Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it
Plagued by division and defeat, it seems that the protagonists of the war on Yemen - the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have embarked on a new strategy: a major attack on Yemen's main port of Hodeidah. This new strategy, if not thwarted, will push Yemen into total devastation.
Ever since the Saudi-led coalition launched its air campaign in Yemen in March 2015, it has been beset by problems which seem to have reached a breaking point in recent months for a host of reasons.
First and foremost is the total lack of military progress in the war. Originally conceived as a kind of blitzkrieg - or "Decisive Storm" as the initial bombing campaign was named - that would put a rapid end to the Houthi-led Ansarallah movement's rebellion, almost three years later it has done nothing of the sort.
The only significant territory recaptured has been the port city of Aden, and this was only by reliance on a secessionist movement largely hostile to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose rule the war is supposedly being fought to restore.
The Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah... without Hodeidah and its port - where supplies trickle through - the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission
- Jamestones Foundation
All attempts to recapture the capital Sanaa, meanwhile, have been exposed as futile pipe dreams.
Secondly, the belligerents have been increasingly at war with themselves. In February, a fierce battle broke out between Emirati soldiers and Saudi-backed forces loyal to Hadi for control of Aden's airport. According to a recent study on UAE's war aims in Yemen, the struggle "prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz".
"The risk of such confrontations remains... Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard," concluded Neil Partrick, author of the study.
In October Emirati troops arrested 10 members of the Saudi-aligned Islah movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni faction. This mutual hostility and suspicion has seriously hampered the war effort.
And thirdly, the war is undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Aid agencies, usually doggedly silent on the political causes of the disasters they are supposed to ameliorate, have been uncharacteristically vocal, placing the blame for the country's famine - in which more than a quarter of the population are now starving - squarely on the blockade and its supporters.
Last month, Jamie McGoldrick, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, put it starkly: "150,000 Yemeni children on the brink of starvation because of the impact of this blockade."
According to UN estimates, some seven million people in Yemen depend entirely on food aid and are on the brink of famine and nearly 900,000 have been infected with cholera.
Save the Children had already stated back in March 2017 that: "Food and aid are being used as a weapon of war", and called for an end to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last month, Oxfam's Shane Stevenson said: "All those with influence over the Saudi-led coalition are complicit in Yemen's suffering unless they do all they can to push them to lift the blockade."
The new strategy
To confront these problems, a new strategy has clearly been in the works. It appears to have been inaugurated by British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
On 29 November, May met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Simultaneously, Johnson was hosting a London meeting of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US under-secretary of state, representing all four of the belligerent powers in Yemen.
Both US and UK governments attempted to manipulate the media narrative such that the blockade, which they continue to facilitate, no longer reflects badly on them
Both meetings suggest a new strategy for the war on Yemen was emerging.
The first element of this strategy was for Britain and the US to pacify the NGO fraternity by distancing themselves from the blockade, as if it were somehow separate from the war in which they were so deeply involved.
A few days before May flew to Riyadh, she told the press she would "demand" the "immediate" lifting of the blockade during her forthcoming visit to the king.
This was disingenuous: after all, had she really wanted the blockade ended, she could have achieved this immediately simply by threatening to cut military support for the Saudis until they ended it.
The UK has approved £3.8bn ($5bn) of arms licences to Saudi Arabia since the conflict escalated in March 2015 with exports including Paveway IV missiles and Typhoon fighter jets, according to Save the Children.
Britain runs a major training programme for the Saudi military, with 166 personnel deployed within the Saudi military structure. In fact, the meeting seems to have been more about reassuring the Saudis that her words were but rhetoric for domestic consumption, and not meant to be taken seriously.
The UK government website reported that May and Salman merely "agreed that steps needed to be taken" and that "they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved".
Just to make it absolutely clear that the UK’s support for the war was not in question, the very next line of the statement was "They agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure."
Emirati troops have been serving as part of the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen (AFP)
US President Donald Trump followed suit the following week, likewise calling on the Saudis to "completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people" whilst doing nothing to bring this about. In essence, both US and UK governments attempted to manipulate the media narrative such that the blockade, which they continue to facilitate, no longer reflects badly on them.
Breaking the military stalemate
The next aspect of the strategy became obvious before the Johnson and May meetings had even finished, as fighting broke out between the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the same day.
Saleh had made an alliance with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in 2015 in a presumed attempt to seize back power from his former deputy, Hadi, to whom he was forced to abdicate power in 2012.
But he had never been fully trusted by the Houthis, and their suspicions were to be fully confirmed when on Saturday 2 December he formally turned on them and offered himself up to the Saudis.
Saleh had always been close to the Saudis when in power, positioning himself largely as a conduit for their influence; now he was returning to his traditional role. The swiftness and intensity of the Saudi airstrikes - supporting his forces against the Houthis following his announcement - suggested some degree of foreknowledge and collaboration had preceded it, as does the Saudi's reported house arrest of their previous favourite Hadi the previous month.
It seems likely that Emiratis' support for al-Islah was a quid-pro-quo for Saudi support for Saleh, both moves suggesting perhaps that the two powers' divisions were to some extent being overcome
The restoration of the Saleh-Saudi alliance represented a victory for the UAE, who had been pushing the Saudis to rebuild its bridges with him for some time. Analyst Partrick, for example, had written just weeks before the move that: "The Emiratis are advising the Saudis to go back to Saleh, believing his growing disputes with the Houthis, his tactical allies, can be encouraged to become a permanent breach."
