Saudi Arabia's Choice in Yemen

Looking for a way out.

Photographer: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen's Houthi rebels have reportedly just accepted the terms for peace talks. The U.S. now needs to put pressure on the Houthis' most powerful enemy -- that would be Saudi Arabia -- to respond in kind.

The seven-month-old military campaign against the Houthis, led by the Saudis and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on behalf of Yemen's government, has made gains in recent months. But the coalition's air raids have also killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed most of Yemen's already paltry infrastructure. As a result of the fighting, more than 7,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed or injured and nearly 1.5 million have been displaced; 80 percent of the country's population of 26 million may need humanitarian assistance.

Yet not only is an outright military victory against the Houthis highly unlikely, it will do nothing to solve Yemen's underlying political problems. In addition to pitting the Houthis in the north against the central government, the war has also revived secessionist hopes in the south, which until 1990 was a separate country. Worse, the turmoil has created openings for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and for Islamic State.

Yemen's Fault Lines

Saudi Arabia and its neighbors intervened in part because they feared that Iran was using the Houthis, who belong to a Shia-related sect, to enlarge its sphere of influence. Yet their military campaign has driven the independent-minded Houthis even closer to the Iranians. It has also opened a widening gap between Yemen's Sunnis and the Houthis' Zaidi sect, which encompasses nearly half of Yemen's population.  

The Obama administration has unenthusiastically backed the Saudi campaign, in part because it didn't want to further alienate an important ally already shaken by the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran. But enough is enough. Billions in weapons sales and intelligence support have already made the U.S. complicit in a looming humanitarian disaster. Meanwhile, the unwinnable war against the Houthis saps the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic State -- the putative common enemies of the U.S., its Gulf allies, Yemen's legitimate government and the Houthis.   

The stated willingness of the Houthis and their ally, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, to join U.N.-sponsored peace talks offers a chance to stop this dead-end dynamic. They have agreed to abide by a crucial U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for, among other things, a Houthi withdrawal from all occupied territory -- a key demand by Yemen's government and the Saudi coalition. Joining the talks is one way to hold the Houthis to their word, and offers a way out of what promises to be a protracted and increasingly bloody stalemate.

The onus is now on the Saudis to respond. If they balk, the Obama administration should quietly remind them that some members of Congress are themselves balking at the future sale of munitions for their Yemen campaign.

Of course, the peace talks may not succeed. But the U.S. should use its leverage to get its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, to accept the Houthis' overture. It may represent the best opportunity to date for ending a war that threatens to shatter the Middle East's poorest country into jagged sectarian shards.

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