Mattis’ Departure: Impact on Cease-fire in Yemen

By January 2019Yemen

US diplomacy played a crucial role in pushing both the Houthis and the Gulf coalition into a reaching an agreement in Sweden. Outgoing US Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller engaged in direct – and often blunt – backchannel conversations with the Houthis. He cast the talks as a last chance to avoid a significant military escalation from the coalition, and as a means of entering into a substantive political process that could finally lead to the war’s end.

Senior US officials also exerted pressure on their Saudi allies, including an eleventh hour phone call from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who then leaned on the Yemeni government delegation to accept the deal. Even European diplomats who are often sharply critical of the US hailed its role in the talks, specifically praising Mattis and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Arabian Peninsula Tim Lenderking. Mattis’ close personal relationship with UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths was seen as particularly helpful in facilitating the high-level communications needed to ease the talks along.

The departure of Secretary Mattis undeniably puts this progress at significant risk. With him gone, the Trump administration now lacks a strong figure who is viewed positively by key diplomats working on the Yemen file. Many observers regard both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Council (NSC) head John Bolton as lacking the disposition and/or expertise to take leadership on the file. Notably, neither figure can match the depth of relationships built by Mattis over his decades in the military. If momentum continues in the peace talks, this is unlikely to be a major issue: Lenderking, a career diplomat who has functioned as a key US point man on the Yemen file since the Obama administration, remains in his post, as do the vast majority of the officials who have coordinated what has been achieved thus far. Nonetheless, the loss of one of the administration’s key “steady hands” adds an additional layer of uncertainty, particularly in the case of the potential disruption of the peace process, and as President Donald Trump appears to grow ever more mercurial.

This is particularly notable in light of the increasing legislative attention being devoted to Yemen, particularly in the aftermath of the Jamal Khashoggi imbroglio. Key legislators from across the aisle have seized upon the Yemen file as a means of taking advantage of the added international pressure on Saudi Arabia. This has largely been rooted in longstanding, if previously somewhat marginal, bipartisan criticism of the conflict led largely by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Rand Paul (R-KY), Todd Young (R-IN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Legislative aides involved in the Yemen file have said that they will focus on maintaining a bipartisan balance.

The progressive core of the Democratic Party, taking over the House of Representatives on 3 January, will view pressure on the Yemen file as a way to both hit Trump for his pro-Saudi approach and maintain pressure that US support for the Saudi-led coalition needs an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-CA) are siding with those urging more acerbic criticism on Yemen as well as further votes to suspend US aid to the Saudi-led coalition. This has been accompanied by increasing activity from external, left-leaning pressure groups on the Yemen file. Most notably, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) has raised its funding to groups working to end the US’ support for the Saudi-led coalition.

The intersection of these two trends underscores the make-or-break nature of the tentative steps toward a return to the Yemeni political process. If the cease-fire and peace process continue to move forward, then the combination of internal legislative pressure with increasingly assertive US diplomacy will keep the Yemen issue on the forefront in a positive way. Lenderking can keep US support on track, and aides involved in Yemen-related congressional efforts have stressed that they see their work as aligned with, rather than against, the administration’s diplomatic efforts. However, there is a moderately likely chance that the cease-fire will collapse, given the roughly 300 Houthi violations already reported in Hodeida. In that case, and with Mattis gone, Trump would be more likely to back a new UAE-led offensive in Hodeida, which would likely re-energize anti-Saudi US policies on Yemen.