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The US says it wants the war in Yemen to stop. But it’s only getting worse

November 13, 2018
In The News

On October 30, the United States called for the Yemen war to end within a month’s time.

But in the two weeks since, Saudi Arabia’s coalition has intensified its attacks on a critical rebel-held city — closing the short-lived window to end to the brutal four-year conflict.

The coalition’s latest massive assault is focused on Hodeidah, a vital port city in western Yemen that the Houthis — a rebel group fighting the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition — have controlled since 2014. More than 70 percent of the country’s food, aid, fuel, and goods come through the city.

The United Arab Emirates, a key member of the Saudi coalition, has spearheaded the campaign to take back the city since late May. But in the first days of November, the coalition dropped five times more airstrikes on Hodeidah than in October’s first week, signaling an intensification of the conflict.

It’s proven very deadly — at least 400 Houthi fighters have died since November 3 as a result of 200 air strikes.

Civilians are caught in the crosshairs, too. In one case, the shrapnel from an airstrike hit a 15-year-old boy in the back of the head while he and family traveled south of the city. The metal ripped into the boy’s spinal cord and he died one day later, Save the Children’s Hassan Basha, a security manager for the organization in Yemen, told me.

All this comes after both US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the warring parties to reach a peace deal by the end of the month.

Last week the US said it will no longer refuel Saudi warplanes that drop bombs on Yemen — many of which have killed civilians, including children. However, it will continue to provide other support to coalition forces including training and intelligence sharing, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokesperson, told me.

The question now is whether the latest carnage will bolster fragile peace talks or merely make the war — which has killed thousands, and displaced and sickened millions — somehow worse.

“There are too many people who will die if the international community doesn’t assign the utmost urgency to resolving this crisis,” Scott Paul, a Yemen expert at the humanitarian group Oxfam America, told me.

The US suddenly cares about stopping the Yemen war — but that may not mean much

Since 2015, the US has backed Saudi Arabia’s coalition and supported its war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels. It’s helped coalition forces defend against Houthi attacks, and pushed back on Iran, the group’s main supporter for weapons and funds.

Some members of Congress have never agreed with the war and railed against it for years. But all official attempts to end America’s involvement, like a bipartisan Senate effort in March, have failed.

That may soon change. In early October, Saudi officials close to the royal family killed US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. An international outcry ensued, and Democrats, who will be in control of the House of Representatives come January, have pushed especially hard to scale back America’s decades-long alliance with Saudi Arabia.

For example, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told me he plans to bring a measure to end US support for the war to vote later this month — and expects bipartisan votes for it.

If the measure reaches the Senate, Khanna’s proposal may receive bipartisan support there, too. “Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continued indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure that have helped put 14 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) said in a joint statement last week.

The growing outcry over both Khashoggi’s death and Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen may be what led Mattis to say that the US wants to see an end to fighting.

“We’ve got to move towards a peace effort here, and we can’t say we’re going to do it sometime in the future,” the defense secretary told moderator Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, at the US Institute of Peace on October 30. “We need to be doing this in the next 30 days. We’ve admired this problem for long enough.”

Hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeofollowed with a similar statement, saying, “The time is now for the cessation of hostilities.”

Both leaders put their support behind a UN-negotiated peace process led by Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. The problem, however, is that it’s straggling, and there’s little indication that the warring parties actually want to reach a deal.

In September, Griffiths waited three days for Houthi negotiators to show up for the first planned peace talks in Geneva. They never showed, and it proved to be a major setback. Griffiths has already moved the US-set deadline for peace talks back to the end of the year, indicating the prospects for new negotiations are poor.

The Houthis have continued to launch deadly missiles at Saudi targets, most prominently at the international airport in the country’s capital in March. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a rebel leader, wrote in the Washington Post on November 9 that “[w]e are ready to stop the missiles if the Saudi-led coalition stops its airstrikes.”

That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, as Saudi airstrikes have continued and neither the US nor UN seem to be able to bring about a diplomatic outcome. “The costs aren’t sufficient to bring parties to a political solution,” Dave Harden, a former US official leading humanitarian development response to Yemen, told me. “America’s ability to have leverage is minimal.”

Meanwhile, though, the Yemeni people continue to suffer.

The people of Hodeidah will struggle to work, eat, and live

The war has claimed more than 13,500 lives, with roughly a million suffering from cholera. Roughly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs, including food and water, out of a prewar population of 28 million. These are all just estimates, though, as conditions on the ground are so bad that no one can do an official count. What’s worse, the US is helping make those conditions as bad as they are.

And the situation in Hodeidah, as it is throughout Yemen, is dire, humanitarian experts tell me.

One huge issue afflicting people in the city is that the Yemeni riyal has steeply declined in value due to inflation, both due to the war and recent moves by the country’s central bank. That makes it harder for Yemenis, many of whom can only work single-day jobs due to the fighting and struggling economy, to pay for available food.

“What money Yemenis have and are earning gets more and more worthless by the day,” Oxfam America’s Paul, who was in Yemen two weeks ago, told me. He also noted that certain Yemenis have skipped daily meals — some for as long as a year — to ensure others around them had enough to eat.

But he also noted the security situation isn’t much better since the Houthis have placed landmines in the city and surrounding areas. Many roads are completely closed off by rebel fighters or destroyed, making it harder for food that comes into ports to reach markets — leading to a spike in malnutrition. “Health outcomes are worsening,” says Paul. And they may only decline further as fighting is taking place about four miles outside of the city’s most populated areas.

Hodeidah’s health prospects are no better: More than 1,000 residents have contracted cholera, with the rate of victims tripling from June to August. It’s part of a larger outbreak in the country that has turned into one of the world’s biggest health crises.

The city only has one functional public hospital — which the coalition reportedly attacked over the weekend — where it’s hard to get working staff, tools, and medicine. But private hospitals in the city, some of which work with humanitarian organizations on the ground, have an easier time treating patients, Save the Children’s Basha told me.

The numbers of victims will surely increase in the coming days as more airstrikes, stray bullets, and bomb fragments puncture the city, likely overwhelming available medical care. That won’t stop humanitarian workers on the ground, like Basha, from saving who they can despite the devastation.

“We still treat baby children who have been impacted by the clashes,” he told me. Those babies might be saved if a diplomatic solution comes into play — but that seems extremely unlikely as of now.