- By Jeremy KonyndykJeremy Konyndyk is senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and previously served in the Obama administration as Director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
Countless Yemeni lives hang in the balance as President Donald Trump gears up to greatly deepen U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia. On his visit to the kingdom on Saturday, the first stop on his first international trip, he will no doubt hear a lot from his Gulf counterparts about the Yemen conflict, and the threats posed by Iranian and al Qaeda influence there. But he is likely to hear far less about a different but equally serious threat to the country: famine. Reckless Saudi military policy has pushed Yemen to the brink of humanitarian collapse, and the kingdom is asking for more U.S. military support. If the U.S. doubles down on the Saudi approach, it will likely consign several million people to starvation.
The Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen began intensive bombings just over two years ago, after a hostile alliance of Houthi militants and allies of Yemen’s former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, managed to overthrow and expel the internationally recognized elected government. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as a direct security threat — the group regularly attacks the kingdom’s southern border — but also sees them, critically, as a proxy for Iran. Given burgeoning antipathy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Riyadh is pursuing the forcible restoration of the elected Yemeni government as an important bulwark against Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. This will no doubt resonate with Trump’s desire to reinforce a regional balance of power against Iran.
However, it is not going well for the Saudis. Two years in, their coalition and the opposition alliance have largely fought each other to a stalemate. Intense Saudi airstrikes are pounding the country into dust, but to little strategic effect. Multiple rounds of U.N.-brokered negotiations have collapsed, as neither side has proved ready to acknowledge that it cannot achieve its goals on the battlefield. U.S. diplomatic engagement has focused, rightly, on fostering conditions for a political resolution, rather than fueling further escalation of an unwinnable war. Shifting U.S. policy toward military escalation — as the Trump administration is reportedly considering — would have dire humanitarian consequences.
As the conflict drags on with no end in sight, the only clear winners have been hunger and death. Yemen was one of the most food-insecure and water-scarce countries in the world well before this latest conflict. Adding a brutal war to the mix is pushing the country into catastrophe. Both sides bear responsibility here. The behavior of the Saudi coalition gets a lot more press: It has bombed humanitarian warehouses, medical clinics, schools, bridges along key humanitarian aid routes, commercial food and water facilities, water infrastructure, and several of the ports used for humanitarian imports. And despite U.S. pressure, the Saudis have shown little concern for the civilian impact of their operations, even to the point of famously bombing a widely attended funeral in Sanaa, killing more than 100 people. But the Houthis deserve their share of blame as well, for frequently obstructing humanitarian agencies’ activities, operating poorly controlled militia roadblocks to harass and delay humanitarian movements, and maintaining a brutal, inhumane siege on the city of Taiz.
The results for Yemen’s people are all too predictable. Amidst a crowded field of global crises, Yemen takes the prize for the largest food security crisis in the world, with 14 million people food insecure (roughly half the population) and as many as two million in pre-famine conditions. Recent U.N. surveys have found that half the country’s population is borrowing money to cover basic food needs — an untenable situation when food prices are rising and economic livelihoods are collapsing. Malnutrition has reached critical levels and has spiked by a third in just the past year. The World Health Organization has warned that the war has left Yemen’s health system close to collapse, with only 45 percent of facilities fully functional and drug availability declining by 70 percent. And degraded water systems have left humanitarians struggling to contain a resurgent cholera outbreak that is spreading beyond control.
This is a classic pre-famine pattern. Widespread inability to afford sufficient food erodes a population’s health and increases vulnerability to disease. Malnutrition programs and degraded health services prove unable to keep up. And disease outbreaks begin killing off a weakened population, starting with the elderly and very young. The kindling for a major famine in Yemen is squarely in place, awaiting only a spark.
Trump’s visit to Riyadh may provide the spark. With the conflict at a stalemate and neither side in a mood to bargain, the Saudi coalition is seeking a wildcard to change the military equation. It wants to retake the Houthi-held port city of Hudaydah, and it want U.S. support. The Houthis reportedly derive important revenues from the operation of the port, and the Saudis also fear it serves as a hub for illicit Iranian military shipments. They argue retaking it could be a double game-changer — both starving the Houthis of revenue and impeding Iranian support.
The president and his team should not take the bait. Further military and economic pressure would be unlikely to alter the basic political equation for the Houthis, even if the United States were to substantially ramp up military support. But it would inevitably extract a brutal toll on the civilian population.
The Saudis have tried in numerous ways since 2015 to ramp up pressure on the Houthis and bring them to a more conciliatory bargaining position. None have delivered. Each time they have sought U.S. support, and each time the United States has wisely urged restraint rather than escalation. The coalition attacked and retook Aden in 2015, making arguments that closely echo the current rationale for attacking Hudaydah. The city’s capture made little strategic difference in the conflict. But it did destabilize security in Aden and place a military frontline between the city’s port and the rest of the country, effectively blocking the flow of commercial and humanitarian goods. Other coalition actions — the offensive in Marib in 2015, the persistent interference with basic commercial imports (which moderated after President Barack Obama personally urged the Saudi king to lift it), the disastrous move of the Yemeni central bank from Houthi-controlled Sanaa to coalition-held Aden — have been justified on similar grounds. So far there is little evidence that these moves have changed the Houthi’s fundamental military or economic calculus — but they have done substantial damage to the humanitarian and economic situation.
An offensive on Hudaydah would fit this pattern, but with dramatically higher costs. U.S. support for the operation would not likely change the overall military balance, but would almost certainly tip the country squarely into famine — a famine that would then have U.S. fingerprints on it. Yemen is reliant on imports for 90 percent of its staple foods, and nearly three-quarters of those imports flow through Hudaydah. This lifeline is the only thing currently holding Yemen back from a full-fledged famine. An offensive on the town would fully sever these supplies in the immediate term and create, as in Aden, an impassable front line between the port and the country’s vulnerable population. A catastrophic famine would soon follow.
This conflict will be resolved not on the battlefield but at the negotiating table — and U.S. policy should aim to amplify pressure on the parties to cut a deal (rather than making huge weapons sales to one side). The United States has until now served as an important, albeit imperfect, restraint on coalition military actions that could tip the country into famine. Abandoning this policy would consign millions of Yemenis to likely starvation, all to support a Saudi military push that will not bring the country appreciably closer to peace. Trump and his advisors should tell the Saudis that they do not want a famine on their conscience — and neither should Riyadh.
Photo credit: A malnourished child in Hudaydah, Yemen receives treatment on May 2, 2017. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images