The Yemen civil war — fought by the legitimate Yemeni government with the backing of a Saudi-led coalition against a Houthi-led alliance with Iranian support — enters its third year next month. For much of the war, the Obama administration counseled its close partner Saudi Arabia against being drawn deeper into a war of attrition being fueled in part by the Iranians at very low cost.
Flash forward to today, the Yemeni government and its coalition backers, including the Saudis, are rapidly escalating their military efforts.
The United States has been asked to assist this effort, through more support and additional precision-guided munitions (PGMs). And, just last week, the Yemeni government announced efforts to re-take all of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, including the largest port of Hudaydah.
Before responding to new requests for support, U.S. decision-makers must ask tough questions about whether this escalation and the strategy behind it will advance U.S. interests or contribute to a protracted war and increased hunger in Yemen.
Over two years of war have devastated the Yemeni people and the nation’s infrastructure. Close to half a million children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, wasting their bodies and threatening their lives. The war has also brought the health care system to the edge of collapse, displaced 2 million people and forced 10 million to depend on assistance their survival.
This Yemeni and coalition escalation will likely impact fighting on the Red Sea coast and in the Yemeni interior.
After months of stalemate, progress against the Houthis would be welcome news for the Yemeni government and its coalition backers. The public and diplomatic narrative is that this military escalation will help balance the negotiating table. A balancing is needed, but the current approach could follow the same trajectory of more war and less strategy.
If the Yemeni government re-takes all of Yemen’s Red Sea ports (including Hudaydah), it could reduce or cut off food supply to Yemenis in the center and north of the country. Yemeni and other diplomats deny that will happen, underscoring that food will be distributed more actively and more fairly throughout Yemen. However, battle lines will immediately ring these Red Sea ports. Whether or not you doubt these intentions, getting food across battle lines at scale has often proven nearly impossible.
As a result, the capital Sana’a and the Houthi homeland Sadah would be strangled using a combination of economic and humanitarian pressure.
About 90 percent of UN food assistance and 70 percent of Yemen’s pre-war commercial food imports enter Yemen through Red Sea ports. However, most acknowledge that the Houthis will not be moved easily by economic or humanitarian pressure. To think otherwise flies in the face of Houthi history and their willingness to persevere against better-armed foes.
This strategy will create extraordinary pressures on the Yemeni people living in the center and north of the country over time, with the hope that their discontent is ultimately directed at the precipitating actor (the Houthis), rather than the actor directly responsible (the Yemeni government and its coalition backers).
This strategy will compound an already dire humanitarian situation. The UN has reported that at least 7 million Yemenis need emergency food assistance to survive and at least 2.2 million Yemenis are already acutely malnourished.
Were Yemen to tip into famine, something that the Obama administration worked hard to avoid, we could see staggering death tolls. For comparison, the 2011 famine in Somalia killed over a quarter of million people among a population that is less than half of Yemen’s population.
A better approach would be to focus the coalition on the Houthi threat to Saudi civilians and to international shipping by supporting its efforts to increase military pressure along the Saudi border, target Houthi-controlled ballistic missiles, and eliminate Houthi-held anti-ship missiles.
So would a parallel diplomatic approach that accepts sequenced political and security measures, like those in the Yemen Roadmap developed by the Obama administration. Perhaps this parallel diplomatic approach could build on the Iranian president’s recent visit to Kuwait.
Any such diplomatic approach would need to offer a role in the new government to all Yemeni communities — including the Houthis. It would also need to test the Houthi willingness to give up military control in exchange for such a role. This test must come early in the sequence, but it cannot be surrender by another name.
Yemen has already drawn scrutiny by the Trump administration as a terrorism threat. As the new administration establishes its own policy towards Yemen, U.S. decision-makers will need to carefully consider the strategies being pursued by its partners.
No military escalation alone is going to sever the Houthi relationship with the Iranians. And, no U.S. approach should accept making the Yemeni people the principal hostage of this conflict. And, finally, no U.S. strategy should accept being taunted deeper into an Iran-enabled quagmire in Yemen.
Eric Pelofsky is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for North Africa and Yemen at the National Security Council from 2014-2017, and previously as a senior advisor to the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
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