Yemen is enduring the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and on the brink of even greater tragedy.
In recent days, we’ve seen headlines like, “US Dubious About UAE Appeal for Military Help in Port Fight” and quotes from senior US officials reassuring the public that they’re “trying to stay the Emirati hand right now.” Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announced on June 11 that the US is “closely monitoring developments.” Neither the blasé skepticism in US officials’ private statements or Secretary Pompeo’s statement that the US is watching will be anywhere near sufficient to stave off one of the most horrific episodes of mass death of the 21st century.
Let’s briefly review what’s at stake. Yemen today is the scene of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than ten thousand people have been killed in ground fighting and airstrikes, which capture the bulk of the headlines. Behind those headlines are more than 22 million people wasting away with little attention, simply because the indifference of the fighting parties has ruptured the national economy. Few Yemenis earn a steady living, and even most of those who do cannot regularly afford the exorbitant prices of food or fuel, or access basic health care.
In their war against Houthi forces that displaced the internationally recognized government more than three years ago, Yemeni forces commanded by the United Arab Emirates, which are in turn supported by the US, have worked their way up Yemen’s Red Sea coast to Hudaydah. More than a hundred thousand families have already been forced to flee their homes through this offensive, but the worst is yet to come. Hudaydah is a massive, densely populated city. Many of its 600,000 residents may be forced to flee for their lives. Moreover, Hudaydah port brings in over 70 percent of Yemen’s food and fuel; any disruption to those commercial and humanitarian import flows would at best drive prices further out of reach and at worst make them unavailable in Yemen’s poorest rural towns. The lack of fuel and clean water is a deadly combination, particularly for women and girls. As they often do, women will be the first to skip meals to extend the family ration. And the rate of marriage for girls as young as 8-10 years old will increase, particularly among the displaced families without regular income.
The humanitarian community has been crystal clear about the consequences of the operation. Oxfam recently warned that this operation will result in many more families burying their loved ones. The UN has been bold enough to put a number on the worst case scenario: 250,000 dead, with hundreds of thousands more affected. Martin Griffiths, the UN peace envoy for Yemen, told the Security Council last month that the battle would “take peace off the table in a single stroke.” In the fallout, no one can claim to not have been warned.
That includes the US, which for a time considered actively supporting the UAE operation. The US appears to have decided against participating in the battle and hinted at its opposition to any military activity that will exacerbate the humanitarian situation. The US government wants to note its humanitarian concerns, but not oppose the offensive strongly enough to appear critical of or at odds with its ally, the UAE. To put it bluntly, US statements are being crafted to evade responsibility, not save lives.
With hundreds of thousands of Yemenis at risk, this is not the time for the US, or any state, to hide behind carefully crafted disavowals. The US could threaten to end its participation in the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen if the offensive proceeds. It could threaten to end any broader Yemen-related defense cooperation, including arms sales to the UAE. It could threaten sanctions or other economic consequences. This is not to minimize the importance of other aspects and shared priorities of the US-UAE relationship; for obvious reasons, US policymakers should threaten and carry out only those measures necessary to stave off the attack, avoiding a broader rift in the relationship if at all possible. But make no mistake: this is a moment that policymakers will tell their grandchildren about with pride or regret based on the actions they take. Every tool in the toolbox needs to be at the ready. A clear statement of opposition to the attack – naming the objective and singling out the UAE and its national forces – is the bare minimum we should expect.
The coming weeks will require the international community to be resolved for peace and all Yemeni parties to show the kind of flexibility and compassion for Yemenis that they have manifestly failed to demonstrate to this point. But we will learn sooner – perhaps even in the next few days – whether the US chooses to stand in the way of catastrophe or quietly enable it.