U.S.-Backed Catastrophe Brewing in Yemen

A Gulf-led coalition is preparing to assault a key Yemeni port, risking a fresh humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Army artillery fire shells toward Yemen from southwestern Saudi Arabia on April 13, 2015. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Army artillery fire shells toward Yemen from southwestern Saudi Arabia on April 13, 2015. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

With all eyes turned toward the summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen prepared to dramatically ramp up the conflict there with an assault on the key port of Hodeida, the country’s main lifeline for food, fuel, and medicine.

Aid groups working in Yemen were notified over the weekend that the long-planned offensive was imminent, and were urged to evacuate staff within days. The United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has been engaged in frantic shuttle diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in a bid to head off a military confrontation.

“We are, at the present moment, in intense consultations,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters before the meeting. “I hope that it will be possible to avoid a battle for Hodeida.”

The U.N. Security Council met Monday in a closed session to listen to briefings by Griffiths and the U.N. chief relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock. During the meeting, the United Kingdom backed a Russian proposal to issue an informal statement calling  “all warring parties for restraint,” according to a Security Council diplomat. But the initiative was blocked by Kuwait, the council’s lone Arab government and a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

The debate in the council unfolded as a senior Foreign Office official, Alistair Burt, told the House of Commons that his government had urged the United Arab Emirates, which is expected to spearhead the military operation. “We will continue to discourage any attack on Hodeidah port and will continue to use our influence to do so.”

Hodeida, the gateway for about 70 percent of all the food and fuel that reaches war-torn Yemen, has become a key bone of contention in the three-year old war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Customs duties from the port provide the Iranian-backed Houthi forces with revenue, and Saudis and Emiratis contend that Houthis have acquired Iranian arms through the port.

The United States had repeatedly warned the Saudi-led coalition, which it provides with logistics and intelligence support, not to assault Hodeida. But in recent days, it appears to have changed its tune.

In a heated Senate hearing in April, the State Department’s top acting Middle East envoy, David Satterfield, said the administration warned the UAE and Saudi Arabia not to launch an offensive on the port and risk aggravating the already fraught humanitarian situation.

“We would not view such an action consistent with our own policy upon which our support is based,” Satterfield said.

The administration reiterated those warnings against an attack on the port as recently as last week.

But the admonitions apparently fell on deaf ears, with Emirati and local Yemeni allies just miles away from the key port by Monday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in Singapore helping Trump prepare for his summit, seemed resigned to military action going forward, issuing what the International Crisis Group called a “yellow light” allowing the coalition forces to proceed with the controversial operation.

Pompeo said in a statement Monday that he spoke to Emirati leaders and “made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.” He further called for all parties to work with the U.N. on a political resolution to the three-year conflict — a goal that could be put in jeopardy by the imminent offensive.

The Trump administration’s reaction dismayed former U.S. officials and aid groups who fear vulnerable civilians throughout Yemen will pay the price with bloody urban fighting and disrupted humanitarian supplies.

“The only thing that’s going to make a difference is a clear warning not to attack, with clear consequences,” said Scott Paul, a Yemen expert at Oxfam America, the aid group. In contrast, the lukewarm U.S. pushback, he said, makes the United States responsible for what happens.

Pompeo’s statement was “very tepid,” said Stephen Seche, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. “For these types of statements, what you don’t say is as important as what you do say. [Pompeo] made no mention of any red flags or dangers of an assault on Hodeida,” he said. “By not mentioning that, it suggests there is a lessening of U.S. opposition to an offensive.”

The State Department declined to comment further on concerns about exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

The mild U.S. response highlights the tricky situation the Trump administration faces in Yemen and the wider region. The United States is carrying out military strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and sees the country as a key battleground for Iran’s growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula. It has also provided support for the Saudis and Emiratis to fight against Iran-backed rebels, while nudging the coalition toward a political resolution to the crisis.

And the Trump administration needs to keep Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on board for its broader policy of pushing back against Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, especially now that it has scuppered the Iran nuclear deal and is putting more economic pressure on Tehran. That adds up to leeway for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen.

“We are increasingly of a mind to let the Saudis and Emiratis prosecute their war in Yemen without us getting in their hair about how they do it,”said Seche, the former ambassador.

While U.S. defense officials have been vocal in cautioning coalition forces against the offensive, they’ve been loath to use what leverage they do have — threatening to stop fueling Saudi jets or providing intelligence, for example — because then Washington might have even less ability to shape how the Saudis and Emiratis fight the war, said Melissa Dalton, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That’s one reason a Senate resolution to end U.S. support for the coalition failed this spring; the Pentagon argued that curtailing U.S. involvement could lead to even greater civilian casualties and hurt joint efforts at fighting terrorism.

But any attack on Hodeida could redouble congressional frustration with U.S. support for the war, Dalton said. Sen. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.), a co-sponsor of that failed resolution this spring, sharply criticized U.S. support for a coalition air attack Monday on a Doctors Without Borders cholera treatment facility, warning “The Yemen War is spiraling out of control.”

Seche, the former U.S. ambassador, also suggested an assault on the port would be much more difficult than the Emiratis seem to think, portending a slog rather than a quick victory that could speed up the war’s conclusion.

“Houthis have had a lot of time to establish themselves in this city,” he said. “The Houthis are very good at one thing, and that’s fighting.” Houthi officials this spring told the International Crisis Group that they would make a defiant bloody stand in the city.

Any attack would almost certainly aggravate what is already a humanitarian disaster, with the U.N. warning that a quarter of a million civilians in the city of 600,000 could be at risk. Humanitarian aid agencies are frantically weighing whether to leave or stick it out after being warned by the U.K. that an attack is imminent.

“We are trying to hang on monitor the situation,” said Joel Charny, the director of Norwegian Refugee Council USA.  “This has the potential of threatening our staff and directly disrupting our program in Hodeida.”

The U.N. and aid groups are “reconfiguring their presence” in Hodeida, said Lowcock, the U.N. relief coordinator, and that the U.N. hoped “to stay and deliver.” But by Monday morning, all international U.N. staff had evacuated Hodeida, leaving a team of Yemeni nationals to support a dramatically scaled back relief effort. The International Committee of the Red Cross had already evacuated more than 70 staffers from Yemen even before the latest warnings, citing a troubling increase in threats against its personnel, including the killing two months ago of an ICRC staffer.

Lowcock warned that a shutdown of the port would be “catastrophic,” given Yemen’s near-total reliance on imports of food and medicine. Some 8 million people are already on the brink of famine, and the country is wracked by one of the world’s worst cholera outbreaks.

“Hodeida is absolutely central to the preserving of life,” Lowcock said, “and if, for any period, Hodeida were not to operate effectively the consequences in humanitarian terms would be catastrophic.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that the United Kingdom proposed the adoption of an informal U.N. Security Council statement calling on the coalition to “refrain from attacking the city and port of Hodeida.” The British in fact supported the adoption of an informal statement calling for restraint by all warring parties.

FP’s Humza Jilani contributed to this report.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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