Arab warplanes and warships are pounding Houthi positions in Yemen’s Al Hudaydah as the Saudi-led alliance tries to seize the country’s main port. This in the largest battle of a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross have withdrawn their staff members from the besieged Yemeni port city. As many as 250,000 people could be butchered in the coming days.


What is the latest escalation?

Thousands of Yemenis have been scrambling from their villages as fighting closes in on the strategic port city of Hodeida (locally called Al Hudaydah) on the Red Sea, inflaming a humanitarian crisis already considered the most severe in the world.

  • An attack launched by the Saudi-led coalition on Hodeida could unleash a terrible new and even more profound catastrophe. Hodeida was captured by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels four years ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with other countries, formed a coalition to bring the government back to power.
  • The port is the entry point for 70% of the country’s imports. If it is crippled by fighting then Yemen could be pushed further towards widespread famine. The immediate concern is for the 600,000 people who live in the area. The United Nations says the consequences of this assault could be disastrous for 250,000 of them, who will either be displaced or worse.
  • There is little cause for optimism, despite assurances from Riyadh that the fighting will be swift and decisive. Nothing has been straightforward so far in this brutally destructive war, which has raged largely in the shadows of the world’s media since it erupted in 2014.
  • It was not clear what advances, if any, the ground troops backed by the coalition had made in Al Hudaydah, or what the scope of casualties were. The United States rejected a request from the Emirati government this week to provide intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft and Navy minesweepers because of growing congressional opposition to the offensive.
  • The Emiratis turned to France, which agreed to provide the minesweepers to clear explosives that Houthi fighters had been placing in Al Hudaydah harbor, effectively thwarting for now an amphibious assault of the port. It was unclear how long it would take for French minesweepers to arrive and to clear a watery path safe enough for Emirati ships loaded with troops to carry out their part of the multipronged operation.
  • The Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia, arrived in the southern city of Aden on June 14, his first return to Yemen since 2015, according to the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. Hadi fled the country that year after the Houthis tried to oust him from power, in part because he had neither a natural constituency in the deeply divided country nor loyalist fighters to protect him.
  • A Houthi-run court sentenced Hadi to death in 2017 on the charge of treason for his alliance with the Saudis and their military invasion of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition said this week that they began their assault on Al Hudaydah on behalf of Hadi’s government.

Emirati officials have said the goal of the military offensive is to press the Houthi fighters into submission by denying them a port that by one Emirati estimate yields the rebels between $30 million to $40 million a month in port fees and other revenues. The goal, they said, was to force the Houthis to accept a political solution.

But that’s what they always say and never pursue.


Why is the worst feared?

International observers are struggling to respond to the bloodshed — which threatens to exacerbate a desperate situation already deemed the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The United Nations at the moment, though having withdrawn its staff from the port city, is racing to avoid an imminent offensive on the city considered a lifeline for the country’s war-ravaged population.

  • The United Nations had sought to head off the attack by the Saudi-led coalition, which receives logistical and intelligence support from the United States. But the coalition forces, and in particular the United Arab Emirates, were determined to press forward with the offensive. As it seemed increasingly imminent, the United Nations and other aid agencies pulled staff from Hodeida.
  • The UN Security Council (UNSC) is conducting an urgent meeting over the expected assault on Yemen’s Hodeidah. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there are “intense negotiations”and his Yemen envoy is involved in shuttle diplomacy to prevent the attack.
  • Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, is shuttling between the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to find “a way to avoid the military confrontation in Hodeidah,” Guterres said at a briefing on June 11.
  • The UNSC convened an emergency session on June 14 to discuss the violence, which flushed some of the organization’s staff from the city earlier this week. Though not all: Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator told media persons that dozens of workers are still “on the ground” delivering supplies. “Twenty-two million people in Yemen depend on humanitarian assistance. If we can’t provide what they need, they’re going to be in terrible trouble,” Grande said.  We have to keep that port open, we have to make sure that people get the supplies that they need.”
  • In the meantime, Reuters reports that civilians have begun to flee the city in waves as the bombardment creeps closer to the city proper, which still remained largely untouched by shelling or airstrikes till June 14. The Yemeni military and its Arab allies have first focused on clearing landmines for their approach from the city’s south.

Last month, forces backed by the UAE moved quickly up from the south, along the coastal road, stopping just a few miles from the outskirts of the city. Sensing an advantage, they have now pushed into Hodeida under an umbrella of coalition air and naval strikes. They hope that the advance will break the stalemate that has locked the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Saudi-backed government forces on the battlefield for months.

If this route is blocked, “the result will be more hunger, more people without health care and more families burying their loved ones,” said Muhsin Siddiquey, the Yemen director for the British charity Oxfam.


When can this war be over?

