by Peter Salisbury
Over the last two weeks, the latest attempt to set Yemen on the path to peace has collapsed, triggering what could become the bloodiest battle of a war approaching its fourth anniversary. In a September 14 letter to the UN Security Council, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it planned to renew its campaign to wrest Hodeida, a port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, from the control of the rebel Houthi movement. This came a week after precursory peace talks were meant to start in Geneva. The Houthis have pledged to battle UAE-backed forces to the last man.
Although not unexpected, the swift collapse of peace efforts is deeply disappointing. In June, UAE-backed Yemeni forces agreed to pause their campaign to take Hodeida, first to allow for negotiations over a Houthi withdrawal and then for UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to lead consultations between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The pause came after mounting pressure from both the U.S. Congress – which threatened to cut off U.S. arms supplies to the Saudi-led coalition – and the Trump administration, which was able to use the threat of Congressional action as leverage with its partners in the Gulf. But an avoidable tragedy now looks inevitable absent swift and forceful intervention by UN Security Council member states, the U.S. in particular.
On 8 September, Houthi representatives who were meant to travel to Geneva for consultations, or “pre-talk talks”, told Griffiths’ team that they would not be coming. At the last minute, they demanded to be transported out of the capital Sanaa using an Omani aircraft rather than a UN one and to take wounded fighters out with them. Saudi Arabia, which controls Yemeni airspace and stops any non-UN flights into Sanaa airport, balked. The UN sought a compromise – saying it would certify the passenger manifest of an Omani flight – but the Houthis in turn declined to allow any inspection. With the coalition and the Houthis exchanging mutual recriminations, Griffiths had to postpone the consultations and the fight for Hodeida resumed.
The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Houthis into Hodeida and squeeze.
The UAE was clearly ready for this to happen. As the prospect for talks dimmed, Emirati-backed forces – who had used the pause in fighting to develop a better position on the ground after a series of military missteps along the Red Sea coast earlier in the year – launched an assault to seize control of the eastbound road out of Hodeida linking it with Sanaa and other population centers in the central highlands. On September 12, they announced that they had taken control of the road, although the Houthis have since declared they have retaken it. Meanwhile, the UAE told the UN Security Council in writing that it believes the only way to get the Houthis to negotiate seriously is for its local allies to continue with the Hodeida campaign. The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Houthis into Hodeida and squeeze. But doing so will deprive millions of people upcountry, many of them on the brink of starvation, of access to food and basic goods coming through the port.
The Saudis and Emiratis have spent recent weeks shoring up another important flank in Washington, DC. On September 12, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his sign-off on a certification, a condition of the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, for continuing to supply U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The certification stated that Gulf states were acting to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, making a good-faith effort to support UN-led negotiations and working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The certification came only weeks after two incidents in which Saudi bombings killed scores of civilians, suggesting that the Saudi air force had yet to take such actions.
An Immense Human Cost
As Crisis Group has warned in the past, a battle for Hodeida will come at an immense cost: urban combat – if it reaches that point – is brutal and bloody, and Hodeida’s civilian population of 600,000 will be caught in the crossfire. Neither the Houthis nor the Saudi-led coalition has demonstrated a real interest in protecting ordinary people during past fighting. A UN Group of Eminent Experts report on Yemen released in August found that coalition airstrikes have caused most direct civilian casualties in Yemen and that the coalition’s restrictions on naval and air access to Yemen constitute violations of international humanitarian law. The report also calls out the Houthis for their use of wide-area-effect weapons in urban warfare (weapons that by nature are indiscriminate), their ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and their restrictions on humanitarian access around the city of Taiz in particular.
