Daniel Larison

Hodeidah and the Saudi Coalition’s Deliberate Starvation of Yemen

Patrick Cockburn explains what the Trump administration’s support for the attack on Hodeidah will do to Yemen:

The US is encouraging the UAE and its allies to take Hodeidah to break the deadlock, by tightening encirclement of the Houthis. But this is a long way from taking Sanaa and forcing the Houthis to surrender.

What the Hodeidah operation may do is turn a humanitarian disaster, which the UN is already calling the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, into complete catastrophe. Three quarters of the 27 million Yemenis already require aid to survive and this may be cut off in the next few days as the fighting moves into Hodeidah and closes the port.

The Trump administration has occasionally paid lip service to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but in practice it has increased support for the bombing campaign, deflected attention away from Saudi coalition crimes, and desperately sought to blame anyone but the coalition for the suffering of Yemen’s population. The U.S., Britain, and France all bear responsibility for enabling and indulging the coalition, and that now extends to supporting an assault that everyone understands will be a nightmare and a death sentence for hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of innocent civilians. The Saudi coalition is in the process of committing what is likely to be one the largest crimes against humanity in decades, and it is doing so with U.S. approval and assistance.

The effect that the assault will have on the population even if it is successful will be horrific:

Even if the assault on Hodeidah is a military success, he said, it will be devastating to Yemeni civilians.

“When you place a frontline directly between a port and the population it serves, it effectively cuts off that population,” Konyndyk said. In Aden, those consequences were less extreme because most Yemenis weren’t entirely dependent on it. “But if Hodeidah is cut off, there is no backup option. Food will run out, fuel to support water systems and aid operations will run out, and people will begin dying in large numbers.”

The Saudi coalition has wrecked and starved Yemen for over three years with Washington’s assistance and encouragement, and it now threatens to cause massive loss of life that could end up being measured in the millions. More than eight million are already on the brink of famine primarily because of the coalition blockade, and this assault promises to shove many of them into the abyss.

This is the deliberate, knowing starvation of a civilian population in a desperate attempt to advance an unjustified, aggressive military campaign. It may no be too late to halt the offensive, but if Congress is going to force the issue with the administration it has to do it immediately. If Congress can’t or won’t do something to stop this attack, the U.S. will remain a knowing accomplice in one of the most appalling crimes of our time.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

What happens if mass starvation takes hold in Yemen? Alex de Waal describes the devastating effects of famine on a society and warns that this is likely to happen to Yemen because of the Saudi coalition attack on Hodeidah.

Assault on Hodeidah will bring famine and devastation. Wesley Dockery interviews Nadine Drummond from Save the Children about the effects of the attack.

The Saudi & UAE slaughter of Yemen isn’t a proxy war. Sheila Carapico explains why the conflict isn’t a proxy war.

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The Saudi War on the People of Yemen

Sheila Carapico refutes the common assertion that the Saudi-led war on Yemen is a “proxy war” with Iran. She addresses the coalition offensive against Hodeidah at the end of her article:

The Saudi-led coalition is now making a push on the strategic Red Sea port of al-Hudaydah, which has already been out of commission for three years and remains “occupied” by Houthi rebels. Al-Hudaydah port and the governorate of al-Hudaydah lie along the Red Sea coastal plain known as the Tihama. The people of the Tihama, residents of fishing, herding, pottery-and-basket-making, and sharecropping communities who have already suffered disproportionately from Saudi-led bombing and the naval blockade, are dark-skinned Yemenis of mixed Arab and African ancestry. Spiritually, they identify with the Shafi`i denomination of Sunni Islam. Socially, they are the poorest of the poor. Politically, they have no sympathy for the Houthis, much less Iran.

The victims of the coming – or current — onslaught are not “proxies of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” They are starving children under attack by filthy-rich monarchies wielding the most advanced weapons Britain and the United States have to sell.

The Yemenis that are suffering the most from this conflict are innocent and poor people whose lives have been made immeasurably more difficult by political forces they don’t support and can’t control. Except perhaps for aid agencies and human rights groups, there is practically no one that speaks for these Yemenis. Their country’s supposedly “legitimate” government is in league with the invading forces that are destroying their home. They are made to endure indiscriminate bombing, displacement, epidemics, and starvation because of the paranoia and ambitions of despotic Gulf rulers. I have called it the war on Yemen for the last three years because that seems to best describe the conflict. More precisely, it is a war on the people of Yemen.

