The last straw

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The Red Sea port of Hudaydah, now under a brutal military assault. Photo: ABDULJABBAR ZEYAD/REUTERS

A child displaced from Hudaydah at a shelter in the northern district of Abs in Hajjah province, which is held by the Houthis. Photo: ESSA AHMED/AFP

Food aid in Abs for people who have fled Hudaydah. Photo: ESSA AHMED/AFP

Homes destroyed in an air strike by Saudi Arabian warplanes in Amran on June 25. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, caused by the war started by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2015, has been aggravated by the latest military assault on Hudaydah, a port city through which much of the relief supplies for the country’s beleaguered population are routed.

Despite repeated pleas from the United Nations and humanitarian aid groups and others working in war-ravaged Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its principal ally, the United Arab Emirates, launched in the third week of June a full-scale military assault on the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah. The city, with a population of around 6,00,000, is currently in the hands of the Houthi-led alliance which controls the central government in Sana’a and most of the populated parts of the country. Hudaydah is the only port through which much-needed humanitarian aid is routed to the starving Yemeni populace. “A military assault on the port and the city could put literally hundreds of thousands of people into a life-threatening situation,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s resident and humanitarian commissioner for Yemen, warned before Saudi Arabia and the UAE finally carried out their threat just as the holy month of Ramzan was about to end. The people in the port city were not even allowed the small luxury of celebrating Eid in peace. The attack has already led to serious disruption of food and medical supplies to other parts of the country. According to the U.N., the attack will make the situation worse in a country where eight million people are on the verge of starvation.

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, has claimed that peace will return to Yemen once Hudaydah falls. The Saudis and their backers claim that a negotiated settlement to end the war will be facilitated once Hudaydah is wrested from the Houthi-led coalition. The Houthi-led opposition forces on their part have said that they will fight to retain the city. “Because Hudaydah is a matter of life and death, the free people have decided to die with dignity to defend it,” the official spokesman for the Houthis declared.

Even many of Saudi Arabia’s Western backers, such as France and the United Kingdom, had cautioned against the attack on Hudaydah. But once the Donald Trump administration gave the green signal, the Saudi leadership under the new Crown Prince was not willing to listen to reason. Seventy per cent of Yemen’s imports pass through Hudaydah. Two-thirds of the country’s 29 million people rely on international aid for survival, and around 80 per cent of the aid comes through Hudaydah. The province of al Hudaydah is one of the areas worst affected by the war triggered by the Saudis in 2015, with disease and malnutrition rampant among its population. According to U.N. and other aid agencies, one-third of the 4,00,000 severely malnourished Yemeni children live in the province.

Humanitarian crisis

The World Heath Organisation (WHO) has estimated that war has claimed more than 10,000 Yemeni lives. But other estimates put the death toll at more than 44,000. As a result of the conflict, Yemen faced the “largest documented cholera epidemic in modern times”; 50,000 people were infected and 2,000 children died at the height of the epidemic last year. The epidemic is still lurking and could once again resurface on a larger scale in areas like Hudaydah that are being devastated by the war. The U.N. has described the situation in Yemen as the “worst humanitarian crisis” the world is facing today.

So far, the Saudi-led coalition, despite having immense firepower, has only managed to gain control of Hudaydah’s disused airport. The siege is nominally led by officers of the UAE’s army. Most of the fighters are either local recruits or mercenaries from other countries. In 2011, the UAE hired Eric Prince to set up a training institute for mercenaries. Prince was the boss of the mercenary-recruiting firm Blackwater, which supplied “military contractors” for the United States Army in Iraq and elsewhere. Most of the recruits for the UAE are from Latin American countries like Colombia, Panama and El Salvador.

Air strikes target civilians

The Royal Saudi Air Force is helping its ally by launching air strikes, which have killed many innocent civilians. The U.S. is helping the Saudi Air Force with mid-air refuelling and intelligence inputs, avowedly to help it distinguish civilian targets from military ones. Yet, in the last three years, Saudi warplanes have targeted schools, hospitals, wedding receptions and funerals, causing hundreds of civilian casualties, many of them children. In Hudaydah now, the number of civilian casualties is rising as the siege continues. The Houthi spokesman has said that a bus carrying civilians was hit by the Saudi-led coalition in the battle for the city.

