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Humanitarian Crisis Worsens in Yemen After Attack on Port

posted on: Jun 14, 2018

SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES

BY: MARGARET COKER AND ERIC SCHMITT

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An Arab military coalition invaded Yemen’s main Red Sea port on Wednesday, worsening what is already the world’s most severe humanitarian disaster by disrupting the delivery of food and other supplies to millions of Yemenis.

The air and ground attack by forces loyal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was aimed at tipping the balance in Yemen’s long-running civil war and driving Iranian-backed rebels out of the port of Al Hudaydah. Although fighting appeared to be limited to the outskirts of the city on Wednesday, the prospect of sustained fighting there stands to produce one of the bloodiest urban battles of the war, deepening what is already a catastrophic humanitarian situation.

After years of war, eight million of Yemen’s estimated 28 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.

A protracted battle for Al Hudaydah could rival the fighting that ravaged Aleppo, Syria, or Mosul, Iraq, cities that have come to symbolize the brutality of warfare in the Middle East, according to humanitarian workers and diplomats. About a quarter of a million people in Al Hudaydah, a city of 600,000, are in danger of injury or death in an urban assault, the United Nations said.

The United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross withdrew most of their staff members from the city over the past few days.

But a battle there will have consequences far beyond the city, whose port is the main entry point for aid to the rest of the country.

“This attack risks more people dying, but it also risks cutting the lifeline of millions of Yemenis,” said Jolien Veldwijk, the acting country director in Yemen for the aid agency Care International. “Food imports already reached the lowest levels since the conflict started, and the price of basic commodities has risen by a third. We are gravely concerned that parts of the population could experience famine.”

The Saudi-led coalition attacked the southern edge of Al Hudaydah by land and air on Wednesday. The Emiratis have signaled that they are planning a separate naval offensive to take the port.

The Houthi rebels, an armed movement with ties to Iran, said they had foiled a sea landing near the port. “The Saudi coalition has not advanced at all in Hudaydah,” Dayfallah al-Shami, a Houthi official, told Mayadeen television, a satellite channel based in Beirut, Lebanon.

The war between the Saudi-Emirati coalition and the Houthis is just one facet of the unrest that has splintered the impoverished country. In the south, Emirati-backed local forces, assisted by American drones, are battling the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda. A southern insurgency wants to secede from the north. And the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has no natural constituency in the country and instead lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis and Emiratis intervened in the war three years ago with hopes of a quick victory over the Houthis, whom they see an Iranian proxy. Instead, the two nations have been stuck in a quagmire.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticized for the decision to carry out an air war in Yemen, keeping Saudi casualties low but killing thousands of Yemeni civilians. The airstrikes have crippled the country’s infrastructure and created the conditions for one of the world’s worst cholera epidemics in 50 years.

The stalemate with the Houthis, and the lack of a clear strategy or exit plan, have raised questions about whether Prince Mohammed and his ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the Emirates, have locked their nations in a costly and unwinnable conflict.

The assault on Al Hudaydah appears to be their effort to break the logjam and gain an upper hand in peace negotiations.

“The liberation of the city and port will create a new reality and bring the Houthis to the negotiations,” the Emirates’ state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

The Saudi coalition said the invasion was intended to be limited and swift. A military spokesman, Col. Turki al-Maliki, said the plan was to take control of the airport, seaport and the route leading to the capital, Sana. “We will not fight a street war with the Houthis in Hudaydah for the safety of civilians,” he told the Saudi-owned Al Hadath TV.

“We would like this to be over quickly,” Reem al-Hashimi, the Emirati minister of state for international cooperation, said by phone. “I think that is the aspiration of everyone. But we are also preparing for the long haul.”

But experts say that even a victory in Al Hudaydah is unlikely to significantly alter the underlying dynamic in Yemen. The Houthis still control the capital, Sana, as well as territory in northern Yemen, their ancestral lands.

“The battle for Hudaydah is not going to end the war,” said Gregory D. Johnsen, a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation and one of the authors of the United Nations report on Yemen. “The Houthis are a major actor in Yemen. They have been fighting the Yemeni government in one form or another for years. There were times when they looked like they were eradicated but they have risen from the ashes time and time again.”

The United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition, but American military officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have warned their Arab allies that the assault could end in failure both militarily and politically, and result in further civilian suffering.

More and more Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress are criticizing the American role, accusing the Pentagon of being complicit in the bombing campaign.

Nine Senate Republicans and Democrats wrote to Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday, expressing “grave alarm” that the offensive would worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country.