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US shifts on Yemen as toll mounts

By AFP - Nov 01,2018 - Last updated at Nov 01,2018

Students gather for a morning drills outside of the teacher's house, who turned it into a makeshift free school that hosts 700 students in Taiz, Yemen, on October 18 (Reuters photo)

WASHINGTON — The surprise US call for a ceasefire in Yemen marks a growing sense that Saudi Arabia's campaign has proven disastrous, but experts say more action is needed to end the devastating war.

On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis urged a halt in the three-year Saudi-led assault to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen, the impoverished country mired in what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an end to air strikes "in all populated areas" — an implicit acknowledgement that the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition has hit civilians, despite Washington's past assertions that the war planners are doing their best.

The shift comes as the US view rapidly dims of Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, amid global outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul.

"There is no doubt that the Khashoggi case has turned American opinion against the Saudis", said Charles Schmitz, an expert on Yemen and chair of the geography department at Towson University.

But he noted that the United States was still deeply involved in the war effort.

The United States has been providing in-air fuelling and other logistical support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they bombard and enforce a blockade on Yemen, with accounts of bombs striking hospitals, buses and other civilian targets.

The US allies want to oust the rebels, who seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and enjoy at least limited support from Iran.

The United Nations has warned that 14 million Yemenis are at serious risk of famine, with at least 10,000 people already dead, and an epidemic of cholera.


Losing public opinion


Saudi Arabia has increasingly faced pressure in the US Congress — in March, the Senate narrowly rejected a bid to end US support to the war.

On Sunday, The New York Times published an unusually graphic front-page photo of an emaciated seven-year-old Yemeni girl, despite Saudi efforts to restrict media access.

Waleed Alhariri, who heads the US operations of the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies, noted that there have been previous ceasefire attempts that quickly unravelled.

The US statement “might be a sign of frustration by the US administration that things are getting out of hand. Or maybe it’s a way of saying that they are trying to do something but cannot, and are blaming the warring parties that they cannot resolve the conflict,” Alhariri said.

“It’s a good diplomatic statement but it has not been backed by concrete, genuine action or a full-scale diplomatic effort to solve the conflict,” he said.

But Schmitz, the professor at Towson University, said there could be a way forward by addressing the Houthi missile strikes into Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, backed by the United States, have voiced outrage over the projectiles and blamed Iran, but Schmitz believed the rebels saw the missiles as a bargaining chip, noting that they did not target Riyadh until the kingdom’s intervention.

“The Houthis very much want to stop the bombardment, the Saudis very much want to stop the Houthi missile threat, and if the United States could contribute to that, I think it would go a long way,” he said.


Humanitarian chance


The United States called on the warring parties to meet in a third country in November for talks supervised by the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths.

Britain and France, two other veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, backed the US support for a ceasefire.

Jeremy Taylor, the regional advocacy adviser in charge of Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council humanitarian group, called the ceasefire call “long overdue.”

Saying that the United Nations “has been running out of adjectives to describe how bad things are,” Taylor voiced hope that a ceasefire could offer humanitarian workers a chance at least to try to halt further deterioration.

“We have been asking for years for this kind of statement. What we really want now is political pressure on the parties in the way that the US can,” he said.

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