oct. 30.

The conflict has plunged Yemen into what is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, pushing some 12 million people to the brink of starvation.

“That’s the only way we are really going to solve this,” Mattis said. “We’ve got to move toward peace here, and you can’t say we are going to do it sometime in the future—we need to be doing it in the next 30 days.

“We’ve admired this problem for long enough,” he added.

The announcement comes just days before the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm elections, as the world is still reeling from the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Although Mattis attempted to separate Khashoggi’s killing from the situation in Yemen, his death has prompted renewed calls from lawmakers and other critics to end U.S. support for the war as well as billions of dollars in arms sales to Riyadh.

The United States has provided the Arab coalition with logistical support, air-to-air refueling, aerial targeting assistance, and intelligence information throughout the war. U.S. Air Force tankers currently refuel less than 20 percent of the coalition aircraft involved in the conflict, Mattis said.  

He added he believes both the Saudis and the Emirates are ready to end the violence and blamed the Houthis for walking out of previous peace talks. 

He did not raise the possibility that the U.S. would end its war support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Mattis’s call for an immediate cease-fire to support United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’s efforts to find a peaceful solution.

“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities,” Pompeo said, urging a halt to Houthi airstrikes into Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as coalition strikes on populated areas in Yemen.  

Peace talks must begin next month in a third country, Pompeo said. He called for “confidence-building measures” to address the underlying issues of the conflict, the demilitarization of borders, and the concentration of all large weapons under international observation.

“It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” Pompeo said.

Humanitarian groups, which have decried the devastation in the war-torn nation, welcomed the administration’s call for a pause in the fighting. Scott Paul, an expert on Yemen with the humanitarian organization Oxfam America, said the statements were welcome news but it was too early to assess its impact. “For me, the big question is whether the [Trump] administration will turn up the heat when any of the many actors try to break the process or resist making real moves toward an agreement,” he said.

David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, hailed Pompeo’s statement as “the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years.”

“The people of Yemen are now suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the country threatens to become a tinderbox for the region,” Miliband said in a statement. “It is vital that this call for a ceasefire is followed through, and the call for support for the political process heeded.”

Miliband also called for additional measures to ease the suffering in Yemen, including the opening of all sea ports and Sanaa airport to humanitarian and commercial traffic, and the resumption of salary payments to doctors and other civil servants.

He urged other members of the U.N. Security Council to join in the U.S. call for a cease-fire “immediately.”

Paul, the Oxfam expert, who travels routinely to Yemen, said the situation there is getting more dire as the economy collapses and Saudi-led airstrikes continue to pound the country’s critical infrastructure and food production capacity. He said the only way to avert a full-fledged famine was to force the warring parties to negotiate a political solution.

“The more it goes on, the more people die, the more people are just teetering on the edge of survival, the more urgent that political question becomes.”

Update, Oct. 31, 2018: This article was updated to include additional sources and background information on the Yemen conflict.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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