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.