When the Saudi campaign launched in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman confidently predicted it would quickly rout Houthi rebels who had captured Yemen’s capital and deposed a Saudi-backed government. Three years later, it is nowhere close to that goal — but, according to the United Nations, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed or injured, mostly in airstrikes by the Saudis and their allies that have struck schools, hospitals, food markets, weddings, funerals and, in August, a school bus packed with children. The U.N. chief of humanitarian affairs said last week that half of Yemen’s population — 14 million people out of 28 million — are now on the brink of famine; more than 1 million have been infected by cholera, the largest such outbreak in modern history.
Until this week, the Trump administration had offered rhetorical support for a U.N. peace mission while continuing to aid the Saudi air force with refueling and targeting. A U.S.-supplied bomb killed 40 children in that bus. Now, with sentiment in Congress trending toward a cutoff of all U.S. support for the war, the administration has issued parameters for a deescalation. A statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Houthis should first stop missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, and that “subsequently, [Saudi] air strikes must cease in all populated areas.” Mr. Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said U.N. peace talks should begin by the end of November and focus on confidence-building measures, including the demilitarization of the border and the placing of heavy weapons under international observation.
That formula seems tilted in favor of the Saudis, but international officials say there is some reason for it. The Houthis, who refused to attend U.N. talks in September, still control the capital, Sanaa, and the port of Hodeida; they might take a cease-fire as a victory rather than a respite. U.N. officials have been seeking to induce the rebels, who have the backing of Iran, to take steps that show they are serious about making peace — as they have said they are.
The Saudis also claim they are open to peace talks. But the regime’s maneuvering on Yemen has been eerily similar to that in the Khashoggi case. Following the bus bombing, Saudi officials first called it an attack on a legitimate target; then said it was an accident; then, as international outrage mounted, labeled it a rogue operation, and promised to investigate and to punish those responsible. If the Trump administration is serious about putting an end to this catastrophic war, it will have to find a way to counter the mendacity as well as the cruelty of Mohammed bin Salman’s regime.