Nicholas Niarchos comments on the recent assassination of a top Houthi leader by a Saudi coalition airstrike:
On Twitter, members of the Saudi royal family celebrated Sammad’s killing and touted it as a success for the country’s crown prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, who recently toured Washington and Los Angeles to curry support from the Trump Administration. But the effect of the strike might be to push the Houthis further from the negotiating table. Sammad’s replacement, Mahdi al-Mashat, a politician in his thirties, has demanded all-out war with Saudi Arabia. Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst at Chatham House, said that the strike would reduce the interest of the group’s over-all leader, Abdelmalik al-Houthi, in peace talks [bold mine-DL]. “What it does do is take someone who thought dealmaking was a way of ending the war and replace him with someone more bellicose,” Salisbury told me. “You get into a position where all the voices that Abdulmalik hears are all the hard-liners, the people who are benefitting the most from the war.”
Making their enemy more intransigent and hard-line wouldn’t make sense if the Saudis genuinely wished to bring the war on Yemen to an end soon, but they evidently have no intention of ending the war. The Saudis have just ensured that the war will drag on and intensify, and they can add this assassination to the long list of their terrible decisions regarding Yemen. Decapitation strikes frequently don’t have the effect that their proponents think they will have. Ellen Laipson explains how it can produce the opposite result:
That thinking, however, doesn’t always work. It can strengthen the resolve of the fighters to continue their struggle, conveying to their followers that the government still does not accept them as equals, and that peace talks are stacked against the legitimate rights and interests of the rebels. Or it can cause such disarray and chaos among the rebels that a new leadership vacuum is created, making a peace strategy all but impossible.
The Saudi coalition hasn’t achieved any of its stated goals in Yemen over the last three years, and 2018 doesn’t seem any more promising for them. A negotiated compromise that allows the coalition to halt its war and cut their losses is the best option for them, but their leaders are too arrogant or blinkered to see it. The Saudis and their allies don’t know what they’re doing in Yemen, they never have, and the U.S. has been absolutely wrong to support them in their war. For the sake of the people of Yemen, it is imperative that the U.S. ends its support for the war and press the coalition governments to recognize that they can’t win.