by William D. Hartung
The war in Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. The Saudi/UAE intervention that began in March of 2015 has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths through indiscriminate air strikes, put millions at risk of famine, and spurred the largest cholera outbreak in current memory. It’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse, but it could, and soon.
Unless UN envoy Martin Griffiths can persuade the combatants to come up with a non-military solution, Yemeni militias, supported and directed by the UAE in the lead, are poised to resume their attack on the port of Hodeidah and surrounding civilian areas, which handles the bulk of the humanitarian aid destined for victims of the war. The uninterrupted operation of Hodeidah is essential to a country that depends on imports for roughly 80% of its basic necessities.
The port is currently held by Houthi forces that have been fighting the coalition and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi that the Saudis and the UAE have been supporting since the beginning of the war. Humanitarian aid groups and UN officials have asserted that any attempt to take the port is bound to disrupt vital imports. UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande has said that “in a prolonged worst case, we fear that as many as 250,000 people may lose everything—even their lives.”
Trump v. Congress
After initially restraining the UAE/Saudi coalition because of the negative consequences of an attack on Hodeidah, the Trump administration has taken off the pressure even as the UAE went ahead without U.S. backing. The Trump administration has more recently maintained what the Wall Street Journal has described as “tepid support” for Saudi and UAE efforts to take Hodeidah. The Trump administration’s stance on an attack on Hodeidah should be vigorous opposition, not “tepid support.” Without strong, persistent pressure from the Trump administration and Congress, the attack on the port is likely to go forward.
Prior to the recent pause in the fighting, designed to let UN envoy Martin Griffiths see if he can come up with a non-military solution acceptable to both sides, the UAE and the Yemeni militias it arms, funds, and directs had already begun their assault on Hodeidah. Over 120,000 people have been displaced in the fighting, which began on June 12 and has included the use of U.S-supplied Apache attack helicopters to strike at Houthi forces in civilian sections of the port city.
Press accounts have indicated that the UAE-led offensive, which began on June 12, has stalled in the face of hit-and-run tactics by the Houthis that have included mortar fire, as well as the use of land mines, which are banned by an international treaty. The stalemate has contributed to the UAE’s willingness to pause its operations, but it was also heavily influenced by congressional actions like a recent letter by the House Democratic leadership, led by Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Ted Deutch (D-FL). The letter urged the Saudi/UAE-led coalition to refrain from attacking Hodeidah.
This follows on a letter by a bipartisan group of senators led by Todd Young (R-IN), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), and SFRC ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (D-NJ). In a letter last month, the senators urged the Trump administration to head off an attack on Hodeidah by supporting UN efforts to end the Yemen war. A parallel letter urging Secretary of Defense James Mattis to advocate against an assault on Hodeidah was sent by 34 members of the House of Representatives led by Mark Pocan (D-WI), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Ro Khanna (D-CA). NGO officials and diplomats with knowledge of the thinking of the UAE government have indicated that it is especially sensitive to this kind of pressure and particularly concerned to avoid being labeled the villains in the horrific situation in Yemen. This suggests that additional, persistent pressure from Congress could make a real difference in holding off a disastrous attack on Hodeidah.
The UAE’s False Rationales
In the meantime, the UAE has launched a charm offensive, arguing that it can engage in a phased operation to take the port that will minimize civilian casualties. It has also showcased a plan for a “humanitarian surge” that it would launch in the wake of an attack on Hodeidah. The notion that an attack can be carried out without harming large numbers of civilians is laughable, disproven by the large-scale displacement caused by the UAE’s initial efforts to eject the Houthi from Hodeidah.
Perhaps most importantly, the Saudi/UAE coalition’s rationales for attacking Hodeidah don’t hold up to scrutiny. There is no evidence for their first argument: that Iran is getting significant amounts of weaponry—if any—to the Houthi through Hodeidah. And the idea that more force is needed to bring the Houthi to the negotiating table denies the underlying problem—that the most effective way forward in the short term doesn’t require the Houthi to give up the territory they control, along with their heavy weapons, before negotiations over the future of Yemen can begin in earnest. As UN envoy Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council in April, an attack on Hodeidah “would, in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”
As Griffiths continues his efforts at shuttle diplomacy between the parties to the war in an effort to hold off a humanitarian disaster in Hodeidah and jumpstart a larger peace process, he would benefit greatly from U.S. pressure on the Saudis and the UAE. And if the Trump administration can’t be persuaded to do the job, it’s up to Congress to weigh in. The letter from the House Democratic leadership and the Corker-Menendez-Young letters are a good start, but the pressure needs to continue and intensify, and soon. Time is of the essence, and the alternative—a full-scale military operation in Hodeidah—is too terrible to contemplate, much less allow to go forward.
In the meantime, the best thing the United States can do to bring its Saudi and UAE allies to the negotiating table is to stop uncritically supporting their war effort by supplying weapons and refueling services. As long as the Saudis and the UAE believe that they can gain influence with U.S. military support, or even win the war, their incentive to negotiate in good faith will be much reduced.
A sign of hope on this front is the recent move by Sen. Robert Menendez (R-NJ), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to put a hold on a pending proposal to sell more bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE based on concerns over the human rights and humanitarian impacts of their Yemen intervention. Congress should be ready to block this new deal if it comes up for a vote to send a signal to its Gulf allies that the United States will no longer support their military efforts, and that it is time to negotiate in good faith.