As fighting progresses, Hodeida’s population will become even more susceptible to rapidly spreading preventable diseases like cholera. The UN estimates hundreds of thousands of people could die as a result. And it is hard to see how fighting will not prevent basic goods from entering Hodeida port and being transported across the country. For the approximately 18 million people who live in Yemen’s Houthi-controled areas, Hodeida accounts for around 70 per cent of all food imports to Yemen and is a vital humanitarian and trade lifeline. Any disruption of the supply chain from fighting in or around the port, or on the roads connecting the city with the rest of the country, could be deadly. Yemen has been described as being on the brink of collapse for more than a decade, but the loss of Hodeida as an import route would likely prove a tipping point for what the UN describes as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
Everyone is to blame for the coming fallout. The UN should have known that the same logistical issues that arose every time it held talks in the past would come up again, and should have concluded the details well in advance: the Houthis should have been consulted on flights and brought to Geneva earlier to prevent last-minute gamesmanship. The Houthis, who like to play victim and argue that they are willing to engage in a peace process if the terms are fair, sent a clear message that they are not serious. In doing so, they confirmed the suspicions of the coalition, which had argued it needed to take Hodeida to force concessions from the Houthis, and considers criticism of its intransigence unfair. (By contrast, representatives of the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi showed up in Geneva, with the coalition’s backing). The U.S., by certifying that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting the requirements laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act without any caveats, has sent the wrong message at exactly the wrong moment, namely that the coalition can continue to act with impunity as it advances on Hodeida.
A battle for Hodeida would be catastrophic. Crisis Group’s position remains that the best solution is a mediated settlement for the port of the kind under consideration in June. Then, the Houthis offered to hand over the port, remove reinforcements from the city and cooperate with the UN on the city’s internal security. But the coalition increased its demands from a port handover to a complete Houthi withdrawal from the Red Sea coast. Absent a deal, the Houthis should demonstrate that they are capable of acting in good faith and hand the port over to neutral Yemeni technocrats and the UN. This would significantly diminish the UAE’s rationale for attacking the port and city and could allow Griffiths to restart consultations.
Allowing Aid Through
If they cannot reach a compromise, the Houthis and the coalition should recommit to allowing basic goods to pass through Hodeida into Yemen’s most populated areas even if fighting breaks out in the city. In June, international aid officials repeatedly raised the issue of the Sanaa-Hodeida road with Congress, the U.S. government and the coalition. They received repeated assurances from the coalition that it would keep the road open, according to a senior aid official. Less than three months later, the road has become the main front line in fighting between UAE-backed forces and the Houthis as the coalition attempts to encircle the city.
The Security Council reiterated in a May 2018 resolution that man-made humanitarian and hunger crises can be considered war crimes. The Security Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, should make clear that the UN Panel of Experts and Group of Eminent Experts under their respective auspices, which have been equally critical of the Houthis and coalition, will closely monitor the battle for Hodeida. At the same time, Griffiths and Security Council members should work closely with UN humanitarian agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in particular – the coalition and the Houthis on an agreement to treat the port and the northbound road out of Hodeida, currently free of fighting, as neutral spaces and to place these routes and the port under UN supervision. The Security Council should issue a presidential statement or resolution underwriting this agreement with clear penalties for any breaches up to and including sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which target any party acting in a manner detrimental to Yemen’s peace and security with financial and other sanctions.
The Houthis should be held to account for throwing the peace process into tumult. Censuring the group in public statements while keeping the door open to a peace process – and negotiations over Hodeida – will be a tough balance to strike. Griffiths, who visited Sanaa on 17 September to meet with the Houthi leadership, must rebuild a measure of trust between the group and the UN as well as their coalition rivals. Criticism from the U.S. and the coalition, who the Houthis see as their adversaries, is unlikely to alter the rebel leadership’s position. EU states that have friendlier relations with the group, as well as Oman, which is hosting Houthi representatives, should send strong messages that the Houthis only hurt their own case with their last-minute shenanigans and threaten to temporarily cease contact with the group’s already isolated leaders. So should Russia, which has put itself forward as a neutral facilitator.
The coalition also needs to be reined in. The U.S. is best suited to do this. Unfortunately, by certifying the National Defense Authorization Act as he did, Pompeo gave away the leverage Congress had handed him. The certification requirement proved too weak to restrain a Trump administration intent on giving the Saudis and Emiratis considerable slack. Congressman Ro Khanna has said that he is willing to lead an effort to force a vote on the U.S.’s involvement in intelligence-sharing and in-air refueling that is crucial to the coalition’s operations. Should the Democratic Party take control of the House after the November elections, it could make more stringent legislation a reality. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not careful, they could find their alliance with the U.S. – and their campaign in Yemen – constrained as a result of new Congressionally-imposed restrictions. And if the now likely offensive on Hodeida proceeds, the U.S. will shoulder the blame for its failure to use its considerable influence to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. That is a result that Washington can and should want to avoid.
Peter Salisbury is a consultant on Yemen for the International Crisis Group, where this commentary first appeared.