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Senate takes aim at Yemen, bin Salman as UN peace talks progress

The U.N. has announced a ceasefire in Hodeidah, a port city critical to the flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen. Meanwhile, the Senate passed a resolution directing the Trump administration to withdraw its support of Saudi forces in the ongoing conflict. Nick Schifrin speaks with author and scholar Gregory Johnsen about what the developments mean for the country’s future.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the war in Yemen, and efforts to end it.

    In Sweden today, the first fragile steps towards a possible resolution, as United Nations-brokered talks resulted in an agreement on a cease-fire.

    And in the U.S. Senate, as Nick Schifrin reports, the Saudi role in Yemen, and America's support for its top Arab ally, was subject to tough judgment.

  • And a warning:

    Some images in this story may be disturbing to some viewers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Three thousand miles from the front lines, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called today a breakthrough.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    This is a critical element for the future political settlement to end the conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's been more than four years since the two sides started fighting, Shia Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, who seized the capital, Sanaa, and the internationally recognized Sunni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the U.S.

    After one week of talks, the two sides agreed to reduce the fighting in Taiz. Armed Houthis will withdraw from the ports of Salif and the Ras Isa oil terminal, and, most importantly, a fire in Hodeidah, the epicenter of the most intense fighting and the port that accepts the vast majority of goods and humanitarian aid.

    Mohammed Abdul-Salam led the Houthi delegation.

  • Mohammed Abdul-Salam:

    We have made very large concessions, and these concessions we made are for our Yemeni people, because Hodeidah is the only remaining corridor to rescue Yemen from starvation, famine and the catastrophic events in the event of continued military action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But those military actions continue, and Yemen is already starving. The United Nations says over half of Yemenis face severe acute food insecurity.

    For years, special correspondent Jane Ferguson has covered Yemen, and this summer smuggled herself into Houthi-controlled areas. Today, she said the humanitarian crisis is even more dire.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Twenty million people here are in need of food aid. That's up from eight million from when I was last here in these rebel-held areas in June of this year. And that's an indicator of how fast the situation here has been deteriorating.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Every 10 minutes, a Yemeni child dies. Since the start of the war, Save the Children estimated 85,000 children have died. And that makes many in Yemen skeptical that peace talks can end the violence or allow Yemenis to resume normal lives.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Many people have given up hope of any possibility that they would work because there have been so many failed attempts to get both sides of this war to sit down together in the past.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seven thousand miles away, for the first time today, a bipartisan group of senators voted to end U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition.

    The U.S. sells the kingdom its weapons and provides targeting assistance and intelligence. It also used to provide midair refueling. That assistance has been questioned in the past, but senators' criticism accelerated after a Saudi hit squad murdered and dismembered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who'd been critical of Saudi leadership.

  • New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez:

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    Saudi Arabia has joined a sinister clique, along with North Korea, Russia, and Iran, in its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. A few more weapons purchases cannot buy our silence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The CIA says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered Khashoggi's murder.

    Today, the entire U.S. Senate went further in a resolution led by its sponsor, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    This is now unanimously, unanimously, the United States Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That is a strong statement. I think it speaks to the values that we hold dear.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But President Trump has defended Mohammed bin Salman and made Saudi Arabia the center of his Middle East policy, from fighting radicalism to Middle East peace, to confronting Iranian regional proxies such as Hezbollah.

    Today, away from cameras, Secretaries of State and Defense Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis briefed the House on the administration policy. And Republican Senator Marco Rubio warned today's Yemen vote would help Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    They're not just agents of Iran. They have launched rockets, ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia after civilian populations, including efforts to kill members of the Saudi royal family and government leadership.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ultimately, the Senate actions are symbolic. The House won't debate the Yemen bill, and the White House wouldn't sign it into law.

    But Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said pressure from the Senate echoed in Saudi Arabia and led to today's cease-fire announcement.

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    The progress on the peace negotiations is not coincidental to this vote. And the concessions that were made by the Saudi side in the negotiations this morning wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the pressure that the United States Senate put on those negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk about those negotiations and the Senate actions today I'm joined by Gregory Johnsen. He has lived in Yemen, visited Yemen many times over the past 15 years, and is the author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia." He was also a member of the U.N. Security Council's panel of experts on Yemen.

