U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ignited hopes again this week that Yemen’s protracted war may come to a negotiated end, when he announced upon arriving in Abu Dhabi that both the armed Houthi insurgency and the Saudi-led military coalition have agreed to a cessation of hostilities to begin November 17. Whether this comes to pass remains to be seen, given the initial response from Yemen’s foreign minister, who claimed that his government was “not aware of, nor is it interested in what Secretary Kerry announced.”
Nevertheless, Kerry’s assessment that “there’s really an urgency to trying to end this war” is spot on, not only because of the humanitarian catastrophe the war has spawned, but also in view of the ominous signals emanating from Yemen in recent weeks that suggest an effort is afoot to expand both the geographic scope of Yemen’s war, and the roster of direct combatants.
In fact, it is because Yemen’s war has not produced a massive wave of migration across Europe, and has remained largely contained since Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in March 2015, that the world has relegated the conflict – and the search for a solution – to second-tier status. And to be fair, masses of humanity fleeing the carnage in Syria tend to focus the mind in a way that a civil war contained for the most part to a land few can find on a map simply does not.
And so, the attention of the international community returns to Yemen episodically, as it did when a Saudi airstrike killed 140 people at a funeral hall in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on October 8 and led to another flurry of activity amid calls for a cease-fire. As a senior U.S. administration official traveling with Kerry said in Oman this week, those efforts failed, because “neither side in past weeks has been willing to stop fighting.” If they see things differently this time, the situation may have reached a crossroads. But for this to happen, Saudi Arabia and the United States will need to make it clear to the persistently recalcitrant Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi that his obstruction of a negotiated settlement will no longer be tolerated.
Persuading all parties to the conflict to agree to the cessation of hostilities immediately becomes even more important given recent events, including the first U.S. direct military engagement in the Yemen war: an October 18 exchange of missiles with Houthi forces. The incident began with two separate missile attacks from territory controlled by the Houthi forces on the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer in the Red Sea. In response to the second attack, the Mason fired cruise missiles into Yemen, destroying three ground radar installations that the United States determined were used in support of the attacks.
Since that incident, there have been no further exchanges of fire (reports of a third apparently were the result of a faulty radar reading). And while no one wants to contemplate the prospect, a successful attack against a U.S. Navy vessel in the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden, particularly if it resulted in casualties, would almost certainly trigger a robust U.S. response, one likely not limited to radar installations.
Such a scenario invites a question: Who would benefit from dragging the United States into this war? On the face of it, it’s difficult to see that the Houthis would gain by adding U.S air power to that of Saudi Arabia and other coalition members that have been pounding its forces for over a year and a half. It is much easier to imagine that the Houthis’ closest allies, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Iran, would welcome the prospect of direct U.S. engagement in the war. For Saleh, anything that further destabilizes Yemen’s already precarious situation feeds his fondest dream that Yemenis will turn to him once again and insist that he lead what is left of the nation back to peace and stability. For its part, Iran would be only too happy to see Saudi Arabia and the United States joined at the hip dropping bombs on the Arab world’s poorest country, slowly sinking together into a quagmire.
In the wake of the Red Sea incident, a second worrisome provocation came October 28, when Houthi forces reportedly fired a Scud missile in the direction of Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca; the Saudis intercepted it, but it is not difficult to imagine the furor in the Muslim world if a missile fired by Shia forces were to strike anywhere near Islam’s holiest site. The Houthis (and an Iranian government spokesman) denied any intention to strike Mecca, and the Houthis claimed their target was the international airport in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, 40 miles to the west of Mecca. But either way, the incident points to a clear intent to expand the war to some of the most sensitive sites in Saudi Arabia. Any attack on Mecca would also add a religious overlay that would exacerbate a conflict that has developed a more pronounced sectarian character as the involvement of both Saudi Arabia and its Shia nemesis, Iran, has deepened.
Add to this volatile mix the very real likelihood that the leadership of Iran will seek to test the resolve of the new U.S. president early in his first term, and the prospects of Yemen’s war metastasizing grow more troubling. The initiative Kerry announced this week to halt hostilities and resume political negotiations may represent the last, best opportunity to prevent the conflict from morphing into a problem of much greater magnitude and complexity. It will become apparent very soon if the proposal has any chance of succeeding.