Three 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.
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 warned 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.”
The 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.
“The 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.
Saudi 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.
“Then, 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.
“The 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.
But 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.
“Rather 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.
Pompeo’s 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 Hodeidah.
“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 assistance.”
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 based.”
However, 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.
According 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.
Several 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.
Tueller 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.
Meanwhile, Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, has called on the coalition 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 Yemen.”
Kizer put it more bluntly: “Believing that this offensive will bring the Houthis to the negotiating table is living in a fantasyland.”
Last 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.
According 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 Intercept.
Something 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.
According to CNN, the U.S. has rejected coalition appeals for direct military and intelligence support. However, on Friday, the U.S. voiced opposition 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 Journal 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.'”