The New Saudi Initiative: Points to Ponder to End the War in Yemen

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Coalition countries announced a positive and valiant initiative to settle the Yemeni crisis. It  includes a proposal to end the hostilities and kick-start a political process to end the conflict and to address the deteriorating humanitarian and living conditions of the Yemeni people. This initiative holds responsible the party which continues to prolong the Yemeni catastrophe.    

History has  taught us that many catastrophes could have been avoided if the political leadership at the time had put the greater interest ahead of their narrow interests. In a thought-provoking article entitled: “Ending Wars Was Never Easy” by Robert Gerwarth,  a writer for Foreign Policy,  he argued  that the lessons from World War I can help in resolving present-day conflicts.   In his article, Gerwarth reviews a book by the former diplomat and policymaker Philip Zelikow, “The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War,”  which provides insight into  the secret negotiations between  warring nations  between 1916-1917. If courageous efforts were undertaken to support negotiations, they could have spared Europe two years of the four-year fighting and saved millions of lives.    

The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg sent in 1916 a covert telegram to Washington requesting his ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, to convey to then-US President Wilson a message, expressing German’s wish that  Washington would mediate to end the war – although he was aware of the American financing provided to the Allies against Germany. The writer cites the famous statement of Bernstorff, “Peace is on the ground waiting for someone to pick it up.”  In spite of the German Chancellor’s efforts and the United States agreeing to mediate,  Bethmann-Hollweg’efforts faced  intransigence and opposition  from the Allies, and military commanders,  due to political and national reasons. This  led to War World I ’s disastrous, avoidable outcome and two years of devastating conflict. If only the leaders at the time had been brave and responsible enough. The writer draws a comparison between the events in the Middle East and the course of events in World War 1.   He believes that ending the region’s armed conflicts, as well as elsewhere, may require a clear cost-benefit analysis and level-headed political leadership that is not afraid of making potentially unpopular decisions that go against the will of hawkish military generals.  The writer concludes by saying  that it is harder to make peace  than to start a war.

Let us assume that someone had made  courageous decisions concerning   the region’s various conflicts over the  recent decades and let us imagine how the course of events would have unfolded and whether the ramifications would have altered.  What if mediation had been accepted two years after the Iraq-Iran War  in 1982? It is likely that the two countries would have had a better future, and the lives of millions would have been spared, as well as averting subsequent wars, and decades of backwardness and reactionary behavior.

What if Saddam had responded to the call of mediators after he had invaded Kuwait in 1990? He would have kept intact the cohesion of Iraq, the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi people if he had taken the right decision,  instead of signing the humiliating Safwan Tent Agreement, destroying the Iraqi army that withdrew  from Kuwait, and facing  subsequent setbacks. Now, many Iraqis realize that Iraq has been detached from its glory and Arabism, and  that neither Saddam’s approach nor that of Iran  can reinstate Iraq, the land of the Tigris–Euphrates River,  in light of the current  fueled sectarianism and its inciters.

What if Iran had chosen to be reconciliatory  rather than  inflaming  tensions in the region  since the  revolution? Iran would be  a pivotal country in the region, with its peoples enjoying the land’s natural bounties  like  other resource-rich countries,  instead of  plight, discontent, and death, as well as the country facing international isolation.

What if Bashar al-Assad had decided to  contain the discontent among the Syrian people and worked feverishly to prevent  foreign interference in his country? Syria would be immune now to Russian, Iranian, and Turkish guardianship. Assad would have spared  the Syrian people from being killed, displaced, and placed at the mercy of the international community.  Assad is now paying a high price, and seeking to break out of the trap of the countries occupying Syrian territories.  However, the solution to the Syrian crisis now  depends on realities   beyond Assad’s control.

What if Muammar Gaddafi had abandoned his belligerence  and devoted his time to building a  modern Libyan state by exploiting its rich resources which attract many countries   at the present time?  The Libyan people would have applauded him if he had made the right decisions.   It was possible for him to have  spared the lives of Libyans and averted the wasteful years of infighting and enmity among the Libyan people. I think that the Libyan people  now realize that their country is  preyed upon from every direction.

What if President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi group had accepted  Gulf mediation, and worked to build a society that  embraces  all Yemeni sects? Yemen would  be in a better position today, it would be  possible to save  the lives of thousands of Yemenis, and  it would not be  under international guardianship and be asking  for charity from other countries. “Faith is from Yemen, and wisdom is Yemenite,” is a well-known saying by Prophet Muhammad. Wisdom has been a prominent trait of Yemeni Arabs, where is it now?  Many Yemenis are now convinced that the war  has wreaked havoc, and that the winner in fact is a loser in the end.  Should they wait for more years of fighting and human and material losses?

The list goes on in the region,  and it must be clear that there is a need for leaders to take courageous decisions that contribute to a positive future and allow their countries to compete with others rather than face pity and be seen as asking for charity, or sometimes face others gloating at their expense.

Perhaps there is someone who is aware of the importance of making difficult decisions to avoid the disastrous ramifications  of conflicts. There is an opportunity for moral lessons in our region for anyone who wants to learn from them. Seeking mediation and rapprochement are not easy matters.  They may face  severe difficulties and opposition. However, after considering the  ramifications as well as  the benefits stemming from  mediation and rapprochement, the latter may outweigh the former.

Saudi Arabia, including the Arab coalition countries, announced an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, although the Houthi militia has repeatedly rejected past  initiatives and evaded their commitments.   Saudi Arabia is aware of the importance of peace and preserving the Yemeni people and their future,  as well as the need to end the deteriorating conditions and the  failure of Yemeni institutions. As a result, it has offered the Houthis a golden opportunity via its courageous initiative to end the crisis in Yemen. This initiative can be a   basis for action to build the Yemeni state and end foreign interference which has been nothing but destructive and to ensure Yemen is no longer an Iranian bargaining chip in its never-ending conflicts.

Yemen needs a brave person to offer the olive branch, which will be a historical event as it will lead to preserving the Yemeni state and preventing it from total collapse. Saudi Arabia will have the honor of preserving Yemen’s Arabism and protecting it from Iran’s destructive policies. Saudi Arabia has  been   a strong bastion for its neighbors and on the right side of  the events that have unfolded in the region.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Director of the Military and Security Studies Unit at Rasanah