Yemen on Brink of Catastrophe as U.N. Envoy Pushes for Truce

U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could be enabling the disaster.

Pro-government forces gather south of the Hodeida airport in Yemen on June 15. (AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-government forces gather south of the Hodeida airport in Yemen on June 15. (AFP/Getty Images)

A top U.N. diplomat is trying to broker a truce between warring factions in Yemen as aid groups and country experts warn of a brewing humanitarian catastrophe.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, is visiting in the capital of Sanaa to mediate between government forces and Houthi rebels, whose three-year war is seen as a proxy for a broader conflict between a U.S.-allied Arab coalition on one side and Iran on the other.

The United Arab Emirates, which backs Yemen’s government alongside Saudi Arabia, has sent forces to the Houthi-held city of Hodeida, whose port supplies the country with 70 percent of its humanitarian and commercial goods.

Aid groups fear that a battle there could make the port inaccessible to the rest of the country, where some 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation and millions more rely on humanitarian aid.

“We now are experiencing, at this stage of the conflict, this really profound threat of humanitarian catastrophe,” said Stephen Rapp, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, in an interview with Foreign Policy during a conference on Yemen organized by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

“We’re at a tipping point, where if this offensive really does go forward, it suddenly becomes a whole lot worse,” Rapp said.

Griffiths, who has mediated in multiple conflicts around the world, has met separately in recent weeks with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthis’ top negotiator, Mohammed Abdul-Salam. He has said that he hopes to bring both sides to the negotiating table for an agreement to stop the fighting.

“He has the best chance of any envoy we’ve seen so far. … He certainly has more trust from the parties than any previous envoys,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst on the Arabian Peninsula with the International Crisis Group.

The Emirati-led forces stopped short of pushing into Hodeida or the port to give Griffiths a chance to do his work. But analysts believe he has only a short amount of time to get a deal before they advance further on the Houthi-held city, fortified by trenches, sniper outposts, and mines.

Senior Emirati diplomats say the Hodeida offensive helped pressure the Houthis into meeting with Griffiths in the first place and gave him leverage to open discussions for peace talks as the war drags into its third year.

After three years of political, military stalemate, we think [the Hodeida operation] is exactly what will tip the scales in order to reach a political settlement that will ultimately end the war,” said one senior Emirati diplomat in a recent briefing to reporters. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The Emiratis also insist that keeping the humanitarian supply flowing is a top priority and say they have pre-positioned tens of thousands of tons of aid in a “humanitarian surge” in case the port is damaged or destroyed in battle or access to it is cut off.

But aid groups worry that any new front lines with the Houthis will cut across the humanitarian supply lines. A majority of the country’s population lives in Houthi-controlled territory.

“Unless there is a plan to make sure all of those supplies go across the front lines and aren’t impeded in any way by either of the parties, it will all be useless,” said Scott Paul, an expert on the Yemen conflict with the international charity organization Oxfam.

He said cargo ships and supply trucks could get caught in the crossfire, further disrupting the flow of aid to civilians.

“What’s scary about the offensive is there are lots of different ways it could get to a worst-case scenario, and none of them are preventable,” Paul said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is facing growing pressure to curb its military support for the coalition in Yemen amid rising civilian casualties and new allegations of secret Emirati-run prisons in which detainees are raped and sexually tortured. (The United Arab Emirates denies it operates any secret prisons.)

The Defense and State departments called the prisoner abuse allegations “disturbing.”

“The United States take all allegations of abuse seriously, although we have no substantiating information at this time,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

A State Department spokeswoman called the UAE a “strong partner” and said the department has regular discussions with the Emirati government on “many issues, including this.”

The Trump administration sees the war as a way to counter the growing regional influence of Iran, which has provided weapons and missiles to the Houthis. The United States has provided the Arab coalition with logistical support, air-to-air refueling, and intelligence information.

Since the Saudi-led operation in Yemen began in earnest in early 2015 during former President Barack Obama’s administration, U.S. tankers have completed 2,868 refuelings around the Horn of Africa, including in the Yemen conflict, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

Defense Secretary James Mattis stressed in a recent press conference that the United States is constantly assessing the intelligence provided to the Saudis and that his focus is on helping the coalition reduce civilian casualties.

Aid groups estimate that thousands of civilians have died in the fighting.

Following a December 2017 U.N. report claiming that the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes had killed more than 100 civilians during one 10-day period, Mattis told reporters: “I’m never OK with any civilian casualty.”

“We’re showing them how to use intelligence so that you very precisely try to miss killing civilians,” he said.

But while the Trump administration’s support continues, Congress’s patience is wearing thin.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees weapons sales, threatened to block a nearly $2 billion deal with Saudi Arabia and the UAE of more than 120,000 precision-guided munitions kits that could be used in Yemen.

The orders are reportedly part of a $110 billion defense deal announced during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year.

“I am concerned that our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Menendez wrote in a June 28 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mattis.

A State Department official confirmed receipt of the letter but indicated that no change in policy was forthcoming.

“Our goal in Yemen remains consistent: to work with our international partners to bring peace, prosperity, and security to Yemen,” the official said. “An enduring solution will only come through a comprehensive political agreement, which will require compromise from all sides.”

Menendez is digging in as Congress prepares to debate on a provision in the Senate version of the 2019 defense policy bill that seeks to end U.S. involvement in the war altogether. It’s not clear whether this language will make it into law, particularly after the Senate in March narrowly defeated a similar bipartisan resolution drafted by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy.

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

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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