The US proposal, backed by Britain, for a “cessation of hostilities” in Yemen, to be followed by UN-led peace talks, is welcome. But it raises a number of questions. Why has it taken so long for the Trump administration to act, given that the appalling, avoidable toll on Yemeni lives exacted by the Saudi-led, western-backed bombing campaign has been well documented over the past three years?
Could it be that this sudden burst of American diplomatic activity is linked to last month’s murder by Saudi government agents of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi? In point of fact, there seems little doubt the two events are connected. Donald Trump has shown little or no interest in the Yemen war until now, viewing it as but one of many theatres in a wider, strategic contest between the US, Israel and its Gulf Arab allies on the one hand and Iran on the other. Iran’s backing and arming of Yemen’s Houthi rebels was apparently sufficient reason to turn a blind eye to civilian suffering. In any case, Trump has no appetite for the hard slog of peace-making, as Syrians, Palestinians and Koreans know to their cost.
What Trump is interested in is preserving America’s military, intelligence and economic relationships with the Saudis and, in particular, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Trump has been at pains to shelter Prince Mohammed from the torrent of international condemnation that followed the Istanbul killing. But he could not stop the furore shining a new spotlight on the Saudi leader’s personal responsibility for, among other bad things, the unfolding catastrophe in Yemen.
Authoritative reports from Washington last week suggest the US has now decided to stick by Prince Mohammed despite the Khashoggi affair. There will be no real punishment. Why? Because Trump needs Saudi support for his destabilisation campaign against Iran, which intensifies on Monday with the imposition of a global oil embargo. Trump sees Prince Mohammed as a key ally, along with Israel, the UAE and Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in effecting regime change in Tehran. He also wants to maintain bilateral co-operation on Islamist terrorism, a Syrian postwar settlement, and lucrative arms sales.