by Eric Eikenberry
Over the last several days, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have independently reported that the Trump administration is softening on a potential United Arab Emirates-led assault on Hudaydah, Yemen’s largest port and a major logistics hub for the international response to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. International humanitarian NGOs, UN agencies, and even the US government have repeatedly stated that an attack on Hudaydah could seriously deepen the crisis, precipitating a long-warned-of famine, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, and leading to unconscionable human casualties from direct fighting in and around the city.
To justify the U.S. volte face, anonymous officials are internally promoting a distressingly cavalier line of reasoning:
“We have folks who are frustrated and ready to say: ‘Let’s do this. We’ve been flirting with this for a long time. Something needs to change the dynamic, and if we help the Emiratis do it better, this could be good,’” the senior U.S. official said.
The logic of “this could be good” has been informed, in part, by the steady pressure of its allies in the Saudi-led coalition supplemented by arguments from their supporters in DC. These arguments sing the expected paeans to UAE military capacity and downplay the immediate costs of any attack. More importantly, they promote a magical strategic thinking, in which a successful recapturing of the port, no matter how bloody or drawn out, will lead directly to Houthi rebel capitulation, a negotiated peace, and a significant easing of the humanitarian crisis.
The steps between “attack Hudaydah” and “peace,” however, are less than clear. Moreover, this magical thinking fails to grapple not only with the offensive’s extraordinary immediate risks but its long-term strategic pitfalls as well.
Softening the Houthis
Speaking to Defense One in late May, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash stated that the Houthi rebels are “softening” and that “the military pressure is designed to change the calculus and bring a political solution. We aren’t looking for a total military victory.” Similarly, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Arabia Foundation have released analyses to buttress this point, arguing that Hudaydah’s loss could cripple the rebels—already weakened by the December 2017 killing of former president and ally-of-convenience Ali Abdullah Saleh—and force their leaders to the table.
The loss of Hudaydah would certainly tighten belts since it’s the largest of a series of customs collection points that have garnered the Houthis as much as $30 million per month. But it’s not at all clear that the Houthis couldn’t survive from other revenue sources. As Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead, reported following a recent trip to Aden, 80 percent of cargo offloaded at the coalition-controlled southern port makes its way to Houthi-controlled Sana’a, as the capital has the country’s greatest concentration of purchasing power. As long as the Houthis control Yemen’s economic center of gravity and can tax commercial flows into the city, they may be able to retrench and continue indirectly benefiting from commerce at Hudaydah port, should it survive an assault. Additionally, the Houthis have managed to scrape through last year’s month-long blockade of the port and the severely depressed commercial traffic after its lifting, suggesting that port revenues aren’t absolutely essential to their survival.
Murkier still is the extent to which Hudaydah’s loss will represent a territorial or psychological defeat sharp enough to foment internal dissent and force them to negotiate on the coalition’s terms. The Houthi core is still a mountain-based insurgency, and the loss of the coastal plain still leaves them in control of much of Yemen’s highlands. Rebel leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi implied as much in a recent address, stating that the “Yemeni people” still control those areas representing the country’s “strategic and historic depth” against outside forces, which suggests that Houthi leaders are ready to continue the war, regardless of what happens on the west coast. Although Houthis have built a repressive security state to maintain power throughout much of northwest Yemen, banking on internal dissent at a politically opportune time is more the stuff of hope than sober assessment.
Given Houthi control of Sana’a and their military advantage in the mountains, Houthi entrenchment in the highlands, which the coalition still has yet to significantly crack, is likely to continue. Furthermore, the execution of this assault at a time when the Houthis have dipped a toe into the peace process by maintaining open lines of communication with new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths could permanently sour the insular group on any further international negotiations. In that case, a cure-all Hudaydah offensive in 2018 could easily become a cure-all Sana’a offensive in 2019 or 2020, with famine and rising casualty counts filling headlines in the intervening months.
Ameliorating the Humanitarian Crisis
The Washington Institute’s analysis argues that any humanitarian shortfall stemming from the assault will be offset by the benefits of coalition port management. According to this analysis, Houthi corruption and bellicosity, and not the coalition’s late 2017 blockade and ongoing holds and secondary inspections of commercial vessels, are primarily responsible for the port’s current underperformance. Although the Houthis are hardly desirable port authorities, this argument assumes both that the coalition can manage Hudaydah port well and that there will be much left to manage after an attack. Both assumptions are questionable.
If past is prologue, then Hudaydah is in for lackluster coalition management. Aden port, even two-and-a-half years after its liberation from Houthi forces, is hamstrung by needless access barriers. The coalition continues to subject shippers to an onerous clearance regime, rerouting vessels all the way to Jeddah for inspections. Importers contend with arbitrary delays, and containers full of commercial goods languish in the port’s holding area for weeks. The coalition is also slow to deliver promised upgrades to the port. The coalition is likely to replicate these restrictions at Hudaydah, knowing full well that most imported goods will be subject to Houthi customs collections on their way to Sana’a. Substituting Houthi rent-seeking with coalition mismanagement may prove to be a wash.
That even assumes the coalition will have much of a port to manage after an assault. Attacks by either party could render it inoperable for weeks, if not months. Even if the port stays untouched throughout an offensive, there’s no guarantee that goods entering the port will find markets elsewhere in the country. There are a limited number of routes connecting the port to Hudaydah city and the city to the country’s interior. The UAE could take the port cleanly, but ongoing fighting could destroy or block the few roads linking its vital shipments of food and fuel to fragile Yemeni markets inland.
Ultimately, an attack on Hudaydah is not a strategically savvy push for peace, but another bid to win the conflict decisively—against an opponent that has the pretense of a government but the survival outlook of a radical, long-term insurgency. The Houthis, outnumbered but committed to defending their hold on the city, are in a position to lose the battle on their terms by contributing to a bloodbath, exhausting their enemies, and withdrawing to fight again. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths surely had this dynamic in mind when describing an attack on Hudaydah as a move that would take peace off the table “in a single stroke.”
If the United States is committed to facilitating a political settlement to the conflict, which remains official US policy, then the administration will intervene forcefully to halt any attack on or siege of the city before Griffiths has a chance to introduce his negotiating framework this month and organize talks over the summer. This intervention should include conditions on security assistance, including the withdrawal of a proposed multi-billion dollar munitions sale to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, US strategy will prove as one-dimensional as the Wall Street Journal makes it out to be, a recurrent acceptance of the coalition’s rashest decisions and magical thinking.
Eric Eikenberry is director of policy & advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project, Follow him on Twitter @YemenPeaceNews.