Yemen Gets a Shot at Peace

The last thing Yemen needs more of.

Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

So far, the only winners of Saudi Arabia's protracted bombing campaign against Yemen's Houthi rebels have been munitions makers and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has used the turmoil to expand its reach. But peace talks starting Monday in Geneva offer an opening for a cease-fire and at least a slim chance for a more lasting peace that all parties to the conflict should seize.

Last Tuesday's attempted Scud missile attack on Saudi Arabia was the latest sign that the kingdom's air war hasn't quelled Yemen's Houthis. (The Saudis had earlier claimed to have destroyed the rebels' missile inventory.) Meanwhile, fighting in Yemen has killed more than 2,300 and injured nearly 10,000, displaced more than a million Yemenis and left 20 million more in need of humanitarian assistance. The Houthis remain intransigent, defying a United Nations Security Council resolution to withdraw from seized territory, give up their heavy weapons and allow the restoration of Yemen's government.

Yemen's Fault Lines

The Saudis, also in no mood for compromise, see the Houthis, who belong to a Shiite-related sect, as proxies for Iran. Yet while it's true that the Houthis have received Iranian support, their political grievances long predate Iran's revolutionary aspirations. The unbending Saudi effort to subjugate them has fed new sectarian tensions and created an opening for al-Qaeda to take over Al Mukalla, Yemen's fifth-largest city, and to offer its services to Yemen's Sunni tribes as "protection" against the Houthis. (This development has drawn less Saudi concern; some of the kingdom's more sectarian subjects may actually welcome it.)

This poses an increasingly awkward set of choices for the U.S., which has provided logistics and intelligence for the Saudi air campaign even while pushing its ally to wrap it up. Does America want to be complicit in a humanitarian disaster that has endangered its own citizens in Yemen and abetted al-Qaeda? On the other hand, can the U.S. afford to further alienate Gulf allies already skittish about the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran? Its best course is to more firmly remind its Gulf allies that they can't sustain their air sorties without U.S. help and that such assistance rests on advancing their shared interests -- especially the fight against al-Qaeda -- not on killing more innocent Yemenis.

The UN-sponsored peace talks offer all sides a way out. For starters, Saudi Arabia could use the imminent onset of Ramadan as a face-saving pretext for another humanitarian pause in its bombing campaign, provided the Houthis agree to a cease-fire. This could allow the delivery of badly needed food, water and fuel to Yemen's battered civilians. It could also create space for the revival of the political transition process that has been ongoing since a popular revolt in 2012 forced the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But that process must be grounded in two realities: The Saudis will never allow a hostile regime on their southern border, and the Houthis will not comply with Security Council edicts until they believe that any political transition will be negotiated rather than imposed.

The UN can make the knots easier to untangle by providing a neutral venue for talks, enforcing arms embargoes and targeting malefactors for sanctions. International help will be badly needed for Yemen to rebuild its rubbled infrastructure.

Yet at this troubled juncture, the best thing the U.S., the European Union and other world powers can do is to help the Yemenis to help themselves. Instead of suspending assistance for good governance and conflict prevention in Yemen, for instance, the U.S. should be looking for ways to sustain Yemen's civil society during a dangerous and difficult time. During the Arab awakening, such groups played a critical role in toppling a corrupt dictator. Left to their own devices, and freed from the proxy wars and national dialogues inflicted on them by their powerful neighbors, Yemenis will be in a better position to sort out their political differences. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.