Framing the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran creates the impression that Iran’s involvement is in some way comparable to that of the Saudis and their allies, but as Carapico explains very well this is simply not true. Iran’s involvement in the conflict has been and remains negligible and insignificant, especially when compared with the major direct intervention by the Saudis, Emiratis, and other members of the coalition. Buying into this framing has meant that the U.S. indulges the coalition in its crimes and atrocities out of a misguided belief that it is somehow harming Iran in the process, but innocent Yemenis are the ones suffering. They are the victims of a war waged upon them by all of the governments and political leaders involved.

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The U.S. Is Enabling a Catastrophe in Yemen

This interview with Nadine Drummond from Save the Children is essential reading for understanding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the effect that the assault on Hodeidah will have on the civilian population:

Hundreds and thousands will suffer from famine. The closure of the port of Hodeida or any delay of imports of food or medicine into the country will absolutely devastate the children of Hodeida. Last year, 50,000 children died of preventable diseases such as cholera or measles and that was even before the escalation on Hodeida. There is little hope for the children in Yemen unless there is an end to the conflict.

It also takes the peace process off the table. The UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, was supposed to present a security framework earlier this month, but I don’t see that happening now.

The only way to alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is to halt the fighting and lift the coalition blockade. The assault on Hodeidah makes the first practically impossible by killing off any chance for negotiations for the foreseeable future, and it ensures that the effects of the blockade will be made even worse for millions and millions of innocent Yemenis. The coalition governments are pressing ahead with this attack knowing full well the effect it will have on the civilian population. As usual, coalition governments are showing flagrant disregard for the lives of civilians, and they keep getting away with this because the U.S. and other Western governments support their war and shield them from international scrutiny and censure. Attacking Hodeidah will make an already cruel and atrocious war that much worse, and it is happening with the Trump administration’s acceptance and assistance.

The port of Hodeidah was targeted early in the war by the Saudi coalition bombing campaign, which destroyed the cranes needed to offload goods from ships. That severely limited the amount of cargo that could be offloaded and created additional delays in bringing in basic necessities. The cranes that have replaced them are very inadequate:

Hodeidah was bombed in August 2015, and has been operating at reduced capacity ever since. Two much-trumpeted USAID-funded mobile cranes arrived at the port at the start of this year, but, according to Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen, they haven’t made much of a difference.

“The damaged cranes were giant, permanently-installed pieces of machinery, capable of offloading up to 30 containers each per hour; their substitutes are extendable apparatus attached to the sort of tiny, portable trucks one might expect to see at a suburban construction site,” van Meegen told IRIN.

The Saudi coalition has consistently been impeding the delivery of goods and aid into Yemen, destroying critical infrastructure, and endangering the lives of civilians. The U.S. should be condemning their actions in the strongest terms and halting all assistance and arms sales until the coalition ends their war on Yemen, but instead the Trump administration offers unconditional support.

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The Assault on Hodeidah Will Cause Mass Starvation in Yemen

Alex de Waal warns that mass starvation in Yemen is still likely even if Hodeidah falls quickly to the Saudi coalition. In addition to the massive loss of life that would entail, he explains the devastating consequences such a famine will have:

Famine isn’t just about masses of people going hungry; famine tears societies apart. It means mass exodus caused by desperation. It means humiliation and collective trauma. Some people profit from the misery of others, hiking food prices or buying land at fire-sale prices. Those who pay the price — and their children and then those children’s children — can only resent the opportunists for their plight. Not to mention the aggressors.

As the British learned in Ireland in the mid-19th century, and the Soviets in Ukraine in the 1930s, starving people is a dangerous and loaded strategy: It leaves behind a bitter legacy, and a long trail of rancor.

If mass starvation takes hold in Yemen, expect an even more deeply divided country. Expect radicalization. Expect an exodus across the Arabian Peninsula and up the Red Sea, toward the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. Expect to see the ugly and perilous repercussions of this harrowing experience for years to come.

