The Trump administration is guilty of many acts of deliberate cruelty, such as taking away the children of immigrant parents at the US border. But just as the world was watching the lead up to the Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting in Singapore last Monday, the US may have done something even worse by quietly announcing a decision that threatens to kill millions by starvation or disease.
The potential death sentence came in a short press statement by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, effectively giving a green light for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to launch an offensive in Yemen aimed at capturing Hodeidah on the Red Sea. The port city is the point of entry for 70 per cent of food and medical supplies for the eight million Yemenis whom the UN says are on the brink of starvation out of the 22 million in need of humanitarian aid.
The eagerness of US officials to avoid accusations of complicity in the Hodeidah attack is a sign that they suspect the outcome may be calamitous. Pompeo was deliberately low-key in his three sentence statement about Hodeidah: “I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.”
Absent from this message for the first time was any call for Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to attack Hodeidah, a city with a population of 600,000 who are already hearing explosions in the distance. The US and UAE have been working hard on a smokescreen of misinformation about who is responsible for what is happening and why they are launching the offensive now.
The 25,000 Yemeni fighters advancing on Hodeidah are not an independent force but are paid for and under the control of the UAE. “We take our orders from the Emiratis, of course,” a Yemeni field commander in the front line told Iona Craig of The Interceptearlier this month as he called in airstrikes. This air support is provided by the Saudis and the UAE with the US providing essential services such as mid-air refuelling and target intelligence. The US is denying that it has a direct role in the assault on Hodeidh, but it would not be happening without its assent.
The UAE has made it clear privately to US officials that it would not attack Hodeidah without the permission and support of the Trump administration. The White House has decided to escalate the Saudi and UAE-led campaign against the Houthis, whom it denounces as Iranian proxies, though without providing much evidence of this. A justification by the UAE for attacking Hodeidah is that it is used by the Houthis to import Iranian-made missiles and other weapons. “Should we leave the Houthis smuggling missiles?” asked a UAE ambassador. But a UN panel of experts concluded earlier in the year that no weapons were coming through the port from Iran because ships are randomly inspected and must be authorised by the UN.
A crude attempt by the UAE to pretend that it is not acting in concert with the US is to announce publicly that its request to the US for satellite imagery, reconnaissance and mine-sweeping had been turned down. Given that countries do not normally put such rejections up in lights, this is clearly another attempt to play down the US role.
Why is the US doing this? Trump is closer to Saudi Arabia and UAE than any another US president and they have put a vast effort into cultivating him. The White House sees Yemen as one front in a broader campaign to put pressure on Iran. But the most important motive for escalation by Saudi Arabia, UAE and their foreign backers such as the US, Britain and France is that their war has not been going well for them.
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began the Saudi air war against the Houthis in March 2015 it was over-confidently named “Operation Decisive Storm”. It turned out to be anything but decisive and is still going on three years later. The Houthis, a Shia minority sect, control the capital Sanaa along with almost all of highly populated north Yemen and remain capable of firing the occasional missile into Saudi Arabia.
The US is encouraging the UAE and its allies to take Hodeidah to break the deadlock, by tightening encirclement of the Houthis. But this is a long way from taking Sanaa and forcing the Houthis to surrender.
What the Hodeidah operation may do is turn a humanitarian disaster, which the UN is already calling the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, into complete catastrophe. Three quarters of the 27 million Yemenis already require aid to survive and this may be cut off in the next few days as the fighting moves into Hodeidah and closes the port.
The Saudis and the UAE are trying to defuse international concerns, particularly in the US Congress, about an impending famine by saying that they are ready and waiting to send in supplies once they have taken Hodeidah. That sounds good, but last year Saudi Arabia even banned chlorine tablets being sent to Yemen though it was suffering from a cholera epidemic in which, according to the World Health Organisation, 500,000 people have been infected and 2,000 children have died. The epidemic started because the Saudi-led coalition had bombed the main electric power station and not enough fuel was getting through to keep the sewage and water purification plants working.
Even if Hodeidah falls, the Saudi and Emirati-backed Yemeni forces will be unable to fight their way into the rugged highlands of Yemen where the terrain favours the defender.
Pretensions of humanitarian concern from Yemen by the US, Britain and France reek of hypocrisy, shedding copious tears for the victims of war while supplying the arms and advisers with which that war is being waged. The largely ineffective Houthi missiles fired at Riyadh are furiously denounced, but scarcely a squeak is heard about the relentless bombing of Sanaa and every other population centre in the country. The US and Britain opposed a demand by Sweden at the UN Security Council on Thursday that Saudi Arabia and UAE declare an immediate ceasefire. Some cynics suspect that the Saudi-UAE offensive is timed to sink peace efforts by the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths whereby the Houthis would withdraw from Hodeidah and the UN would take over the port city.
Calling for a political settlement, as Britain has done, sounds better than calling for more war, but the outcome will be much the same so long as Saudi Arabia and UAE try to gain through diplomacy what they have failed to win on the battlefield over the last three years. If the Houthis do not withdraw, then the Saudi-led coalition is likely to rely on bombing to batter their way in. The city will end up looking like Raqqa, West Mosul or East Aleppo where ground troops act as a mopping up force after airstrikes have obliterated everything in front of them. It is only when the US, Britain and France begin to exact a political price from Saudi Arabia and UAE for continuing their disastrous foreign venture in Yemen that the end of the war will be in sight.