WHILE THE world was focused on the U.S.-North Korea summit, two U.S. allies in the Middle East launched a reckless and potentially catastrophic military offensive in Yemen, a country already enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Troops led by the United Arab Emirates and backed by Saudi Arabian warplanes are attempting to seize the port city of Hodeida, which is held by the Houthi forces who make up one side in Yemen’s civil war. Because 70 percent of Yemen’s food and aid shipments come though the port, the United Nations and every major humanitarian agency have warned of dire consequences for the 22 million Yemenis who already depend on outside assistance, including 8 million on the brink of famine. They pleaded with the Saudis and Emiratis to hold off and allow more time for a diplomatic solution.
The attack nevertheless went ahead early Wednesday after receiving what amounted to passive assent from the Trump administration. That means the United States, which already has been supplying its two allies with intelligence, refueling and munitions, will be complicit if the result is what aid officials say it could be: starvation, epidemics and other human suffering surpassing anything the world has seen in decades.
As it is, Yemen’s escape from full-blown famine during the past two years has been something of a miracle, the result of heroic efforts by aid groups that have kept trucks rumbling up the dangerous roads from Hodeida to regions where food and medicine are in desperately short supply. But humanitarian assistance has not prevented what has become the worst cholera epidemic in history, with more than 1 million people infected.
Though Yemen has always been a poor country, this crisis is man-made. It was triggered by the intervention of the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen’s war three years ago. Promising quick action to drive the Houthis out of the capital, Sanaa, and other cities they had captured, the two countries carried out bombing campaigns that killed thousands of civilians but failed to recapture much of the country.
The Saudis claim the intervention was necessary to counter Iranian sponsorship of the Houthis, who have been firing missiles into Saudi Arabia. But the Houthis are a homegrown force, and many experts believe they were driven into Iran’s arms by the intervention. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs says the Houthis are not willing to negotiate and that the seizure of Hodeida is necessary to bring them to the table. But that claim is contradicted by the U.N. envoy seeking to broker peace talks, who tried to stop the attack. A better explanation is that of David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee: The “attack on the port,” he says, is “an assault on the chances of a political settlement in addition to a danger to civilian life.”
The Trump administration could have prevented the assault on Hodeida; instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo equivocated, thereby allowing it to go forward. Congress, which has long been uneasy with U.S. support for the Yemen war, must now act. All funding for U.S. support for the intervention should be halted and further arms sales put on hold until the offensive ends, humanitarian assistance flows freely and peace talks are underway.