The current offensive by Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to take the Red Sea port city of Hodeida—which Houthi rebels control—has delayed efforts by the United Nations to find a political settlement for the country. The United States, which had been supporting the United Nations’ efforts and had expressed misgivings about the Hodeida offensive for humanitarian concerns, has shifted policy recently: it now seems to be encouraging a military push on Hodeida to send a signal to Iran that Washington will challenge and roll back Tehran’s so-called proxies in the region.
This is an unfortunate development not only because the military offensive could put the 600,000 residents of Hodeida at risk and exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation in the country, but it also is likely to set back recent Iranian efforts to cooperate with the Europeans to work on a ceasefire in Yemen. In recent weeks, Tehran acknowledged that it has some influence on the Houthis and would use it to help bring them to the negotiating table. Now, however, with fighting taking precedence over talking and the Houthis under military pressure, Iran might not be as cooperative, especially that its main adversaries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States, all seem to be pushing for a military solution.
Washington’s Mixed Messages on Yemen
Until recently, and despite all the tough talk by the Trump Administration about not following the policies of former President Barack Obama, there were indeed some important similarities in their approaches to the Yemeni crisis. To stay in Riyadh’s good graces, both administrations provided the Saudis with air refueling, intelligence, and logistical support for the war in Yemen, launched by the Saudis and their coalition partners in late March of 2015. Both administrations also supported the Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who fled the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and has spent his time between Riyadh and the southern Yemeni city of Aden. And both administrations also expressed misgivings about the Saudi role, which has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in the country. Obama acted on this concern by withdrawing a US military planning team from Saudi Arabia and suspending precision-guided munitions to Riyadh in late 2016 as a result of many errant Saudi air strikes on civilians. Although President Donald Trump released this hold on the munitions in mid-2017 and closely embraced the Saudis, as was evident during his trip to the kingdom that year, he became concerned about the plight of Yemeni civilians after seeing photos of malnourished children. Indeed, Trump admonished the Saudis in December 2017 about such suffering and called on them to lift their hold over Houthi-controlled airports and seaports to allow humanitarian aid to enter Yemen.
Although Trump did not hold up military sales to Riyadh that were eventually used for the Yemen operation, there was concern from some of his advisors about Saudi and Emirati support for the military campaign. Speaking publicly in Riyadh in April 2017, for example, Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that Yemen needed a “political solution,” indicating that the conflict could not be decided by military means alone. It is evident that US pressure was partly responsible for delaying a previously planned campaign by the UAE for seizing Hodeida in 2017. The port of Hodeida is used to import 70 percent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian items, and the Trump Administration did not want to be associated with a blockade that could make civilian suffering even worse.
Nonetheless, the Trump team’s anti-Iran posture contributed to another aspect of the policy—that is, hyping up the Houthi links to Iran and underscoring that these ties were unacceptable. In December 2017, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley displayed fragments of an alleged Iranian missile launched by the Houthis which landed in Saudi Arabia. Later, in 2018, after Trump got rid of his more moderate advisors—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—and replaced them with two hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, respectively, these personnel changes not only paved the way for Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal but enabled him to take a harder position on Iran’s support for the Houthis. Indeed, this can be seen in Pompeo’s May 21 speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he listed 12 demands of Iran, including the cessation of military assistance to the Houthis.
Still, US officials seemed opposed to the Saudi- and Emirati-supported Yemeni government military offensive to take Hodeida. Up to early June 2018, Washington was cautioning the Saudis and Emiratis “not to make a move on the city or the port for all sorts of reasons,” according to one unnamed US official who spoke to the Washington Post. This same official added: “We’re trying to stay the Emirati hand right now.” Washington also seemed to support the diplomatic efforts by the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to stave off the Hodeida offensive, which officials believed would likely result in more displaced people in Yemen, among other problems. Reportedly, Griffiths was traveling back and forth between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to underscore this message and to get the parties to support a negotiating process for Yemen.
The United States Shifts to a More Hardline Posture
Only a few days after the Trump Administration’s notes of caution, however, there seems to have been a shift in policy. This change was apparently the result of an interagency process. Those advocating a tougher line on the Houthis and stronger support for the UAE in the Hodeida operation argued, according to an anonymous US government official, that “We have been flirting with this [the Hodeida operation] for a long time. Something needs to change the dynamic, and if we help the Emirates do it better, this could be good.”
It appears that events were also driven by developments on the ground—or at least that is how the Emirates characterized the situation to American and British officials. Earlier, the UAE gave assurances that its forces would not take the port of Hodeida without support from Washington and London, but that policy changed when Emirati officials claimed their forces near the port had come under attack. Hence, the UAE’s own supposed caution was tossed aside.
Both Pompeo and Mattis have now given UAE and Yemeni government ground forces “qualified support” to take Hodeida. In a move that can be described as a yellow light turning to green, Pompeo stated publicly on June 11 that there was a US desire to address UAE “security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and lifesaving commercial imports.” The US secretary of state added that all parties should work with the United Nations to “support a political process to resolve this conflict, ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people, and map a stable political future for Yemen.”
