The Now-Halted War in Hodeida: Was It a Cover for Khashoggi’s Murder?


A Saudi F-15 jet being refueled by an American tanker

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has just ordered a halt to the 12-day assault on the Yemeni city of Hodeida. Previously, Saudi Arabia had announced that it requested an end in American refueling of the Saudi-led coalition’s aircraft over Yemen. This came as Riyadh reeled from sustained international criticism about its conduct in the war in Yemen and the humanitarian disaster it helped create as well as from its leadership’s alleged responsibility for ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But with the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates possessing their own air refueling capacity, the declaration was no indication that the war and their almost four-year intervention in Yemen were any closer to ending. Neither was the announcement going to alleviate the Yemeni people’s suffering.

What the announcement did, however, was provide a needed fig leaf for the Trump Administration, which has so far taken a soft approach toward the Saudi leadership regarding its responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul—even though it had earlier revoked the visas of those accused of perpetrating the crime and now levied sanctions on 17 individuals. But considering the war’s massive destruction and the consequent dire humanitarian situation, ending the refueling operations will remain a mere token gesture that will not obviate additional and serious administration action, such as ending American assistance in target selection, intelligence sharing, and provision of modern weapons and munitions. In fact, to effect such actions, congressional and public pressure is likely to increase on the administration as a new Democratic majority takes over the reins in the new House of Representatives of the 116th Congress.

On the other hand, there is much evidence that the administration may have arrived at the conclusion that the Yemen war has become an albatross around its neck and that of its Saudi and Emirati allies. At the end of October, both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo firmly called for a ceasefire and inclusive negotiations in 30 days. On November 11, Secretary Pompeo is reported to have reiterated to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) that the US “calls for a cessation of hostilities and for all parties to come to the table to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict.” The American conclusion has also been reached by the United Kingdom and France, both of which support the mission of the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.

The Return to War

While halting the assault on Hodeida is a positive development given the need for ending the Yemeni war, the order may not be the last we hear about the battle for this city. There may be violations of the order and insubordination on the part of some of the attackers. There may also be political or military considerations that the coalition may take into account and renew the fighting. After all, the assault on the city originally began in 2017 and has been an on-again, off-again march that started in Aden and crept up the western shores of the country. Be it as it may, it is hoped that this halt in military operations there will continue so that the calls for a broader ceasefire can prepare the country, its warring factions, and the Saudi-led coalition for more comprehensive peace talks.

Chaos reigns in Yemen as internal and external factions and parties try to maneuver to best address their own concerns. Meanwhile, the Houthis remain entrenched in much of the country and occupy Sanaa and other major cities.

But prior to the hiatus in the Hodeida action, it was not evident that the American and other calls for a ceasefire convinced Saudi Arabia or the UAE to seek a political solution to the war. In fact, the Saudi-led coalition appeared to want to improve its negotiating position if and once those calls carried the day. After halting an advance last summer on Hodeida on the Red Sea, Yemeni forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, aided by Emirati soldiers and coalition air power, again advanced on the city and seemed to have entered it. However, they did not occupy the port area, which is a main conduit for humanitarian imports into Yemen. Other areas of the country also have not been spared fighting; indeed, chaos reigns as internal and external factions and parties try to maneuver to best address their own concerns. In the meantime, the Houthis remain entrenched in much of the country and occupy Sanaa and other major cities.

Continuing the war adds to the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that damaging the port at Hodeida would cause a disaster. As the situation stands today, 14 million Yemenis—half the country’s population—are at risk of starvation. The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock warns that “we are losing the fight against famine.” Moreover, there have been 1.1 million cases of cholera reported in the country since April 2017, and the disease has not abated. Lowcock’s office has also reported that since June 2018, 500,000 people have fled Hodeida governorate and that two million Yemenis are now refugees inside their own country.

In August 2016, the United Nations stopped counting the war dead when the number reached 10,000 because of the difficulty of collecting information. An independent study reached an unconfirmed conclusion that a total of 50,000 may have been killed between January 2016 and July 2018. And the death toll climbs every day. Save the Children reports that half of the health facilities in the country’s 16 governorates have shuttered while 16.4 million Yemenis need help accessing healthcare. Further, millions of children are in need of protection and run the risk of being recruited for fighting.