If the coalition manages to take Hodeidah at great cost to the local civilian population, that is unlikely to end the war or alleviate the country’s humanitarian crisis. As de Waal notes, commercial goods and aid still need to reach the people served by the port, and if Hodeidah falls those people will be cut off. By attacking the port and cutting off the vast majority of the population from their main source of food, fuel, and medicine, the coalition is all but announcing that it intends to starve the population and continue the war until the other side capitulates. That doesn’t make the Houthis more likely to talk, and it gives them more incentive to resist as long as possible. An assault on the port doesn’t bring peace closer. On the contrary, it makes a negotiated resolution to the conflict less likely than ever. A prolonged fight over the port, or an intense fight that damages the port’s infrastructure further, will disrupt the already woefully inadequate supplies of commercial goods and aid that are coming in now. Yemen’s population cannot afford even a brief disruption, and it is much more likely that it will last for weeks or months.

Millions of Yemeni civilians’ lives hang in the balance, and a great many of those lives will be needlessly taken if the assault continues. This disaster is preventable and could still be prevented if the U.S. reined in its clients and warned them off from this attack, but there is no sign that the Trump administration is willing to do that. The U.S. is helping the coalition to commit one of the biggest international crimes in decades, and our government could stop it from happening if our leaders were willing to risk angering a gang of despots.

There are efforts in Congress to press the coalition to halt its attack, but to date every attempt to end U.S. support for the war has been successfully opposed by the leadership, the White House, and the Pentagon. There is growing opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, but it remains to be seen if there is enough:

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.

“The U.S. must now withdraw all its military support of the Saudi and U.A.E. military coalition,” Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat of California and a former Air Force lawyer, demanded in a separate email on Wednesday. “The U.S. already has blood on its hands in the Yemen crisis, we should not make them even bloodier.”

There may be significantly more support in Congress for cutting off U.S. military assistance because of the attack on Hodeidah, but if so it needs to happen immediately to show the Saudis and Emiratis that they do not have the blank check they have taken for granted for the last three years. The attack shows why the Senate should have cut off that support months ago when it had the opportunity, and it makes cutting off that support much more urgent.

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The U.S.-Backed Assault on Yemeni Port Has Started

ABC News reports on the start of the Saudi coalition’s attack on the port of Hodeidah:

As many as 22 million people – three-quarters of Yemen’s population – could be at risk of losing access to necessary food and medicines they receive through the port, amid a worsening humanitarian crisis on the verge of famine that the U.N. has described as the world’s most dire.

“Any attack on or significant, long-term disruption of operations of the port will have catastrophic consequences for the people of Yemen,” Frank McManus, the International Rescue Committee’s country director in Yemen, told ABC News.

The Saudi coalition has waged their war on Yemen with flagrant disregard for the lives of the civilian population, and with the attack on Hodeidah they are doing the same thing on a larger scale. The U.N. and aid agencies have all warned against this attack because of the horrific consequences that will follow, and as usual the coalition governments have ignored those warnings and pressed ahead anyway. The U.S. has been a major enabler of the coalition’s war effort for the last three years, but instead of using its leverage with the coalition to prevent this atrocity the Trump administration is going along with and actively helping the attack. The Saudi coalition has been imposing collective punishment on the people of Yemen for three years in their bid to starve the country into surrender, and by attacking the port that the vast majority the population relies on for their food, fuel, and medicine they are intensifying their efforts to strangle Yemen to death. We are witnessing a massive crime being committed against the people of Yemen, and once again the U.S. is aiding and abetting the governments responsible for it.

It is important to understand that the Saudi coalition would not have made it this far without U.S. military assistance. The U.S. is not simply an indifferent bystander. Our government is an active participant and belligerent in this shameful and atrocious war. Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of Yemenis may die in the coming weeks and months because our government values good relations with reckless despots much more than it values their lives.

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Pompeo’s Insulting North Korea Spin

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Mike Pompeo doesn’t like people questioning the toothless statement produced by the Singapore summit:

Questions about perceived gaps in the joint statement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un are “insulting and ridiculous and frankly ludicrous,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday in Seoul, where he is briefing South Korea on Tuesday’s U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore.

