Assault on Yemen’s Al Hudaydah Would Be Catastrophic

A Yemeni soldier in Al Hudaydah. The United Nations says that a planned assault led by the United Arab Emirates on that city and its port, which are held by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, would endanger hundreds of thousands of people. Credit Nabil Hassan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A Yemeni soldier in Al Hudaydah. The United Nations says that a planned assault led by the United Arab Emirates on that city and its port, which are held by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, would endanger hundreds of thousands of people. Credit Nabil Hassan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

More than three years into its pitiless war, the specter of more death, displacement and hunger is looming over Yemen. More than 600 people have been killed in the past few days as the forces backed by the United Arab Emirates have come within six miles or so of the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah and the so-named city of 600,000 people, which is held by the Houthi rebels allied with Iran.

An all-out assault by emirates-backed forces on Al Hudaydah, the primary gateway for getting food, medicines and other essential supplies to Yemen, is expected any moment. The attack on the port and the adjacent city is expected to lead to a protracted and bloody confrontation. “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 United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told NPR. About 18 million Yemenis don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a telling, brief statement that spoke about the Trump administration’s willingness to address the “security concerns” of the emirates’ leaders while “preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports”. It was a yellow light to the emirates: Proceed but with caution.

Mr. Pompeo’s statement was a significant departure from earlier American policy of warning that such an attack could result in a humanitarian catastrophe and conveying that it would do little to end the war if the emirates-backed forces took the Al Hudaydah port from the Houthis. Last year, the United Nations’ Yemen Panel of Experts, on which I served, came to a similar conclusion and submitted our report to the Security Council.

United Arab Emirates and Yemeni troops are positioned around the city and are moving closer by the hour. The only remaining chance for peace rests on what the United Nations can achieve. “We are, at the present moment, in intense consultation”, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told the press on Monday.

Martin Griffiths, a former British diplomat and the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, has been shuttling back and forth among the various parties — the Houthis, the Saudis, the Emiratis and what’s left of Yemen’s internationally recognized government — attempting to forestall an attack, which he said “may in a stroke take peace off the table”.

He has had little luck so far. But Mr. Griffiths, the third special in envoy in four years, has been on the job for only four months. He needs more time, and the United States — the only country capable of extending the clock — should do everything in its power to pull all parties back from the brink.

Saudi Arabia and the emirates have insisted that the only step that would stop the attack on Al Hudaydah is a complete Houthi withdrawal. Mr. Griffiths should persuade the Houthis to withdraw from the port and the city. He can do that by persuading the Saudis to reopen the airport in Sana, the capital of Yemen, to all commercial flights, which would allow civilians to seek medical care abroad and enable airlifting of humanitarian supplies.

Mr. Griffiths has put together a framework for peace negotiations, which was leaked to the press last week. A key component of that framework is disarmament, which would require the Houthis to surrender all their weapons, including ballistic missiles and artillery, except for light arms. But in an environment of such profound distrust, where weapons are equated with power, no one side will voluntarily surrender them.

Instead, Mr. Griffiths should push for transitional arms control. Unlike disarmament, which is an all-or-nothing affair, transitional arms control is gradual and allows for the slow building of trust by getting the warring parties to step back from the brink while maintaining control of their weapons should they feel threatened.

In exchange for getting Saudi Arabia and the emirates to stop airstrikes, the Houthis would commit to placing their weapons under lock and key. Under such a scenario, the Saudis and Emiratis would still have access to their planes and the Houthis would keep the keys to their weapons depot.

The Houthis are led by Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, who acts as the group’s supreme leader, and governed through a body known as the Supreme Political Council in Sana. Along with Abd al-Malik, two other top Houthi leaders, Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi and Abdullah al-Hakim, have been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Griffiths should propose the lifting of sanctions on the three men in exchange for the dissolution of the Houthi Supreme Political Council. It would be the first step toward ending Houthi rule in Sana and north Yemen, while also setting the stage for a comprehensive and final agreement.

Since the United States has stepped aside and the United Nations Security Council remains divided, Mr. Griffiths is now the only person possible of pulling off a miracle. In Yemen, it is one minute to midnight.

Gregory D. Johnsen, a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation, served on the Yemen Panel of Experts at the United Nations Security Council from 2016 to 2018.

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