Avoiding the Political Solution

It is curious that the Saudi and Emirati leaderships still think that prosecuting the Yemen war is a sound strategic decision when their intervention has failed to seriously disrupt the insurgent Houthis’ control over most of the country. Only the southern coastal city of Aden and its environs have been seized from Houthi control, and even those parts have not completely come under the legitimate authority of the government of the constitutional president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Instead, an alternative, UAE-supported administration by southern secessionists is largely in control.

It is curious that the Saudi and Emirati leaderships still think that prosecuting the Yemen war is a sound strategic decision and avoid the availability of a political track being charted by the UN envoy Martin Griffiths.

What is even more baffling is that these leaderships seemingly avoid the availability of a political track being charted by the UN’s Griffiths. The international envoy has been at his work since February 2018; however, he has been stymied by lack of cooperation from the parties concerned and the imposition of preconditions. Griffiths now hopes to be able to convene new talks by the end of the year. His predecessor, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, resigned in January 2018 after losing hope that the warring parties, domestic and foreign, are interested in a political solution. Griffiths’s hope now may rest only in the knowledge that he has powerful international players such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France helping him administer a difficult mix of proposals to a difficult set of actors.

The Houthis have not previously shown much inclination to pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict and have carried the war to Saudi Arabia via missiles and to the UAE via armed drones. Now, however, they appear to be amenable to returning to the negotiating table where everything should be subject to discussion. Even while doubting the United States’ sincerity in calling for a ceasefire, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee in Sanaa, penned an opinion piece in the Washington Post on November 9 agreeing to halt the insurgents’ missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in exchange for ending the coalition’s airstrikes. This formula had been proposed by Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo on October 31 as a basis for a ceasefire and negotiations. It should be mentioned that last September, the Houthis failed to come to a meeting in Geneva for peace talks. They blamed the coalition for blockading exit routes, thereby preventing their departure from Yemen, while Griffiths himself admitted that “we didn’t make conditions sufficiently correct to get them there.”

The Houthis have not previously shown much inclination to pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but now they appear to be amenable to returning to the negotiating table where everything should be subject to discussion.  

Diversion from the Khashoggi Murder?

If the Houthis are playing for international official and public opinion, resuming the fighting around Hodeida may also have arguably been a ploy to improve the negotiating position of the coalition and their Yemeni allies. But the resumption of fighting around Hodeida could not be separated from the Saudi attempt to deflect the international community’s attention from its responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. As Turkey availed an audio recording of his assassination to many international actors, including the United States, more details emerged about the culpability of the Saudi crown prince for the crime—and thus the need for a diversion. What added credence to this possibility is a recent report that MbS tried to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a war with Gaza to deflect attention from the Khashoggi killing. Incidentally, the Saudi public prosecutor has announced that he is seeking the death penalty for five individuals who have been involved in the crime.

But it appears that the Trump Administration is discounting a direct relationship between MbS and the decision to assassinate Khashoggi. As Pompeo maintains his cordial relation with the crown prince and continues to defend the US-Saudi strategic relationship, National Security Advisor John Bolton has cast doubt on MbS’s responsibility for the crime. Indeed, the administration appears to want to ignore the evidence the Turkish government presented to CIA Director Gina Haspel, when she visited Ankara, and then shared with President Trump in Paris when he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is certain, however, that the Saudi crown prince has lost a lot of support in Washington, despite the backing he receives from the administration. For example, South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, long a defender of the kingdom in Congress, has recently chastised MbS as “unstable and unreliable” and implied he was in favor of his ouster.

While the Trump Administration discounts a direct relationship between MbS and the Khashoggi killing, it is certain that the Saudi crown prince has lost a lot of support in Washington and among both Democrats and Republicans.

In the end, stopping American refueling operations and halting the Hodeida assault are not likely to make any difference in how Yemenis and the international community feel about a war that has devastated Yemen and caused its humanitarian calamities. Neither are they likely to divert international attention from the Trump Administration’s position on aiding the Saudi-led coalition in pursuing the war. Importantly, such moves are not expected to help Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States or attempts to deflect from the kingdom’s responsibility for ordering the assassination of a critic of its policies, including the war in Yemen. What is most assured is that both the war in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi will be top priorities for the new and unfriendly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to be seated in January 2019.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here