The recent Saudi actions in Yemen have angered many U.S. Congressmen, cutting across the ideological divide. The Barack Obama administration had warned the Saudis and the UAE against launching an assault on Hudaydah. An attack on Hudaydah was crossing a “red line”, warned the Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu, saying that such an attack “would plunge the country further into humanitarian disaster and risk opening another power vacuum for Al Qaeda to fill”. Bipartisan voices in the U.S. Senate have warned that a military assault on Hudaydah could result in the U.S. cutting off funding for aerial refuelling for the fighter planes that have been relentlessly attacking Yemen.

U.S. Army Special Forces, known as the “Green Berets”, were deployed on the Saudi border with Yemen last year after a Houthi ballistic missile flew over the international airport in Riyadh. The official line from Washington is that the Green Berets are helping the Saudi military to locate and destroy Houthi missile sites. The French newspaper La Figaro has reported that French special forces are also working with the UAE military in Yemen.

Saudi and UAE officials argue that once the government in Sana’a is deprived of the taxes it levies in Hudaydah, it will be forced to sue for peace. But like most claims by the Saudis and their allies, this argument so far is not supported by the facts on the ground. The Houthis seem determined to keep on fighting despite the odds. The capture of Hudaydah was supposed to be a short, clinical operation. Those advising the UAE officer corps had apparently convinced it that the operations, which have been in the planning stage for the last two years, could be completed within a matter of days. The Houthis have indicated that they are prepared for a long-drawn-out siege. There are reports that a few UAE officers were killed on the battlefield. U.S. military officers had warned the UAE that a military operation in Hudaydah would inevitably end in a quagmire.

The Houthi coalition has been firing ballistic missiles into Saudi cities in retaliation for the unceasing Saudi air attacks, which have increased since the beginning of this year. The Saudis and their allies, including the U.S., insist that the missiles originate from Iran. Indeed, Saudi and UAE officials justify the attack on Hudaydah on the grounds that the port city serves as the conduit for the supply of Iranian-made missiles and armaments to the Houthis. But U.N. officials say that the tight monitoring of Hudaydah and the close watch kept on the Yemeni coast by the U.S. Navy make the smuggling of Iranian weapons impossible. Most observers are of the view that the long-range missiles that are being fired into Saudi Arabia are old Russian missiles from the Yemeni army’s stockpile. The Americans, too, had supplied the Yemeni army with sophisticated weaponry, which is now in the hands of the government in Sana’a.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Saudi Arabia in May, reiterated that Iran was supplying the Houthi-led fighters with arms and missiles. Both the Houthis and Iran have denied the allegations. The Saudis, the Americans and the Israelis would like the world to believe that the war in Yemen is a proxy one between the Saudi-led Sunni alliance and Iran. The Western media continues to describe the Houthi movement as an instrument for the consolidation of so-called Iranian plans to dominate the region. The Houthis belong to the Zayyidi sect of Shia Islam.

In the 1960s, the Zayyidis, who were then ruled by a monarch, had an alliance with the Saudis. For almost a decade, they fought together against the Republican government in Sana’a, which was supported by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nassser and Arab nationalists. Today, as then, the Saudi monarchy is more afraid of Republican and democratic governments than it is of the perceived Iranian influence growing in its own backyard. The residents of Hudaydah and surrounding areas are mostly Sunnis. The Saudis and the Emiratis do not seem to mind that in the name of fighting the Houthis, tens of thousands of their fellow Sunnis are starving to death in Yemen.

After the Houthis took power, they decided to normalise relations with Iran. Regular flights started operating between Sana’a and Tehran, which infuriated the Saudis and their allies. One of the first actions taken when the war started in 2015 was the destruction of the runway at the Sana’a airport. Three years after the Saudi-led alliance backed by the Americans started its war in Yemen, optimistically code named “Operation Decisive Storm”, victory is nowhere in sight. Iran is being used as a convenient scapegoat for the alliance’s failure to defeat the Houthi-led resistance in Yemen.