Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it. This article was originally published in Middle East Eye.
The protagonists of the war on Yemen – the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have been beset by problems ever since they launched the operation in March 2015. But these problems seem to have reached breaking point in recent months.
First and foremost, is the total lack of military progress in the war. Originally conceived as a kind of blitzkrieg – or “decisive storm” as the initial bombing campaign was named – that would put a rapid end to the Houthi-led Ansarallah movement’s rebellion, almost three years later it has done nothing of the sort. The only significant territory recaptured has been the port city of Aden, and this was only by reliance on a secessionist movement largely hostile to ‘President’ Hadi, whose rule the war is supposedly being fought to restore. All attempts to recapture the capital Sana’a, meanwhile, have been exposed as futile pipe dreams.
Secondly, the belligerents have been increasingly at war with themselves. In February of this year, a fierce battle broke out between the Emiratis and Saudi-backed forces for control of Aden’s airport. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the struggle “prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz,” adding that “the risk of such confrontations remains…Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard.” Notes intelligence analysts the Jamestown Foundation, “The fight over Aden’s airport is being played out against a much larger and far more complex fight for Aden and southern Yemen. The fighting between rival factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly shows that Yemen’s already complicated civil war is being made more so by what is essentially a war within a war: the fight between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their proxies.” This tension flared up again in October, with Emirati troops arresting 10 members of the Saudi-aligned Islah movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni faction.
And finally, the war is undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Aid agencies are usually doggedly silent on the political causes of the disasters they are supposed to ameliorate. Yet on the issue of the blockade – and especially since it was made total on November 6th this year – they have been uncharacteristically vocal, placing the blame for the country’s famine – in which more than a quarter of the population are now starving – squarely on the blockade and its supporters. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, put it starkly: “150,000 will die before the end of the year because of the impact of this blockade” he told ABC news last month. Save the Children had already stated back in March 2017 that “food and aid are being used as a weapon of war”, and called for an end to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whilst in November 2017, Oxfam’s Shane Stevenson said: “All those with influence over the Saudi-led coalition are complicit in Yemen’s suffering unless they do all they can to push them to lift the blockade.” Paolo Cernuschi, of the International Rescue Committee, added that: “We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm. What is happening now is a complete disgrace.” The governments of Donald Trump and Theresa May were being painted – by the most establishment-aligned of charities – as essentially mass murderers, accomplices to what Alex de Waal has called “the worst famine crime of this decade”. Even the Financial Times carried a headline that Britain “risks complicity in the use of starvation as a weapon of war”. “Is complicit” would be more accurate than “risks complicity”, but nevertheless: still a pretty damning indictment.
To confront these problems, a new strategy has clearly emerged. It appears to have been inaugurated by Theresa May and Boris Johnson on November 29th. On that date, whilst the British Prime Minister met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, the Foreign Secretary was hosting a London meeting of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US under-secretary of state, representing all four of the belligerent powers in Yemen.
The first element of this strategy was for Britain and the US to pacify the NGO fraternity by distancing themselves from the blockade, as if it were somehow separate from the war in which they were so deeply involved. This actually came about in the days preceding those meetings, when Theresa May told the press she would “demand” the “immediate” lifting of the blockade during her forthcoming visit to the king. That was disingenuous; after all, had she really wanted the blockade ended, she could have achieved this immediately simply by threatening to cut military support for the Saudis until they ended it. According to War Child UK, arms sales to Saudi Arabia have now topped £6billion, and Britain runs a major training programme for the Saudi military, with 166 personnel deployed within the Saudi military structure. Former US presidential advisor Bruce Riedel is entirely correct when he states that “the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support. If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia] ‘this war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow.”
In fact, the meeting seems to have been more about reassuring the Saudis that her words were but rhetoric for domestic consumption, and not meant to be taken seriously. In the event, far from an “immediate” end, the UK government website reported that May and Salman merely “agreed that steps needed to be taken” and that “they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved”. Just to make it absolutely clear that the UK’s support for the war was not in question in any way, the very next line of the statement was “They agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure”. A deeply complicit press ensured that the actual contents of this meeting was barely reported; the last word on the matter, as far as they were concerned, was May’s pledge to “demand” an end to the blockade. Donald Trump followed suit last week, likewise calling on the Saudis to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people” whilst doing nothing to bring this about. Thus have the UK and US governments attempted to manipulate the media narrative such that the blockade they continue to facilitate no longer reflects badly on them.
The next aspect of the strategy became obvious before the Johnson and May meetings had even finished, as fighting broke out between the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh the same day. Saleh had made an alliance with his erstwhile enemies the Houthis in 2015 in a presumed attempt to seize back power from his former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to whom he was forced to abdicate power in 2012. But he had never been fully trusted by the Houthis, and their suspicions were to be fully confirmed when on Saturday 2nd December he formally turned on them and offered himself up to the Saudis. Saleh had always been close to the Saudis whilst in power, positioning himself largely as a conduit for their influence; now he was returning to his traditional role. The swiftness and intensity of the Saudi airstrikes supporting his forces against the Houthis following his announcement suggests some degree of foreknowledge and collaboration had preceded it, as does the Saudi’s reported house arrest of their previous favourite Hadi the previous month. This restoration of the Saleh-Saudi alliance represents a victory for the UAE, who had been pushing the Saudis to rebuild its bridges with him for some time. Analyst Neil Partrick, for example, had written just weeks before the move that “The Emiratis are advising the Saudis to go back to the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, believing his growing disputes with the Houthis, his tactical allies, can be encouraged to become a permanent breach.” Thus was the problem of the military stalemate supposed to be solved by splitting the Houthis alliance with Saleh, paving the way for a dramatic rebalancing of forces in favour of the belligerents. The execution of Saleh two days later has only partially scuppered this plan, with many of his forces either openly siding with the invaders or putting up no resistance to them.
