It's unlikely that Trump will press Saudi and its allies on humanitarian grounds in Yemen, especially when there is a massive arms deal at risk. But if Trump looks beyond these two issues, there might be a path towards a ceasefire.
The Khashoggi affair has thrown an ugly spotlight on relations between the West and Saudi Arabia—and Western media is refusing to drop the story—and in particular Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The war is linked, critically, to both America’s support for Riyadh and its arms sales – and now the media is focusing on a possible end to the war in Yemen.
Yet we shouldn’t get too carried away with the naive notion that just because Trump’s Middle East policies seem to be floundering, that, under pressure, he will support an end to the war there, despite Trump’s closest foot soldiers James Mattis and Mike Pompeo calling for a ceasefire to start within a month.
"The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen," Pompeo said in his statement, according to CNN.
"We've got to move toward a peace effort here, and you can't say we're going to do it sometime in the future. We need to be doing this in the next 30 days. We've admired this problem for long enough down there, and I believe that the Saudis and the Emirates are ready, and had the Houthis not walked out of the last effort that Martin Griffiths had going, we'd probably be on our way there right now," Mattis said.
But what’s driving this new initiative? And does it have any chance of succeeding?
The talk of pressuring Saudi Arabia looks like a rescue mission aimed at saving face for Trump more than a genuine desire to end a wretched war which has taken tens of thousands of lives, left 14 million on the brink of starvation, and where 25 percent of all newborns die within their first month.
The push seems to be from Mattis and Pompeo alone and not Trump who has not said on the record that he wants an end to the war.
Yet there are good reasons why he should, despite it possibly scuttling an arms deal which he brokered when coming into office and believed to be in the region of $110 billion.
According to estimates, the Saudis lose $5 billion a month in Yemen.
Given that a recent foreign investment drive in Riyadh only raised a tad over $50 billion from foreign companies, this is not a trifle amount.
But Trump’s dilemma is that if US media continues to report on the appalling carnage there, carried out with US military help (let alone US mercenaries) that, at some point, the US media will target their anger towards Trump himself.
On the other hand, if Trump pushes the Saudis towards a ceasefire, given the difficult relations between Washington and Riyadh now, the Saudis may well look to Russia and China for arms and scale back their spending in the US.
And then there is the argument about ISIS (Daesh) and Al Qaeda in Yemen. US journalists usually don’t understand or care to examine too closely the contradiction of US policy there, whereby the Saudi coalition aligns itself with these extremist groups which fight the Houthis – the same groups that Trump has vowed time and time again to want to destroy.
But if a humanitarian argument holds little water with Trump as indeed does a business one, then is there another rationale which he should adopt towards ending the war in Yemen?
There is another reason why Trump should consider pushing the Saudis towards ending the war: China.
Despite, Beijing broadly supporting the Saudis and Emirates in their bid to defeat the Houthis, it is equally also looking for a ceasefire to boost its business interests in the region, once Yemen’s maritime straights are safe.
The question is whether this is seen in a positive light, or not, as some critics who follow the China-US trade dispute are arguing that the US president now actually wants a trade deal with Beijing.
Nailing a ceasefire in Yemen which holds, could be a sweetener to the deal and used as leverage by Trump with China and might even accelerate the trade talks and push them in the right direction.
Given Trump’s obsession with investment and jobs and his woeful lack of concern about the horrors of what his fetid obsession with arms deals can produce – in terms of negative press coverage for him – there has never been a better moment for him to put his weight behind Mattis and Pompeo and lean on the Saudi King, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to make a permanent ceasefire happen in Yemen.
Nobody needs the war there to continue and if Trump sees the win-win angle for himself, he may even bag a trade deal with China as well as finally drawing away the attention of US media to the Saudi problem in one fell swoop.
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