U.S. and Britain Seek Yemen Cease-Fire as Relations With Saudis Cool

Destruction in the old city of Sana, Yemen.CreditCreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s biggest arms suppliers, are stepping up their pressure for a cease-fire in the Yemen war, the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

The calls for a halt to the conflict — by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday night, his British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, on Wednesday, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis starting last weekend — came as criticism of Saudi Arabia has surged over its bombing campaign in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi writer.

The Saudi-led bombings have been a major cause of civilian deaths and destruction during the three-and-a-half-year-old conflict in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

“It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement posted on the State Department website Tuesday night.

Mr. Pompeo emphasized that the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting the Saudi-led coalition, must first stop firing missiles at Saudi Arabia and its chief ally, the United Arab Emirates. But he also said that “subsequently, coalition airstrikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen.”

While the United States has urged talks before, Mr. Pompeo’s statement was the strongest call yet by Saudi Arabia’s American ally to stop the fighting in Yemen, where previous attempts at cease-fires have always collapsed.

The push comes as relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have cooled in the month since Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate by a team of Saudi operatives. The operatives had close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, architect of the Yemen war and a key Trump administration ally in isolating Iran.

On Wednesday, in Turkey’s first official account of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi inside the consulate, the Istanbul chief prosecutor said he had been immediately strangled and his body dismembered and destroyed.

Already troubled by the Yemen war and outraged over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been calling on the Trump administration to penalize Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, five Republican senators asked President Trump to cut off civilian nuclear talks with the Saudis in a letter reported by NBC News.

The administration’s Yemen cease-fire proposal appeared aimed at least in part at heading off congressional fury and preserving the Saudi relationship.

“This is clearly something that’s driven by events that the U.S. government wants to get out in front of,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Whether the calls by the United States and Britain will be backed by stronger action to pressure the Saudis and other combatants in the conflict was not clear.

The Saudi leadership has denied responsibility for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing in explanations that have changed several times since he disappeared on Oct. 2. President Trump has described the monarchy’s explanations as the world’s “worst cover-up.”

But Mr. Trump also does not want to alienate Saudi Arabia, the biggest foreign customer of the American defense industry and a critical ally in his escalating efforts to isolate Iran, including a ban on Iranian oil sales that takes effect in less than a week.

Robert Palladino, a State Department spokesman, told reporters Wednesday that the call for a cease-fire was “unrelated” to questions over Mr. Khashoggi’s death, and that Mr. Pompeo’s statement was consistent with past efforts to resolve the war.

But Middle East experts said the pressure for a cease-fire and the credibility crisis Crown Prince Mohammed is facing over Mr. Khashoggi’s death was no coincidence.

“One of the key things that makes diplomacy work is leverage,” said Dennis Ross, a veteran former diplomat who worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, “and Pompeo has some leverage with the Saudis now that he didn’t have before.”

Trump administration officials have been trying for more than a year to get Saudi Arabia to lift an embargo against Qatar, a Gulf neighbor that hosts the largest American air base in the Middle East, and to do something to end the war in Yemen, which by many accounts is a stalemated disaster.

The war has killed at least 10,000 people, though the United Nations stopped updating the toll two years ago. Repeated efforts by United Nations diplomats to broker peace talks have failed.

Mr. Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, told the BBC that Mr. Pompeo’s call for a cease-fire was “an extremely welcome announcement.”

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations special envoy for the Yemen conflict, also expressed appreciation and said he intended to reconvene talks within a month. “I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity,” Mr. Griffiths said in a statement.

The unified American and British comments on Yemen signaled an intensifying and coordinated messaging campaign by the Trump administration and its allies that started in earnest with a speech by Mr. Mattis at a security conference in Bahrain on Saturday.

In his strongest language to date, Mr. Mattis called for an end to the conflict in Yemen and urged support for a United Nations-led diplomatic effort. “The tragedy of Yemen worsens by the day,” said Mr. Mattis, who also met privately with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir. “Now is the time to move forward on stopping this war.”

Mr. Mattis reinforced that message in an appearance on Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington research group.

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

It was unclear on Wednesday whether the Houthis would show some new willingness to stop fighting. Nor did Saudi officials indicate if they would take steps toward a truce. The Saudi Press Agency, the kingdom’s mouthpiece, which routinely vilifies the Houthis, on Wednesday described the conflict as a defensive battle against “the Houthi group’s threats.”

The United States and Britain have faced increased criticism themselves over their support for the Saudi military in the Yemen war, which includes supplying bombs, intelligence and refueling services. A growing number of American congressional representatives from both parties have demanded that the United States suspend weapons sales and other aid. Critics of Saudi Arabia in Britain have pressed Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to do the same.

Although the Saudis say they try to avoid killing civilians in their bombing runs and missile strikes on Houthi targets, their aerial assaults have hit hospitals, markets, school buses and funerals. The Houthis have frequently fired missiles over the border into Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi strikes have caused far more deaths and damage.

In an apparent attempt to show that American aid to the Saudi war effort is not as extensive as critics may believe, Mr. Mattis disclosed on Tuesday for the first time that “less than 20 percent” of the Saudi combat planes bombing Yemen are refueled by American aircraft.

Until now, the Pentagon’s Central Command had said the American military did not track where an American-refueled Saudi jet was going, what targets it struck, or what the results of that mission were.

American military officials say they have tried to improve the Saudis’ ability to minimize civilian casualties. In an interview on the sidelines of the conference in Bahrain, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the Central Command, said efforts to help Saudi pilots and planners have continued.

The war has been punctuated by disease, famine and near-famine conditions in parts of the country. Last week, Mark Lowcock, the top humanitarian relief official of the United Nations, said the number of Yemenis who needed emergency food to survive could soon reach 14 million, half the population.

The Saudis intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis had occupied much of the country and expelled the Saudi-backed government in Sana, the capital. The Saudis and the Americans contend that the Houthis are supplied with weaponry and other aid by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional adversary.

For their part, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have emphasized that they are among the biggest donors to United Nations humanitarian efforts in Yemen. The two countries provided about $930 million, or roughly one-third, of the United Nations humanitarian aid budget for Yemen in 2018.

Questions about that aid commitment have arisen over a report that the Saudis and the Emiratis demanded positive publicity from the United Nations relief agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in return for the support.

The Guardian reported Tuesday that an internal United Nations document showed that the aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was partly contingent on beneficial publicity. Diplomats at the United Nations missions of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Russell Geekie, a spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, declined to comment. But he said in an emailed statement that aid agreements with United Nations agencies, sometimes called “visibility plans,” include requirements related to the visibility of the donors.

The aid provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he said, “came with no conditions.”

Gardiner Harris reported from Washington; Eric Schmitt from Manama, Bahrain; and Rick Gladstone from New York. Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Washington, Declan Walsh from Cairo, and Saeed Al-Batati from Al Mukalla, Yemen.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. and Britain Seek a Cease-Fire In the Yemen War. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Let’s block ads! (Why?)