Yemen was already the Middle East’s poorest country, and the civil war has further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. About three-quarters of Yemen’s 30 million people are now in need of assistance, and nearly a third of those are on the brink of famine, according to U.N. data. The war has killed more than 10,000 civilians. Thousands more have died of disease. More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes.

And yet, we don’t know of a way to end the war.

  • The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni Arab nations, see the Al Hudaydah offensive as a way to break a stalemate in the war and deal a blow to the indigenous Houthis and their backers in Shiite-led Iran, which the Sunnis consider their chief rival for regional influence. But they have been hoping for quick results since four years now.
  • The war began in 2014, when Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana, and much of the rest of the country. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, with President Barack Obama’s backing, launched airstrikes against the Houthi forces.
  • The Saudi coalition leaders have repeatedly miscalculated over the years, trapping their countries in a quagmire. The result has been countless civilian deaths, many attributed to indiscriminate coalition bombing attacks. Under international law, these attacks may qualify as war crimes in which the United States and Britain, another arms supplier, are complicit.

Here are some key events:

  • September 2014: The Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, seize Sanaa.
  • February 2015: The Houthis appoint a presidential council, known as the Supreme Political Council, to replace President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who flees to the southern city of Aden.
  • Mar. 23, 2015: The battle for Aden begins. The rebels and their allies seize control of Aden International Airport and Hadi flees to Saudi Arabia.
  • Mar. 26, 2015: A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, begins an air campaign against the Houthis and imposes a naval blockade.
  • April 2015: The U.N. Security Council imposes an arms embargo on the Houthis and demands they pull back from territory they have captured.
  • May 5, 2015: Houthi rebels fire mortar rounds and rockets at the Saudi city of Najran, near the border, killing at least three civilians, in one of the first of a series of cross-border attacks.
  • May 2015: More than 100,000 people flee the northern province of Saada, the heartland of the Houthis, after the coalition declares the entire province a military target.
  • June 2015: A U.S. airstrike kills al-Qaida’s number 2, the head of its Yemeni branch, Nasir al-Wahishi.
  • September 2015: Hadi returns to Aden after Saudi-backed government forces retake the port city.
  • April 2016: U.N.-sponsored talks between the government and the rebels begin.
  • May-June 2016: The Islamic State (ISIS) group claims responsibility for a number of attacks, including a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 army recruits in Aden.
  • August 2016: The coalition closes Sanaa airport to commercial flights.
  • October 2016: An airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hits a crowded funeral in Sanaa, killing at least 140 mourners.
  • January 2017: A U.S. raid kills several suspected Al-Qaeda operatives and civilians in America’s first military action in Yemen under President Donald Trump.
  • May 2017: The Houthis say they fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
  • June-November 2017: Cholera outbreak in Yemen kills 2,100 and infects almost 900,000.
  • November 2017: The coalition imposes a complete blockade on Yemen in response to a missile fired by the Houthis at the Riyadh airport. On Nov. 22, the coalition announces a partial lifting of the blockade.
  • December 2017: Houthis kill former president Saleh after days of street fighting in Sanaa. Days earlier, Saleh had reached out to the Saudi-led coalition, indicating he might switch sides.
  • April-May 2018: Fighting escalates along the western coast.
  • June 7, 2018: The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has pulled 71 staff members out of Yemen after a series of incidents and threats.
  • June 10, 2018: Saudi Arabia says three civilians in the kingdom’s south have been killed by incoming fire from Yemen’s rebels.
  • June 12, 2018: Hadi visits the United Arab Emirates, meeting with Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for the first time. The UAE and Hadi are both members of the coalition, but have had tense relations for months.

June 13, 2018: The coalition launches an offensive on the port city of Hodeida.

Where is the other threat to Yemeni life coming from?

A new outbreak of cholera can be expected in Yemen as a result of the rainy season that began in mid-April, a new study suggests.

  • According to the study, which was published in The Lancet Global Health last month, if the predictions are correct, millions of people in the war-torn country will be infected with cholera in an epidemic wave expected to be larger in scale than the previous two.
  • An international team of researchers is behind the findings, with contributions from UNICEF, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the United States, the Pasteur Institute in France, Yemen’s Central Public Health Laboratory, the World Health Organization, the medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-Doctors without Borders), and the Yemeni health authorities.
  • The study identified the first wave of the epidemic as a limited outbreak that occurred between 28 September 2016 and 23 April 2017. After the rainy season, a second wave emerged between 24 April and 2 July 2017, which brought a wider outbreak and a rise in the number of infections and deaths. This was followed by a fall in cases between 3 July and March 12 of this year.
  • More than half of the country’s 30 million people now face a risk of cholera infection in a possible third wave. The disease causes severe watery diarrhoea which, in within hours, can develop into dehydration and hypovolemic shock. About half the patients who catch the disease can lose their lives without appropriate dehydration treatment.
  • Lorenzo Pizzoli, WHO cholera expert and co-author of the study, told that the UN agency plans to implement preventive measures. These include ensuring access to safe water, environmental sanitation and health services, and helping treatment centres prepare for any coming epidemic.