Asked specifically about verification of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and whether it will be irreversible — objectives outlined by Trump but unmentioned in the statement — Pompeo said: “The modalities are beginning to develop. There will be a great deal of work to do. There’s a long way to go. There’s much to think about.”

“But don’t say silly things,” he said. “No, don’t. It’s not productive.”

It is appropriate and indeed necessary for people to raise questions about what the government is doing, and it is not “silly” to point out flaws and omissions when they actually exist. If most observers are emphasizing that the statement released after Tuesday’s summit was weak and lacking in specifics, that is because the administration is trying to sell it as a major success. It is the job of journalists and experts to question official claims and to challenge them when they are false. If Pompeo doesn’t like “insulting and ridiculous” questions, perhaps he and the president should not say ridiculous things that insult the intelligence of informed people.

Pompeo is the last person who should be complaining about criticizing the results of diplomacy with adversaries. He was a leading critic of the JCPOA and made any number of spurious, false claims about what the deal did and was supposed to do. He defended U.S. withdrawal because the deal supposedly “put the world at risk because of its fatal flaws,” but every single one of the “flaws” he described was either made up or not part of the agreement. The Singapore summit statement is being judged against what the administration promised and according to what the text actually says and leaves out, and it has been found wanting. If we judged it by the unfair, ever-changing standards that Iran hawks used for the JCPOA, the assessment would be even harsher.

Pompeo and other Iran hawks routinely held the JCPOA up to an impossible standard that no agreement could ever reach, and now that they have cobbled together a much weaker understanding with North Korea Pompeo can’t handle the slightest pushback. He approved of reneging on a completely successful nonproliferation agreement for bogus reasons after railing against the diplomacy that produced that agreement, and now wants this administration’s critics to show a degree of deference that he and his colleagues in Congress never showed during the negotiations with Iran. Whining about fair criticism of a weak statement after lying about a successful agreement for years takes hypocrisy to new lows.

Pompeo is reduced to claiming that the summit statement secretly contains things that not present in the text:

Pompeo said the statement’s reference to “complete” denuclearization “encompasses verifiable and irreversible.”

This is a risible defense, and it reflects the extent to which the administration is willing to make things up out of thin air to square their previous maximalist rhetoric with what they were able to get. The administration is trying to spin their unsuccessful effort as a triumph in a deliberate effort to mislead the public about what they have done, but it isn’t going to work.

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U.S. Is Increasing Support for the Saudi Coalition Attack on Hodeidah

The Trump administration is increasing U.S. military assistance to the Saudi coalition as its members launch an attack on the port of Hodeidah that is sure to be a disaster for the civilian population:

The U.S. military is providing its Gulf allies with intelligence to fine-tune their list of airstrike targets in Yemen’s most important port, one sign of the Trump administration’s deepening role in a looming assault that the United Nations says could trigger a massive humanitarian crisis.

The administration is defending this as a way “to minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure,” but this can’t be taken seriously. This is how support for the Saudi coalition is always justified, and it is never borne out in how the coalition wages its war. The U.S. enables the coalition bombing campaign, and in so doing it makes it possible for the coalition to kill many more Yemeni civilians and commit many more war crimes. The U.S. isn’t just “reluctantly” going along with this attack. Our government is actively aiding in its execution.

The right and only way to minimize civilian casualties and harm to critical infrastructure in this situation is to oppose the coalition attack on Yemen’s major port. The U.S. government won’t oppose the attack, and instead it is looking for ways to help the coalition carry it out. Feigning concern for civilian casualties when you have already signed off on an operation that could claim as many as 250,000 lives in and around Hodeidah is not credible. The previous U.S. line was that attacking Hodeidah was unacceptable because of the devastation it would cause to Yemen’s civilian population. It was the only thing that the U.S. had told the coalition it would absolutely not tolerate, and now the Trump administration is throwing its support behind the offensive.

Scott Paul from Oxfam issued a warning earlier this week, and he concluded it this way:

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.

The U.S. will not only fail to meet the bare minimum standard Paul sets, but it has clearly decided that it will enable another catastrophe on top of the three years of enabling coalition crimes and abuses in Yemen.