    Gregory Johnsen, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Absolutely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's just start with Senator Chris Murphy there at the end.

    Did Senate pressure help lead to today's agreements in Sweden?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Yes, I think they certainly had an impact.

    I mean, the unfortunate truth of what's happening in Yemen right now is that war and fighting is much easier than peace. And so the U.S. Senate — and we should be clear, Saudi Arabia was not in the room. These were only negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels.

    But that pressure I think, is an attempt by the Senate to change that calculation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, I have talked to some people who agree with you and say, yes, the Saudi-led coalition, the government that was in the room today, did make some concessions in part because of that external pressure, but also other people who say, well, wait a minute, they were actually interested or willing to agree to this, and it was the Houthi rebels, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who made new concessions in the last few days.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Right.

    I think what we see right now is that, for both sides, for the Houthi rebels, for the internationally recognized government of Yemen, for the Saudi-led coalition, right now, there's very little domestic pressure on any of these different actors.

    So there aren't body bags coming back to Saudi Arabia. The Houthi leadership is, by and large, insulated from the shortages of this war, whether it be medicine or food. They're not being targeted and killed.

    So what needs to change is, there needs to be concentrated and sustained international pressure to change the behavior of the parties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the administration's not doing that, so the Senate really is some of the source of that pressure.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Right.

    The Senate is the only one that can do it. As we said, this is symbolic. And so we will see if the new Congress in the new year takes this up again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about some of the specifics that were agreed to today.

    Hodeidah, the port that accepts 80-plus percent of all goods and aid that comes into Yemen, also the epicenter of a lot of the fighting, how significant is the agreement there? And how — and can it hold, both the military aspects of it, but also the revenue distribution that comes from the port?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Yes, that's a — that's a great question.

    So, first, we should be clear this is just a first step. And it's incredibly, incredibly fragile. So what we're talking about is, we have a text that's — the text that they have agreed to is basically a page-and-a-half. And there's a lot of ambiguity written into this text on basically what security forces are going to be left in the port of Hodeidah, as well as in the city of Hodeidah.

    The Houthis are right now in the city. The agreement calls for a cease-fire, calls for the Houthis to withdraw. But then security is going to be taken over by what the agreement says are local security forces. Are these people aligned with the Houthis? Are these people aligned with the government? It's not at all clear.

    And my concern is that perhaps both sides that signed on to this read the same sentence, but came away thinking two different things.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that ambiguity extends to revenue distribution from the port, right?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Absolutely.

    So, right now, the agreement calls for all revenue from the port — and, right now, the Houthis make about a third of their income from goods that are coming in through the port. The agreement says that all revenue will go to the central bank in Yemen.

    The problem is, there are two central banks in Yemen, one under the control of the Houthis and one under the control of the government. And it's not at all clear, at least from the text, which one is going to receive the money, and then how that money is going to be distributed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Quickly, Taiz, which is either the second or third biggest city in Yemen, it's been under siege for years. The agreement today could open a humanitarian corridor that's important?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Yes.

    So, the Taiz agreement has actually less details than the Hodeidah agreement. And what's different in Taiz is that there's so many different actors that are fighting. Al-Qaida is there. ISIS is there. There are a number of different militia groups. There are so many different parties and so many different really groups with guns.

    Today's agreement was only between two of those. And it's not at all clear, if only two people or two sides sign onto this agreement, if it's an agreement that can actually hold on the ground.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So questions about whether the agreement can hold, questions about the ambiguity of the language.

    But, zooming out, how significant is this day? It's been more than two years since the two sides sat down, let alone made these kinds of agreements.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Right.

    So, in the short term, it's a good first step. So, this special envoy, the U.N. special envoy, had trouble getting these two sides in the same country just a few months ago.

    But, really, traditionally, in Yemen, and even in this war over the past four years, the difficulty has not been getting the sides to agree to different things. It's been getting them to implement the agreements and actually having a lasting cease-fire that leads to a negotiated peace.

    And I think, unfortunately, in Yemen, we're still a long way off from that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gregory Johnsen, thank you very much.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Thanks.

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