U.S. Says Talks to End Yemen's War Must Start in November

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. said talks to end the war in Yemen must start in November, pressuring Saudi Arabia to dial back its aggressive foreign policy following the murder of a vocal critic of the kingdom.

In separate remarks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Saudi-led coalition that entered the conflict in 2015 and Iran-backed Houthi rebels must move toward a political resolution to a war that has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Mattis said the warring parties should meet in Sweden in 30 days.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers the U.K. is backing efforts to reach a political agreement. “A nationwide cease fire will only have an effect on the ground if it’s underpinned by a political deal between the conflict parties,” she said.

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi court insider, in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul has focused international attention on the policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. In addition to the war in Yemen, the 33-year-old has led an unprecedented political and economic embargo against neighboring Qatar and engaged in diplomatic confrontations with Germany and Canada.

“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities,” including missile and drone strikes by Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates, Pompeo said in a statement. “Subsequently, coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen.”

While the statements are the strongest yet from U.S. officials against the war in Yemen since the Saudi campaign began, forcing the Houthis into an agreement at a time when their chief backer, Iran, is increasingly isolated by American sanctions could prove difficult.

“The question becomes what enforcement measures the U.S. has in mind?” said David B. Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London who studies the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of mainly Sunni-ruled countries to restore the government of Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi after it had been forced out of much of the country by the Shiite Houthis. The war has created a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished country, with thousands of civilians killed, and displacement, hunger and sickness rampant. Three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of those require it urgently to survive, according to the UN.

Hadi’s forces have since regained large parts of Yemen, yet the Houthis still control the capital, Sana’a, and have resisted attempts to force them to negotiate a solution that would diminish their influence. Mattis in a speech on Tuesday said Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. were ready for talks.

“We’ve got to move toward a peace effort and we can’t say we’re going to do it some time in the future,” he said. “We need to be doing this in the next 30 days.”

Warring parties must “meet in Sweden in November and come to a solution, not talk about subordinate issues,” Mattis said at the U.S. Institute of Peace event. Discussions should focus on demilitarizing the Yemeni border and placing Iranian-provided Houthi missiles “under international watch and parked somewhere where they can be accounted for.”

The killing of Khashoggi has led to growing pressure from both parties in Congress for the U.S. to punish Saudi Arabia, including even halting weapon sales to Riyadh, something President Donald Trump has ruled out.

“Both the Trump administration and the Saudis have little choice but to accept the inevitable and agree to a cease-fire,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.

Other highlights from Mattis and Pompeo’s statements:

  • Heavy weapons should be under international observation
  • Opposing forces should return to “traditional areas” enabling the formation of a government “that allows for an amount of local autonomy that Houthis and southerners want”

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