As a result, the problem of the military stalemate was supposed to be resolved by splitting the Houthis' alliance with Saleh, paving the way for a dramatic rebalancing of forces in favour of the belligerents.
Saleh's execution two days later has only partially scuppered this plan, with many of his forces either openly siding with the invaders or putting up no resistance to them.
Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi (AFP)
At the same time as the Saudis have finally been brought round to the UAE's preference for a reconciliation with Saleh's forces, the UAE has now, it seems, accepted an alliance with the Saudi-backed al-Islah party.
Despite the Saudi's usual antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood, it has backed their Yemeni offshoot in this war, a move hitherto firmly opposed by the Emirates.
Yet, following earlier meetings between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Islah leader Abdullah al-Yidoumi, the two men met again last Wednesday (13 December) with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Maged Al Da'arri, editor of Yemen's Hadramout newspaper, explained to the Emirati daily The National that "the Gulf leaders are trying to combine the different sides in Yemen to work collaboratively in order to be able to liberate the provinces that are still held by the Houthis".
It seems likely that Emiratis support for al-Islah was a quid-pro-quo for Saudi support for Saleh, both moves suggesting perhaps that the two powers' divisions were to some extent being overcome.
This rapprochement was formalised with the formal announcement of a new military alliance between them on 5 December, the day after Saleh's death.
A new page?
Thus, within a week of the London and Riyadh meetings, the coalition's three seemingly intractable problems - the paralysing divisions between UAE and Saudi Arabia, the military stalemate, and the West's legitimacy crisis over the blockade - had all apparently been turned around.
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This readjustment was and is intended to pave the way for a decisive new page in the war: an all-out attack on Hodeidah, as a prelude to the recapture of Sanaa itself.
This new strategy is now well underway. On 6 December - four days after Saleh switched sides, and one day after the new UAE-Saudi alliance was announced - Yemeni forces loyal to Saudi Arabia and UAE mounted "a major push...to purge Al Houthis from major coastal posts on the Red Sea including the strategic city of Hodeida".
The Emiratis had been advocating an attack on Hodeidah for at least a year, but, according to The National, former US President Barack Obama had vetoed it in 2016. In March 2017, the Saudis got cold feet due to fears that the plan was "an indication of [the Emirates'] attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen". Now, it seems, it is finally underway.
The following day, the Red Sea town of Khokha, in Hodeidah province, was captured by Emirati forces and their Yemeni allies, backed by Saudi airstrikes. Gulf News reported that "Colonel Abdu Basit Al Baher, the deputy spokesperson of the Military Council in Taiz said that the liberation of Khokha would enable government forces and the Saudi-led coalition to circle Hodeida from land and sea".
Yemenis take part in a demonstration asking for the opening of the the port and calling for the blockade to be lifted, on 19 November 2017 in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah (AFP)
The following day, Houthi positions in Al Boqaa, between Khokha and Hodeidah, were taken by Emirati-backed forces.
On 10 December, Johnson met with the Emirati crown prince in Abu Dhabi, where he "underlined the depth of strategic relations between the two countries and his country's keenness on enhancing bilateral cooperation", before attending another "Quartet committee" meeting with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts and the US acting secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
The four of them "agreed to hold their meetings periodically, with the next meeting scheduled for the first quarter of 2018".
This intensive activity in the space of just two weeks, bookended by high-level meetings of the 'quartet' on either side, is clearly coordinated. But what it heralds is truly horrifying. Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.
When an attack on Hodeidah was being contemplated back in March 2017, aid agencies and security analysts alike were crystal clear about its impact. Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive said: "If this attack goes ahead, a country that is already on the brink of famine will be starved further as yet another food route is destroyed...An estimated 70 percent of Yemen's food comes into Hodeidah port.
"If it is attacked, this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies - the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine."
A malnourished Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah on December 3 2017 (AFP)
"The potential humanitarian impact of a battle at Hodeidah feels unthinkable," Suze Vanmeegen, protection and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN recently. "We are already using words like 'catastrophic' and 'horrendous' to describe the crisis in Yemen, but any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I'm not using hyperbole."
In the Independent, Peter Salisbury noted that "it is by no means certain that taking Hodeidah will be easy" as the (then) "Houthi-Saleh alliance is well aware of the plan” and preparing accordingly.
He added: "While the Saudi-led coalition claims that taking the port would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the medium term, aid agencies fret that the short-term effect of cutting off access to a major port could be a killing blow to some of Yemen's starving millions."
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The Jamestown Foundation was even more wary, writing that Hodeidah's capture would be impossible without major US involvement and that "Even with US assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world."
"The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best-disciplined military."
Yet the US's current efforts to argue that Houthis are being supplied with Iranian missiles via Hodeidah may well be aimed at legitimising just such direct US involvement in an attack on the port.
After all, continues Jamestown, "the Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port - where supplies trickle through - the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission."
This ramping up of the 'weapon of starvation' is, then, the ultimate end of this new phase in the war.
- Dan Glazebrook is a political writer and editor of stopstarvingyemen.org. He is author of Divide and Ruin: The West's Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis and blogs at danglazebrook.com.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A Houthi rebel fighter inspects the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 5 December 2017 (AFP)