The U.S. is Exacerbating the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis by Outsourcing Its Yemen Policy

Emmons, The Intercept, June 16 2018

years of civil war in Yemen have created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,
with the United Nations estimating that 22 million people — three-quarters of
the country’s population — urgently need humanitarian aid.

photo: Yemeni men inspect the rubble of a destroyed house after it was hit by
Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on June 6, 2018.

But aid
groups have seen their worst fears realized this week, as U.S.-backed forces
organized by the United Arab Emirates launched an assault on the rebel-held
port of Hodeidah — the entry point for 70 to 80 percent of the food, medicine,
and aid supplies entering Yemen.

Oxfam has
that a prolonged battle or siege would “massively escalate this humanitarian
crisis while millions already are on the brink of famine,” and the U.N. has
said it would damage the prospects for long-term peace negotiations. Martin
Griffiths, the U.N. peace envoy for Yemen, warned the U.N. Security Council
that the assault “would, in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”
Intercept interviewed more than a dozen former White House and State Department
officials, humanitarian leaders, and Yemen experts, many of whom characterized
the offensive as a major failure by the U.S. to restrain its coalition
partners, who are largely dependent on American weapons, intelligence, and
logistical support. Those sources said the attack was a sign that the U.S. is
allowing allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to drive American policy
decisions in Yemen.
UAE’s assault on Hodeidah is just another example of the Trump administration
outsourcing U.S. policy in Yemen — and really the region writ large — to the
Gulf states,” said Kate Kizer, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based
advocacy group Win Without War.
Arabia and the UAE began bombing Yemen in March 2015, with the aim of restoring
the former Saudi-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power. Hadi was
deposed after a rebel group commonly known as the Houthis stormed the capital
in 2014; he eventually fled the country.
The Obama
administration wholeheartedly backed the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention
and blockade, and provided the coalition with intelligence
and tens of
billions of dollars
in weapons. Under Obama, the Pentagon also
helped refuel coalition aircraft, continuing even after they bombed civilian
targets like schools
and hospitals.
But even
as Obama administration officials watched a growing humanitarian crisis unfold
in Yemen, the White House firmly opposed a coalition attack on Hodeidah. The
coalition had long wanted to attack the crucial port; doing so would have
aligned with the Emiratis’ broader strategy of seizing ports along Yemen’s
southern and Red Sea coasts. In 2015, UAE-backed forces seized the southern
port city of Aden. In 2016, they retook the city of Mukalla from Yemen’s Al
Qaeda affiliate and later pushed up the Red Sea coast, retaking the port city
of Mokha last year.
In a
country as dependent on foreign goods as Yemen, ports are extremely lucrative
for whoever controls them. Experts have estimated
that the Houthis collect tens of millions of dollars a month in customs and
import fees on cargo coming in through Hodeidah.
When the
Saudis and Emiratis tried to get Obama administration support for an assault on
Hodeidah, their arguments were reminiscent of promises they had made in 2015
before launching an attack on Aden, said Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as
director of foreign disaster assistance under Obama.
too, they argued that taking the town would put political pressure on the
Houthis and enable the free flow of humanitarian aid through the port,”
Konyndyk said. “Three years later, none of those promises have panned out.”
Even if
the assault on Hodeidah is a military success, he said, it will be devastating
to Yemeni civilians.
“When you
place a frontline directly between a port and the population it serves, it
effectively cuts off that population,” Konyndyk said. In Aden, those
consequences were less extreme because most Yemenis weren’t entirely dependent
on it. “But if Hodeidah is cut off, there is no backup option. Food will run
out, fuel to support water systems and aid operations will run out, and people
will begin dying in large numbers.”
At one
point in 2016, when the White House learned that the UAE wanted to move forward
with an operation to seize Hodeidah, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security
adviser, personally called UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and told him
that the U.S. would not support the offensive, according to three former senior
U.S. officials. The UAE backed down.
But the
Trump administration has been less forceful in its opposition to the attack.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to various Emirati officials and cautioned
against damaging the port infrastructure and hampering the flow of aid through
Hodeidah, but did not pressure them to stop the offensive.
United States has been clear with Saudi, Emirati, and Yemeni officials at every
level that the destruction of critical infrastructure or disruption of the
delivery of vital humanitarian aid and commercial goods is unacceptable,” a
State Department spokesperson told The Intercept.
activists and aid groups say that there is no way to attack the city without
hampering access to aid, at least for a period of time. Coalition warplanes
have already bombed the main road from Hodeidah to the Houthi stronghold of
Sanaa in an attempt to keep reinforcements from reaching the port, according
to The Guardian.
than preventing the offensive, which the U.S. has done twice before, Pompeo
releases a weak statement giving the UAE the green light to potentially kill
hundreds of thousands of people with no political strategy or end goal,” said
Kizer of Win Without War.
forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, take position during an attack on
the port city of Hodeidah on June 13, 2018. Photo:
Najeeb Almahboobi/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock

statement represents a softening of the State Department’s public position
against any offensive that posed a danger to the port. Compare it with what
David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near
Eastern Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, as
Emirati-backed forces gathered ominously in Mokha, which is just south of

“I’ll be
quite explicit,” Satterfield said then. “We have told the Emirates and the
Saudis there is to be no action undertaken that could threaten the ports of
Hodeidah and Salif, or any routes to and from the port for delivery of
When Sen.
Todd Young, R-Ind., asked how the U.S. would respond if the Saudis or Emiratis
were to “bomb the port of Hodeidah,” Satterfield replied: “We would not view
such an action as consistent with our own policy, upon which our support is
just two days later, at a private, off-the-record roundtable at the Middle East
Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., several former Obama
administration officials began to worry that a very different message was being
conveyed to the Emiratis and Saudis.
At the
roundtable, Matthew Tueller, the current U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the State
Department’s primary diplomatic liaison with the coalition, was asked what he’d
heard about a coming offensive against Hodeidah and its potentially
catastrophic impact, according to two people in the room.
to those present, Tueller said that a direct attack would be a “roll of the
dice” that might meet with popular support and expel the Houthis from the city,
though whether the chances of success were “50-50” or “10-90,” Tueller couldn’t
say. He added that Hodeidah’s importance for aid delivery was overstated, and
suggested that an assault on the city would not have the catastrophic effect
aid groups claimed, according to the people who were there.
who attended the briefing said they were surprised by the contrast between
Tueller’s private comments and the State Department’s public statements. “It
was an early sign that even the State Department wasn’t taking its own policy
seriously,” said one person who was there but asked not to be named because
speaking about what was said would violate the terms of the meeting.
“We are
not going to comment on alleged statements made at an off-the-record event,” a
State Department spokesperson told The Intercept.
has a history of taking positions that are favorable to
the coalition
. According to two former Obama administration
officials and one current State Department official, Tueller believes that a
successful military offensive against the Houthis would improve the prospects
for peace talks because it would pressure them to negotiate a settlement.
Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, has called on the
to “exercise restraint and give peace a chance,” warning
that further escalation “will have an impact on my efforts to resume political
negotiations to reach an inclusive political settlement to the conflict in
Kizer put
it more bluntly: “Believing that this offensive will bring the Houthis to the
negotiating table is living in a fantasyland.”
month, as Emirati-backed forces moved north along Yemen’s Red Sea coast
toward Hodeidah, aid workers began to worry that the State Department was
tempering its warnings to avoid directly criticizing its coalition partners.
On May
25, the State Department held a closed-door roundtable discussion between
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, U.S. Agency for International
Development Administrator Mark Green, and D.C.-based representatives from
humanitarian organizations working in Yemen. The meeting was the fourth such
discussion in a series of roundtables since December 2017, and the conversation
quickly turned to the Hodeidah offensive.
to three people in attendance, Sullivan and Green listened keenly
to nongovernmental organizations’ warnings against attacking
Hodeidah. Humanitarian leaders argued that coalition-controlled ports like
Mokha and Aden couldn’t bring in enough aid to compensate for restricted access
at Hodeidah. But when the discussion turned to how the State Department would
respond to the offensive, “the response was equivocal,” one attendee told The
had changed. A month after Satterfield publicly testified that “there is to be
no action undertaken that could threaten the port,” State Department officials
wouldn’t repeat that position in private.
to CNN, the U.S. has rejected
coalition appeals
for direct military and intelligence support.
However, on Friday, the U.S. voiced
to a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on the
coalition to stop the assault.
The mixed
messages from the U.S. are seen by humanitarian groups as signaling cautious
approval for the operation. Earlier this week, one unnamed U.S. official
described the message to the Wall Street
as a “blinking yellow light” of caution.
“I knew
we were in trouble when an anonymous source described it that way,” the
director of a U.S.-based humanitarian organization told me. “In Washington,
blinking yellow lights mean, ‘Floor it and keep moving.’”