At the same time as the Saudis have finally been brought round to the UAE’s preference for a reconciliation with Saleh’s forces, the UAE have now, it seems, accepted an alliance with the Saudi-backed Islah party. Despite the Saudi’s usual antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood, it has backed their Yemeni offshoot in this war, a move hitherto firmly opposed by the Emirates. Yet, following earlier meetings between Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Islah leader Abdullah al-Yidoumi, the two men met last Wednesday (13th December) with Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Maged Al Da’arri, editor of Yemen’s Hadramout newspaper, explained to The National that “the Gulf leaders are trying to combine the different sides in Yemen to work collaboratively in order to be able to liberate the provinces that are still held by the Houthis.”
It seems likely that Emirati support for Islah was a quid-pro-quo for Saudi support for Saleh, both moves suggesting perhaps that the two powers’ divisions were to some extent being overcome. But this rapprochement was formalised with the formal announcement of a new military alliance between them on December 5th, the day after Saleh’s death.
Thus, within a week of the London and Riyadh meetings, the coalition’s three seemingly intractable problems – the paralysing divisions between UAE and Saudi Arabia, the military stalemate, and the West’s legitimacy crisis over the blockade – had all apparently been turned around. This readjustment was and is intended to pave the way for a decisive new page in the war: an all-out attack on Hodeidah, as a prelude to the recapture of Sanaa itself.
This new strategy is now well under way. On December 6th – four days after Saleh switched sides, and one day after the new UAE-Saudi alliance was announced – the invaders’ Yemeni assets mounted “a major push…to purge Al Houthis from major coastal posts on the Red Sea including the strategic city of Hodeida.” The Emiratis had been advocating an attack on Hodeidah for at least a year, but, according to the Emirati newspaper The National, President Obama had vetoed it in 2016, whilst in March 2017, the Saudis got cold feet due to fears that the plan was “an indication of [the Emirates’] attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen”. Now, it seems, it is finally under way.
The following day, the red sea town of Khokha, in Hodeidah province, was captured by Emirati forces and their Yemeni assets, backed by Saudi airstrikes. Gulf News reported that “Colonel Abdu Basit Al Baher, the deputy spokesperson of the Military Council in Taiz, told Gulf News that the liberation of Khokha would enable government forces and the Saudi-led coalition to circle Hodeida from land and sea”. The day after that, Houthi positions in Al Boqaa, between Khokha and Hodeidah, were taken by Emirati-backed forces.
The following Sunday, 10th December, Boris Johnson met with the Emirati crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, where he “underlined the depth of strategic relations between the two countries and his country’s keenness on enhancing bilateral cooperation”, before attending another “Quartet committee” meeting with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts and the US acting secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The four of them “agreed to hold their meetings periodically, with the next meeting scheduled for the first quarter of 2018.”
This intensive activity in the space of just two weeks, bookended by high-level meetings of the ‘quartet’ on either side, is clearly coordinated. But what it heralds is truly horrifying. Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.
When an attack on Hodeidah was being contemplated back in March 2017, aid agencies and security analysts alike were crystal clear about its impact. A press release from Oxfam read: “Reacting to concern that Hodeidah port in Yemen is about to be attacked by the Saudi-led coalition, international aid agency Oxfam warns that this is likely to be the final straw that pushes the country into near certain famine…Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Chief Executive said: “If this attack goes ahead, a country that is already on the brink of famine will be starved further as yet another food route is destroyed…An estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food comes into Hodeidah port. If it is attacked, this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies – the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine.” The point was reiterated by the UN’s World Food Programme, whilst the UN International Organisation for Migration warned that 400,000 people would be displaced were Hodeidah to be attacked.
“The potential humanitarian impact of a battle at Hodeidah feels unthinkable,” Suze Vanmeegen, protection and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN recently. “We are already using words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘horrendous’ to describe the crisis in Yemen, but any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I’m not using hyperbole.”
In the Independent, Peter Salisbury noted that “it is by no means certain that taking Hodeidah will be easy” as the (then) “Houthi-Saleh alliance is well aware of the plan” and preparing accordingly. He added that “While the Saudi-led coalition claims that taking the port would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the medium term, aid agencies fret that the short-term effect of cutting off access to a major port could be a killing blow to some of Yemen’s starving millions.” The Jamestown foundation were even more wary, writing that the city’s capture would be impossible without major US involvement and that “Even with U.S. assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military.” Yet the US’s current efforts to argue that Houthis are being supplied with Iranian missiles via Hodeidah may well be aimed at legitimising just such direct US involvement in an attack on the port. After all, continues Jamestown, “the Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port — where supplies trickle through — the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission.”
This, then – the ramping up of the ‘weapon of starvation’ – is the ultimate end of this new phase in the war. Basic humanity demands it be vigorously opposed.