Ahmed, 3 years old, receives treatment for moderate acute malnutrition in a hospital in Hajjah, Yemen. UN WFP/ABEER ETEFA

The Trump Administration Supported a Ceasefire in Yemen and Then It Did Not

The Trump administration has put the breaks on negotiations in the Security Council over a UK-drafted resolution calling for a limited ceasefire in parts of Yemen. The thing is, this ceasefire resolution was drafted largely in response to calls by Senior Trump administration officials for a ceasefire.  

On October 30th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both called for cessation of hostilities to preceded peace talks to be held in Sweden. Their call was inspired by a dire warning from the top UN Humanitarian official Mark Lowcock, who days earlier warned of a catastrophic famine. Meanwhile, pressure had been mounting on Saudi Arabia for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After nearly four years of conflict, it appeared that there was some real diplomatic momentum for a ceasefire and peace talks.

The United Kingdom, which like the United States supports the Saudi-led coalition, began working on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in certain key cities and humanitarian access to parts of the country. According to news reports, Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman “threw a fit” when he learned of its details from UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on November 17th. Two days later, on Monday the 19th, the UK formally circulated its draft ceasefire resolution.  The very next day, President Trump issued an exclamation point laden statement absolving Saudi Arabia of responsibility over the Khashoggi murder and doubling down on US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

The timing of Trump’s statement suggests that the circulating Security Council resolution triggered Trump’s decision to stand firmly by MBS.

Now, one week later, the United States is reversing itself at the Security Council. According to news reports, the US Mission to the United Nations has sent an email to colleagues at the Security Council stating it would not participate in negotiations over a ceasefire resolution before peace talks begin in Sweden. This is an about face from the prior calls by Mattis and Pompeo for a ceasefire to take place ahead of peace talks.

The thing is, there is no guarantee that these peace talks will actually happen. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is spearheading a diplomatic effort to bring waring parties to Sweden, but it is far from certain that he will be successful in bringing the parties together in Sweden. And more the point: the only thing that would convince the Saudis to meaningfully attend these peace talks would be pressure from the United States.

The Trump administration’s new position on Yemen —  delaying negotiations over a ceasefire resolution pending the start of peace talks — could have the effect of indefinitely perpetuating the war.

The one thing that may change this equation is US Congress. The US Senate is expected to pass a resolution that would suspend US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. A similar resolution failed last March, but the murder of Jamal Khasshogi has inspired several senators to switch their vote. After the New Year, when Democrats control the US House of Representatives, a law to end US support could be sent to the White House for the president’s signature. At that point, Trump will once again have to decide whether or not to continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with MBS.