How to Halt Yemen’s Slide into Famine

European Union Naval Force via Flickr

by International Crisis Group

The stop-start battle for control of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, currently the most active theater in the country’s multifaceted civil war, has reached the outskirts of the city of Hodeida. Unless the fighting is brought to a sustained halt, it could soon enter the port and city, which Houthi rebels have held since 2015. Such expanded fighting would block the country’s primary gateway for importation of goods, including humanitarian aid, and thus tip a desperate population into what UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has called “a great big famine.” International stakeholders thus face a stark yet simple choice: prevent a destructive battle for Hodeida or assume complicity, through inaction, in mass starvation. They should not only choose the former but also move quickly to end the siege of Hodeida so that the present emergency does not recur.

A belated U.S. call at the close of October for a resumption of Yemen peace talks prompted a “pause” in the Saudi-led coalition’s advance on Hodeida. But every similar past such announcement was soon followed by a new military push, and coalition forces converging on Hodeida appear impatient to proceed with the final onslaught, persuaded that it would mark a turning point in the war. Yet they underestimate the Houthis’ resilience and ignore the humanitarian consequences. The UN Security Council should urgently pass the resolution now under consideration calling, inter alia, for a cessation of hostilities in and around Hodeida, an end to Houthi attacks against Yemen’s neighbors and coalition attacks on populated areas, and provisions for the unhindered flow of essential goods. It should add a demand for a nationwide ceasefire and the establishment of a UN-led arrangement for Hodeida port.

More is needed. The Security Council’s five permanent members – the U.S., UK and France, and to a lesser extent China and Russia – all supply arms to the Saudi-led coalition, from high-tech bombs and missiles to lowly AK-47 rifles and ammunition that play a critical role in fighting on the ground. The U.S., UK and France are Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s largest vendors of advanced offensive weapons systems. U.S., British and French military advisers and contractors play a crucial role in sustaining the coalition’s military forces and by extension the Yemen war. They should end military support to the coalition’s offensive operations, including intelligence sharing and the transfer of relevant weapons and materiel, as it is the coalition’s advance that is increasing the likelihood of a final Hodeida battle and humanitarian disaster. The recent U.S. announcement that it will stop in-air refueling of coalition aircraft is welcome, but only as a first step.

President Donald Trump has made clear that he plans to stand by the Saudis and Emiratis, and prevent any further punitive action against Riyadh. So Congress may need to act in his stead.

The Houthis, too, would have to be bound by a UN-decreed ceasefire. In Hodeida, they have a clear choice between agreeing to a negotiated exit from the port and joining a battle that would prove devastating to millions of people in territories currently under their control. They have little contact with the outside world and trust virtually no one; few have any leverage over them, with the possible exception of Iran and Oman. Iran has played a damaging role, assisting the Houthis in order to bleed Saudi Arabia; while Tehran has told European countries it is prepared to cooperate in ending the war, evidence is sparse and its incentive to do so at a time of heightening tensions with Washington and Riyadh is low. Muscat has avoided expending significant political capital on pressuring the rebels since the collapse of a U.S.-sponsored plan in late 2016. The time has come, however, for both Iran and Oman to use their influence to persuade the Houthis to accept the UN proposal to hand over Hodeida port to international stewardship, to abide by a cessation of hostilities and to participate in peace talks.

UN Envoy Martin Griffiths faces the sternest test of his young tenure. If his mediation efforts succeed in preventing a destructive battle for Hodeida, he could build momentum toward reviving a peace process that has been stalled for the past two years. But if he fails, peace in Yemen will look increasingly remote and the prospects for its embattled population increasingly dire.

This executive summary is republished, with permission, from a new report by the International Crisis Group.

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