Editor’s Note: Sam Kiley is a CNN Senior International Correspondent. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Has the Trump administration had a sudden attack of humanitarianism? Perhaps it was struck by warnings of nationwide famine in Yemen? Or did it move to call for a ceasefire in southern Arabia out of a sudden concern for its tattered citizens?
But no matter how cynical the tardy call for a quick peace may be, it’s likely to be welcomed by both sides in an unwinnable war.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have fired a double-barreled salvo of demands for a peace in Yemen because the war – which the US has backed there – is now seen by DC as toxic.
Many Republicans and Democrats in Congress are bitter that the Trump administration has, until recently, been blind to the atrocious war that has torn apart an already fragmented Yemen.
Whatever the outcome of the midterm elections in the US next week, the Trump administration will still have to face an ever-tougher line – from both parts of the legislature – on continued support for the Saudi-led coalition, which is waging war against Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.
This line will inevitably harden following the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was last seen alive entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudis have admitted he died at the hands of their security personnel.
His death is unrelated to the war in the Yemen. But it’s being felt as a straw that has broken the back of the most hardened supporters of the Kingdom.
As Republican Sen. Linsey Graham said: “The relationship is important, but our values are more important. I have been there enough to know. I have been the leading supporter along with John McCain of the US-Saudi relationship. I feel completely betrayed.”
Then there’s the warnings of famine. According to the UN’s World Food Programme some 12 million Yemenis face the threat of famine because of the Saudi-led coalition’s pressure on the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah.
In short, the argument goes, Hodeidah is the lifeline to 12 million people in Houthi territory. If the coalition closes the port as part of its military campaign, the food stops flowing.
So Pompeo put out a statement calling on all sides to reach a ceasefire.
“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.”
But he too cared to make sure that the Saudis, who are backed by the West including the US, UK and France, don’t have to make the first move.
That falls to the Iranian-backed Houthis. Once they’ve stopped their drone and missile attacks. “Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen,” Pompeo said.
Mattis followed up with: “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.”
Sudden urgency from the US comes after years of overt and covert support for the Saudi-led coalition including midair refueling of Saudi jets and a steady flow of new bombs from the US and the UK.
David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, was quick to endorse the US call for a ceasefire.
“The statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen is the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years,” said the IRC boss, who also happens to be a former British foreign secretary.
The Saudis and their main Gulf allies in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, appeared to have been caught on the hop by the sudden American passion for peace.
Eighteen hours after the Mattis and Pompeo statements, they were still scrabbling for a response.
They may feel peeved that they’ve been blindsided.
But as with their Houthi enemy, there is likely to be a sense of relief.
The Saudi-led coalition’s campaign to take Hodeidah has run into the sand. Troops from anti-Houthi militia including Sudanese fighters have been held up on the outskirts of the port city around the airport for weeks.
They’ve had heavy losses elsewhere, coalition sources said, and there are signs that the fractious forces of the anti-Houthi alliance are fragmenting.
Meanwhile, the Houthis face what the UN says is a famine in their territory. And have seen their local uprising now harnessed to Iran’s geopolitical struggle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia.
Support from Tehran has been militarily useful but may prove strategically dangerous, trapping the Shia Houthis into a status of perpetual enemy to their Sunni neighbors.
So both sides may find the US calls for a ceasefire convenient and allow a degree of face-saving as neither can be accused of suing for peace themselves.
A positive, if unintended, consequence of the murder of a Saudi journalist who, ironically, has criticized his government’s campaign in Yemen.