The cumulative figures for the number of suspected cases, beginning with the first outbreak and until this month, as confirmed by the UNICEF office, indicate that “1.1 million cases of acute watery diarrhoea were recorded”, including over 2,200 deaths. Almost 30 per cent of the cases were among children under five years of age.


Who must do much more?

The United States, for four years now, is simply standing by. That’s what the Obama administration did, and that’s about all the Trump administration has done as America’s allies on the Arabian Peninsula intensify Yemen’s misery.

  • Over the course of this conflict, President Donald Trump has emboldened Saudi and emirati leaders. He shares their antipathy for Iran and will sell them virtually any weapon they want. The military contractor Raytheon is lobbying Congress and the State Department for permission to sell the Saudis and emiratis billions more dollars’ worth of precision-guided munitions.
  • The Trump administration, which also supplies the coalition with intelligence, refuelling capabilitiesand other assistance, has sent mixed signals about the Al Hudaydah offensive. While the Pentagon urged the coalition not to attack, a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 11 made no such explicit request. Instead, he made clear to the emirate leaders “our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and lifesaving commercial imports.” He mildly called for all sides to work with the United Nations on a political solution.

The US, it appears, doesn’t want more Yemeni blood on its hands, but it has a problem.

  • “The United States does not command, accompany, or participate in counter-Houthi operations or any hostilities other than those authorized against AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIS,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told CBS News. “U.S. military support to our partners is always geared towards mitigating noncombatant casualties,” he said. “Our support to the (Saudi) Coalition consists of aerial refueling to Coalition aircraft and intelligence support to assist our partners in securing their borders from cross-border attacks from the Houthis.”
  • While the U.S. is not playing a direct combat role in the Hodeida offensive, it comes about a year and a half after President Trump signed a multi-billion-dollar arms and economic deal with the Saudis in a move intended to strengthen the U.S.-Saudi Arabian alliance. If the deal is carried out in full and certain conditions are met, it could be worth almost $350 billion. In 2016, Saudi Arabia imported $3 billion worth of U.S. arms, more than any other country.

It needs to do business with the Saudis. But that business comes with a cost.

The Trump administration should speak with one voice to its Arab allies, making clear that an attack on Al Hudaydah is a disaster. Arms sales and perhaps other military assistance should be suspended. Working with the Houthis and the United Nations on a cease-fire and a deal for neutral control of the port could be the first step to a political settlement that is the only hope for peace.

Just how irresponsible is America’s weapon sales approach?

In the past two years, Congress has tried (and failed) twice to halt American arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to that country’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war.

  • This level of concern is historically unusual. Arms sales rarely spur much debate in Washington, where they are viewed as a critical tool of American foreign policy. The traditional refrain holds that arms sales promise leverage over recipient countries, help the United States support allies and manage regional balances of power, and generate economic benefits to boot. With some exceptions, few have challenged the wisdom of American arms sales practices.
  • In a recent study for the Cato Institute, however, it is argued that the government’s approach to arms sales is misguided. The United States accepts as given the potential benefits of selling weapons while underestimating or simply ignoring the potential risks. The result has been too many arms sales to too many countries where the risks are likely to outweigh the benefits.
  • Between 2002 and 2016, America delivered $197 billion worth of major conventional weapons, equipment, and training through its Foreign Military Sales program to 167 states worldwide. It is difficult to imagine what sort of process would rate so many of the world’s roughly 200 countries as safe bets to receive American weapons. The study says that 32 of the 167 recipients had ‘risk index’ scores higher than the average score of the 16 nations currently banned from purchasing American weapons.
  • For the United States to make more responsible use of arms sales, the approval process needs to change. And the logic is the same for arms transfers (where the United States provides weapons to states or groups at no cost). There are often compelling reasons to consider providing weapons even (and sometimes especially) to risky clients, but the United States should account more carefully for both the benefits and the costs.
  • The easiest place to start is cases of sales and transfers to nations engaged in conflict, fragile states, or states with poor human rights records, as well as in cases that do not directly enhance American national security. In these cases, the approval process should be more transparent, the bar for approval should be higher, and the government should do more to monitor weapons after they are sold to better understand unintended consequences that may blunt the benefits of arms sales and undermine U.S. security.

Note: On paper, the United States appears to have a robust procedure in place to assess arms sales. Since 1976, the Arms Export Control Act has required that the executive branch conduct a risk assessment for large government-to-government sales of major conventional weapons. Once a foreign government decides it would like to buy an American system, it submits a letter of request. The request kicks off an extensive process that runs through a variety of offices at the Departments of Defense and State, as well as other agencies. Once approved, the matter is turned over to Congress, which serves as an emergency brake for this process. Absent sufficient congressional opposition in the form of a veto-proof resolution of disapproval, the sale is made.