People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen September 22, 2016. REUTERS

June 13, 2018

The Assault on al Hudaydah: Surfacing America’s Partnership Problems

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The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen began an assault to secure control of Hudaydah port. The UN and other international aid agencies are warning that over a quarter million people will suffer and might die, and that a disruption to Hudaydah port operations would tip parts of Yemen into famine. These facts highlight one dilemma of American strategy in the Middle East: reliance on local partners to pursue vital American interests deprives the U.S. of leverage to control their behavior.

American interests in Yemen include preventing Iran from expanding its influence over the al Houthi movement and possibly deploying advanced weapons systems near the strategically vital Bab al Mandab Strait, as well as defeating growing ISIS and al Qaeda organizations and affiliates that have flourished in Yemen since the Arab Spring.

But U.S. policy in Yemen suffers from the ongoing push to reduce American commitments abroad, begun under President Obama but continued under President Trump. Washington has outsourced American interests to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It relies on the Saudi-led coalition to contain Iran in Yemen and weaken the Salafi-jihadi movement there. The U.S. maintains a tiny troop presence in Yemen, and its support to the coalition consists primarily of weapons sales and intelligence sharing.

The truth is that the United States needs it partners much more now than they need the U.S. Washington could pause or withhold weapons shipments and suspend intelligence-sharing, but neither action would prevent the Saudis and the Emiratis from continuing the war as they choose. 

The U.S. continues to try to steer its partners away from actions that make an already-bad humanitarian situation much worse. U.S. military officers and Department of Defense officials cite improved targeting and care for precision within the Saudi-led coalition. President Trump persuaded the coalition to lift its outright blockade of Yemen in November 2017, which had severely stressed Yemen’s weakened population. Yet the coalition’s naval inspections regime to clear all cargo ships entering al Hudaydah port remains in place and serves as a de facto blockade by creating sufficient obstacles to deter commercial traffic from making port calls. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis was already bad, and now nearly 8.4 million people are at risk of starvation. Current humanitarian numbers show about 80 percent of food assistance moves through al Hudaydah port. UN estimates of the humanitarian cost of the battle for Hudaydah port may not be exaggerated.

But the Saudi-led coalition regards Hudaydah port as a critical strategic target and is unlikely to be turned away from trying to take it. The al Houthis have controlled the Red Sea port since March 2015. They profit from port revenues, estimated at about $14 million per CorrectionThe original text inaccurately described the earnings as being annual whereas they are monthly.month. They also manipulate food and fuel distribution from the port into Yemen’s populous northern and central regions. The coalition rightly assesses that taking the port will deal a serious blow to al Houthi efforts to sustain themselves. Few talk of seizing Hudaydah as a decisive blow against the al Houthis, however.

The coalition also fears that Iran is using the port to provide materiel support to the al Houthis. Iran has supplied the al Houthi movement with ballistic missiles, as well as other asymmetrical capabilities, which the al Houthis have used against Saudi Arabia, naval vessels in the Red Sea, and coalition forces in Yemen.  The al Houthis’ ballistic missile threat to Saudi Arabia is real: a November 4 missile almost hit Riyadh’s airport. Analysis of missile parts shows modifications to extend range—which if improved, place Abu Dhabi at risk. On June 1, the al Houthis directly *threatened Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the U.S. allege that Iran has moved weapons shipments, including ballistic missiles, through Hudaydah.  They are engaged in a broader effort to disrupt Iranian weapons smuggling into Yemen, including the eastern smuggling routes, though it is not yet clear how effective that effort has been or can be if the al Houthis retain control of the port.

Hudaydah is also central to achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Saudis see al Houthi retention of Hudaydah in any final settlement as a red line because it would facilitate larger-scale Iranian influence and support. The al Houthis believe they must have a port to survive as an autonomous or semi-autonomous region within an otherwise hostile Yemen. This offensive broke a stalemate in Yemen’s civil war and will scuttle the efforts of UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths to resume political negotiations. The Saudi-led coalition is seeking to create facts on the ground ahead of any such negotiations, but those facts may deter the al Houthis from even entering into talks at this time.

The imminence of the assault on al Hudaydah sparked renewed pressure on the U.S. government to block the offensive for fear of the humanitarian consequences and undermining efforts at a peaceful resolution of the conflict.  U.S. agencies voiced concerns over the coming fight, but also took steps to mitigate the civilian toll. The Department of Defense, for example, has worked with the Saudi-led coalition to identify civilian and infrastructure sites to avoid targeting in advance of the offensive. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a tersely-worded statement on June 11 trying to balance the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s national security concerns with saving a new political process and ensuring humanitarian access. Our partners were undeterred: The Yemeni government *announced the start of Operation “Golden Victory” on June 12, marking the launch of the assault on al Hudaydah city.

The United States must prepare for what comes next. The question is not whether the al Houthis will lose al Hudaydah, but rather, what the Saudi-led coalition will lose in the process of winning. The al Houthis will fight hard for al Hudaydah. (They have also shown complete disregard for civilians caught in the crossfire.) Already, the going is slow in al Hudaydah for the UAE-backed Yemeni forces because the al Houthis heavily mined the area. The Yemeni forces risk getting bogged down in vulnerable positions, which presents the al Houthis with opportunities to counterattack. A dangerous development would be an al Houthi ballistic missile strike against the UAE, following through on the recent threat against Abu Dhabi. Such a strike would likely elicit a more definitive response from Abu Dhabi and would be yet another escalation from the al Houthis against U.S. partners.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to send requests to the U.S. for assistance of various sorts, and the U.S. is ill-positioned to refuse them. America’s general withdrawal from the Middle East has left it little ability to pursue its interests without partners, and the U.S. simply cannot afford to throw over those on whose forces it depends. The low level of U.S. support, however, also deprives it of the leverage needed to shape and direct the actions of partners. American officials can opine about what the Emiratis and Saudis should or should not do, but cannot enforce those opinions. The United States will remain largely a spectator in battles that touch its own core security concerns as long as the U.S. remains in this passive and withdrawn pose. As we ask our partners to do more, it is past time to reflect on some of the costs isolationism imposes on our values, ethics, and interests.

Maher Farrukh contributed research to this piece.