In essence, therefore, current US policy supports the UAE-led and Yemeni government’s military operation to take Hodeida and its vital port in order to put maximum pressure on the Houthis and strengthen the bargaining position of the Hadi government in the run-up to negotiations, sponsored by the United Nations, to achieve a political solution for Yemen. Concurrently, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pledged not to impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies coming into Hodeida.
This may sound reasonable on paper, but in practice it may be a different matter. First, if the Emirati and Yemeni government ground forces, backed by Saudi air strikes, do indeed take Hodeida and its port, they may decide that they should not stop there but continue the offensive against other Houthi-controlled cities in the interior. In other words, they may be tempted to carry on the fight without concern for a UN-negotiated process. Second, by controlling the port of Hodeida and perhaps not turning it over immediately to the UN, the UAE could then have the power of determining what is military contraband and what are humanitarian goods, with the former coming under a very broad definition, as a way to squeeze the Houthis.
In addition, even though the Trump Administration is officially on board with the idea of a negotiated settlement of the Yemen conflict, some of the hawks in the administration might also be tempted to keep on supporting the coalition’s military offensive if and after Hodeida is taken. Although they have evinced some concern about the fate of the civilian population, the Trump team’s desire to send a signal to Tehran that it aims to roll back the power of Iranian “proxies” in the region may be too tempting to pass up.
From the perspective of the United Nations, international relief agencies, and human rights groups, the Hodeida military operation runs the risks of putting many more Yemeni civilians in jeopardy, and there are some estimates that thousands could die in the fighting for the port and city. Although it is impossible to know for sure, it is feasible that if the Houthis, who have proven to be very stubborn fighters, made a strong stand in Hodeida, the civilian death toll in the city of some 600,000 could run into the tens of thousands.
Iran’s Involvement in a Negotiated Settlement Now Uncertain
Prior to the recent Hodeida offensive, Iran was in discussions with Britain, France, and Germany—the three European powers involved in the Iran nuclear deal—on some contentious regional issues, including Yemen, as a way of keeping the Europeans on its side in the US-Iran nuclear dispute. After denying—for many years—any military relationship with the Houthis (as late as April 2018, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected the idea that Iran was arming the Houthi rebels), an Iranian official said Tehran would use its influence with the Houthis to support a negotiated settlement for Yemen. This gesture was interpreted by some observers as a breakthrough, though it was unclear how it would fit into the UN’s own plans for a settlement. The extent of Iranian military support for the Houthis has been the subject of considerable debate, but there is evidence that at least some of the missiles the Houthis have fired into Saudi Arabia came from Iran.
Now that the Emirati-led coalition seems determined to take Hodeida, however, it is unclear if Iran would still be willing to play the role of peaceful influencer with the Houthis. Hardliners in Tehran might conclude that more military aid to the Houthis, not a diplomatic approach, is what is called for now to keep the Saudis, Emiratis, and Americans on edge. On the other hand, if Iran were to step up military assistance to the Houthis (quite a difficult logistical endeavor in the present circumstances, in any case), it might lose the European support it has tried to cultivate. Thus, the military offensive on Hodeida has complicated a possible diplomatic achievement.
Implications for US Policy
It is clear that the Trump Administration’s initial hesitancy about the Hodeida operation was well founded. There are serious risks of more civilian deaths and profound consequences of a Hodeida port closure for the long-suffering Yemeni people, 8.4 million of whom are currently facing famine. This caution now has been discarded and the administration seems to have bought the argument from the UAE and Saudi Arabia that a big military win will not only bloody Iran’s nose but it will put the Hadi government in a stronger negotiating position vis-à-vis the Houthis. Leaving aside the Saudi and Emirati positions, hardliners in the administration also appear to relish the possibility of a military victory against what they see are Iranian proxies; they probably believe this will demonstrate the seriousness of Trump’s recent demands on Iran.
However, a lot could go wrong in the current Hodeida operation, and that could redound against the United States’ image as an enabler of the coalition forces. Thousands more civilians could be caught in the crossfire and become internally displaced, as the UN has warned. If the Hodeida port is rendered inoperable for a considerable period of time, famine and cholera will undoubtedly increase in the country. This would make a mockery of an early June statement by a spokesman from the National Security Council that “the United States has been clear and consistent that we will not support actions that destroy key infrastructure or that are likely to exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation that has expanded in this stalemated conflict.” Moreover, the bleak situation of Yemeni civilians is garnering more congressional opposition to the administration’s Yemen policy. Already, a letter opposing US policies in Yemen is circulating in Congress for signatures. This comes on the heels of a March 2018 Senate resolution, defeated by less than ten votes, that would have invoked the War Powers Resolution on the war in Yemen, aimed at ending US military support for the Emirati-led coalition.
The Trump Administration would be well advised to quietly work with the Europeans to firm up Iran’s stated willingness to use its influence with the Houthis and bring them to the negotiating table, along with a concurrent US effort with the Saudis and Emiratis to use their influence with the Hadi government to do the same. Unfortunately, this requires goodwill from all sides, an element that is in very short supply these days, even between Washington and its European allies.