Trump team must do more to end the ongoing crisis in Yemen

Trump team must do more to end the ongoing crisis in Yemen
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The brutal, bloody war in Yemen is about to take a turn for the worse, as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces ramp up an assault on the Red Sea port city of Hodeida.

The Trump administration should be doing everything in its power to stop the assault. Instead, through a series of wrongheaded steps and misguided signals (like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo overruling his own team on a congressionally mandated certification about coalition conduct), it has facilitated this humanitarian crisis. Congress can and should act.

Hodeida is a critical lifeline for the majority of Yemen’s population, channelling the bulk of their food, medicine and humanitarian aid. The Saudi-led coalition claims it also is a prominent arms smuggling destination, despite the scepticism of a U.N. panel of experts.

The coalition has been trying to convince the U.S. to support an operation to take the city — or at least not stand in the way of one.

In July, UAE-backed Yemeni forces agreed to pause their campaign to take Hodeida, first to allow for negotiations over a Houthi withdrawal and then for consultative talks between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally recognized government in Geneva.

The coalition did not decide to pause on its own. It came after mounting pressure from both Congress, which threatened to cut off U.S. arms supplies to the coalition, and the Trump administration, which was able to use the threat from Congress as leverage with its partners in the Gulf.

Frank warnings from aid agencies and the U.N. that a battle for Hodeida would spark a rapid deterioration in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis unnerved both the executive and legislative branches at the time.

Urban warfare would endanger hundreds of thousands who face not only violence but the ravages that follow, including food and water shortages and the rapid spread of cholera.

For the approximately 18 million people who live in Houthi-controlled areas and for whom Hodeida is a crucial humanitarian and trade lifeline, any disruption to supply could be deadly.

In August, Congress gave its threat teeth, adding a clause to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It required that the Trump administration certify whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE were acting to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, making a good-faith effort to support U.N.-led negotiations and working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Without the certification, the U.S. government could not spend funds to provide “authorized in-flight refuelling support.”

Around the same time, recently-appointed U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths announced that he would convene consultations in Geneva to resume the stalled peace process between the Houthis and the coalition, creating some hope that a resolution might emerge.

It did not work. The Houthis certainly bear a large share of the blame: They did not show up to the consultations in Geneva after they refused to meet the conditions necessary to travel on a U.N. plane through Saudi airspace.

So do the Saudis, who balked at Houthi demands for an Omani plane and their request to bring along wounded and civilians with their delegation.

But the United States hardly helped. Secretary Pompeo announced on Sep. 12 that “the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments.”

This may well have compromised the leverage Congress and the administration had been able to build over the coalition in previous months.

The certification, which allows the U.S. to continue refuelling coalition aircraft on bombing sorties, drew bipartisan criticism from a range of House and Senate members and for good reason.

It is hard to believe that the Saudis had taken active steps to reduce civilian harm when a Saudi airstrike on Aug. 9 killed 40 children on a bus or when King Salman pre-emptively pardoned all Saudi military officers involved in the war.

A Human Rights Watch report exposed deep flaws in the Saudi mechanism for investigating alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

Within days of the certification, the battle for Hodeida ramped up in earnest. With talks collapsed, the UAE delivered a letter to the U.N. Security Council announcing it would renew its campaign to seize Hodeida. True to form, the Houthi rebels promised to fight to the last man.

UAE-backed fighters launched what they claim was a successful effort to seize control of the eastbound road that links Hodeida with Sanaa and the central highlands (the Houthis claim to have subsequently take the road back). Several hundred thousand civilians were caught in the middle.

What now? As a first step, the U.S. should rein in the coalition. Though the Houthis’ gamesmanship regarding the talks is inexcusable, it is the coalition that is pursuing an offensive against Hodeida.

They see the immense threat to a civilian population as a necessary cost of pursuing a goal — a Houthi defeat — that the campaign will almost certainly fail to achieve.

The Houthis can be expected to respond fiercely to an attack for control of the city and port, creating a military stalemate or fading away to fight another day. Washington, which still has more leverage with the coalition than it acknowledges, needs to deliver a simple message: enough.

As the administration has been unwilling to do this, the burden falls to Congress to take stronger measures since the certification requirement failed to change the coalition’s behavior.

Senator Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO MORE’s (D-N.J.) June decision to place a hold on a proposed sale of tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions (PGM) kits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE targeted the coalition’s conduct but was not enough to give its leaders pause.

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSome in Congress want to keep sending our troops to Afghanistan House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles MORE (D-Calif.) has proposed an effort to force a War Powers Resolution vote in the House to “withdraw U.S. armed forces from unconstitutional hostilities alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” 

The next step up the congressional ladder could well be resolutions of disapproval against future arms sales, similar to the one on PGMs that failed by a narrow margin in June 2017.

Such a public rebuke on a the sale of systems that the Saudis and UAE find critical to their military would send the strong message that the White House has been reluctant to deliver.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE should take heed that if Democrats take control of one or both chambers of Congress in November, new committee chairs may look to impose more extreme punitive measures that would have a tangible impact on the bilateral relationship both have with the U.S.

Daniel Schneiderman is the deputy U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group. He was a career civil servant at the State Department who served as the director for Yemen under Presidents Obama and Trump.