Three years into Yemen’s brutal civil war, the U.N. says the Arab world’s poorest country is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, and that famine is imminent — a famine that may be accelerated with the help of U.S. President Donald Trump.
For the past two years, the U.S. has provided a Saudi Arabia–led coalition with intelligence and logistical support for its relentless airstrikes against Yemen, which the U.N. says have been responsible for most of the war’s 4,800 civilian deaths. But the U.S. has stopped short of directly assisting in the ground war.
That may soon change if, as is widely expected, the U.S. decides to play a bigger role by backing the coalition’s invasion of the city of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port. Located on the country’s west coast, Hodeidah accounts for about 70 percent of Yemen’s inbound trade. Before the war, Yemen imported 95 percent of its wheat and all of its rice — both staples of the national diet — and most of it arrived via Hodeidah. Food imports have continued to dwindle since the war began, raising prices while incomes plummet, and leaving more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people unsure when their next meal will come.
Hodeidah is currently held by the Houthis, a rebel group whose September 2014 takeover of the nation’s capital, Sanaa, precipitated the fighting. Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, believes the Houthis are backed by Iran — the Saudis’ greatest regional rival.
Yemen’s civil war became an international issue in March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict by launching a massive aerial bombardment campaign that continues to this day. The coalition, however, has struggled to make gains, and unhappy with the terms of a peace deal put on the table last year, it launched a string of deadly airstrikes that killed hundreds of civilians, prompting allegations of war crimes from independent monitors.
Now Saudi coalition forces plan on seizing Hodeidah in an ambitious amphibious assault they say will cut off supplies to the Houthis while also facilitating a massive increase in aid to the country. Human rights groups and NGOs, however, worry that the attack would actually act as a trigger for the long warned-of famine. On April 27, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. arguing that “a military campaign against Hodeidah would make a horrible humanitarian situation in Yemen catastrophic.”
Yet the Trump administration appears increasingly inclined to not only allow the assault but also lend it direct military support.
The World Bank calls the link between armed conflict and poverty a “violence trap,” and in Yemen, the effect has been particularly pronounced. Sieges of Aden and Taiz, which were once two of the country’s busiest trade hubs, shattered the local economies and subjected the populations to arbitrary shelling. The country’s malnutrition rate has increased by 57 percent since 2015 — and Yemen already suffered from one of the highest levels of hunger in the world.
Analysts warn of a far worse humanitarian situation in the wake of a Hodeidah invasion, which senior U.N. officials have already described as likely having “catastrophic” consequences, believing it would render the port totally inoperable.
“The projected [economic and humanitarian] disaster is a direct consequence of decisions by all belligerents to weaponise the economy, coupled with indifference and at times a facilitating role played by the international community, including key members of the Security Council such as the U.S., U.K., and France,” analysts at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote in a frank appraisal of the situation in April.
ICG has called for the coalition to halt plans for the Hodeidah offensive and for the parties in the conflict to agree to a ceasefire. Instead, plans for the U.N.-led peace talks pushed for by former Secretary of State John Kerry are on hold until the offensive takes place. NGOs and aid agencies are lobbying Western governments with close ties to the Saudis to prevent the offensive, but the Trump administration has signaled an eagerness to push back against Iranian interference in the Middle East. Yemen, where the U.S. has few interests aside from combating the local al-Qaida franchise, appears to be an ideal place to do so.
Only five days into his administration, Trump greenlighted a raid on an alleged al-Qaida stronghold in Yemen. The raid was a disaster, leaving one Navy SEAL dead along with several civilians, including women and children. The White House hailed it as a strategic success.
If there’s a common thread that runs through the last 15 years of wars across the Middle East and North Africa, it is a misplaced optimism that outsiders can shape the facts on the ground in countries they do not fully understand. The cost of that misunderstanding has been hundreds of thousands of deaths, the mass displacement of people resulting in the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and the rise of brutal extremist groups.
While current U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis was serving as the top military commander in the Middle East under Obama, Iranian-backed militias often attacked and killed U.S. troops. And Mattis reportedly sees the Hodeidah offensive as a chance to weaken the Houthi faction — an Iranian proxy in the mold of groups he battled in Iraq.
Representatives of aid agencies and human rights organizations tell VICE News that U.S. defense officials have been trying to sell the offensive to them as an opportunity to improve humanitarian access to Yemen. Once the port is under coalition control, officials reportedly said during a mid-April meeting in Washington with NGOs, the coalition would be able to bring in large volumes of basic goods. The U.S. told humanitarian organizations it expects the port to be inaccessible for just four to six weeks, but that’s likely wildly optimistic; the Houthis may very well destroy the port if they feel they’re about to lose control of the city.
Two Western analysts with military experience told VICE News that an amphibious assault of the kind being discussed — launched from the sea, with the port city then being reclaimed street by street — would be a deeply complex operation only the U.S. military could undertake with any guarantee of success. And regardless of who undertakes it, they said, there would be a high loss of life.
The Trump administration came into power publicly skeptical of U.S. military adventures abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Yet after just 100 days in power, it is perilously close to deepening its involvement in yet another quagmire. The cost to the U.S. would likely be high. But for Yemen’s poor, the cost is likely to be their lives.
Peter Salisbury is a journalist focusing on the Arabian Peninsula and senior research fellow at Chatham House.