Like the indefensible war of which it is a part, this attack cannot be justified. Attacking Hodeidah jeopardizes the lives of millions of Yemenis. It will result in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands, and it will push many hundreds of thousands more into famine and death. We are on the eve of one of the greatest crimes committed in this century, and the U.S. is aiding and abetting the perpetrators.

The justification for going along with the attack is as insulting as one would expect:

“It’s a waste of time to point blank stop this operation without offering an alternative,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute. “If somebody told the US in 2003, don’t go to Baghdad, what would we have said?”

In fact, many other governments warned the U.S. not to go to Baghdad and not to invade Iraq at all, and the administration at the time told them to jump off a cliff. Citing that example is not an argument for launching a similarly criminal and immoral attack, nor is it a valid excuse for acquiescing in the new crime. If our allies had been able to prevent the Iraq war, the U.S., the region, and the world would all have been better off. The U.S. is in a position to prevent its so-called “allies” from doing something horrible and reckless, and it ought to prevent it for the sake of the people of Yemen, for our own sake, and even for the sake of these reckless clients. Unfortunately, the Trump administration would rather condemn hundreds of thousands of people to die than offend its friends in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

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The Trump-Kim Summit

The summit in Singapore was brief, and judging from the official statement released after the meeting it did not accomplish very much. North Korea has committed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That is the same vague, aspirational language that their government has been using for decades, and it still remains as unlikely to happen as ever.

The good news is that the summit did not cause a collapse of talks following a walkout by either side. The two sides committed to hold further talks. Bolton’s efforts to wreck diplomacy with North Korea will undoubtedly continue, but they have not succeeded yet. North Korea committed to nothing that it has not said before in previous statements, but the meeting did not sabotage inter-Korean engagement. The statement reaffirmed the process that DPRK and South Korea began at Panmunjom this spring. The two leaders got the photo op summit they desired, but it has so far proved to be less harmful than I feared. It is difficult to credit the claim that it was “an epochal event of great significance,” as it says in the statement, because we have yet to see what, if anything, will follow from it.

The danger now is that one or both sides will misinterpret what the summit statement means and have unreasonable expectations for how quickly things should progress. The president this morning was already building up expectations that North Korean disarmament would begin soon:

President Trump said Tuesday that he was suspending joint military exercises with South Korean forces and that he was confident North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, would begin dismantling his nuclear arsenal “very quickly.” [bold mine-DL]

This seems to be a case of reading too much into the North Korean commitment and misinterpreting it to fit the U.S. definition of denuclearization. When North Korea doesn’t begin dismantling its arsenal “very quickly,” there is a good chance that the president will overreact and anything that might actually be achieved through negotiations could be lost. North Korea’s arsenal is the reason they were able to receive the recognition and status that they now have, so they have every incentive to keep it.

The U.S. and its allies should now focus on making North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile testing moratorium permanent. Once that has been agreed, it can serve as the foundation for further negotiations. If the administration continues to operate on the assumption that North Korea is giving up its nuclear weapons, it will miss the opportunity to obtain more modest but achievable changes in North Korean behavior.

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The Saudi Coalition Bombed a Cholera Treatment Center in Yemen

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Yemen reported that the Saudi coalition bombed one of the cholera treatment centers earlier today:

Yemenis have been suffering from the world’s largest modern cholera epidemic for more than a year, and there have been over one million cases since April of last year. Medical facilities such as this one are never to be targeted in time of war, and attacks on medical facilities constitute war crimes. The Saudi coalition has routinely struck hospitals and clinics throughout their three-year war on Yemen, and they have destroyed MSF-supported facilities on many occasions. The coalition bombing campaign has wrecked the infrastructure and destroyed many of the country’s medical facilities, the blockade has created a fuel crisis that makes it difficult to run generators to pump clean drinking water, and coalition forces have even struck at water and sewage treatment plants. They have created the conditions for the extensive spread of cholera, a normally preventable disease, and they even bomb the treatment centers that are set up to cope with the epidemic their policies helped to cause.

Sen. Chris Murphy condemned the attack:

U.S. support for the bombing campaign enables the frequent bombing of medical facilities and other civilian targets. The coalition governments are not trying to limit the harm they do to the civilian population, and the U.S. should not be aiding and abetting their war crimes.

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