Iran’s Role in Yemen Exaggerated, but Destructive

Iran’s Role in Yemen Exaggerated, but Destructive

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and ten other countries have been conducting a bloody airstrike campaign against the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen. The campaign, meant to counter what Saudis call the “Iranian Threat” in the Arabian Peninsula, had received limited support from the Obama Administration, but Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are now operating with a freer hand from the Trump White House.

Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review

Yemen at the UN – March 2017 Review

Summary

In March, the prospect of a Saudi-led military coalition offensive on the rebel-held city of Hudaydah dominated Yemen-related policy discussions at the United Nations and in the United States.

Discussions among UN Security Council member states generally centered around how such an offensive would radically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis – given that Hudaydah is the main entry point for humanitarian and commercial goods, and that the country is already facing the world’s largest food security emergency.

In the US the debate centered around whether the offensive would serve American interests in countering Iranian influence in the region, and to what degree the US military should support a coalition assault on Hudaydah. There were strong indications in March that the nascent Trump Administration favored US military support of the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts.

Meanwhile, the World Food Program reported that 17 million people in Yemen were food insecure – three million more than in January – while the Yemeni rial faced the imminent threat of rapid depreciation, which would destroy per-capita purchasing power in the country and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.  

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also described to the Security Council the many attacks on civilians by all sides of the conflict during March, the worst of which was a Saudi-led coalition attack on a boat carrying Somali refugees off of the coast of Hudaydah that killed 43 civilians.

 

Yemen-related UN happenings in March

Following a request from the Russian mission, on March 10 the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O’Brien, briefed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding several of the world’s humanitarian crises, chief among them Yemen.

O’Brien, who had visited Yemen from February 26 to March 2, said the country is in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and that the Yemeni people face the “spectre of famine.” Given Yemen’s heavy reliance on imports – with the country importing up to 90 percent of its nutritional needs – the OCHA head said that famine cannot be prevented without the active participation of the private sector, that commercial imports must be allowed to resume normally through all entry points and, in particular, Hudaydah port “must be kept open and expanded.” He added that “all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and are politicizing aid.”

Notable among the responses of the ambassadors in attendance was that of US representative Michele Sison, who said council members must use their influence over the warring parties involved in humanitarian crises to ensure “unfettered access” for aid, and with regard to Yemen in particular referred to Hudaydah Port and Sana’a Airport in stating that “obstructions to aid in Yemen must be lifted.” In an apparent deviation from the trajectory of the new US administration, Sison reaffirmed the necessity for a political peace process and said “there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

On March 13, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova released a statement expressing Moscow’s concern regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and calling for an “immediate cessation of all use of force.” Particularly worrying, said Zakharova, were plans by the Saudi-led coalition and forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government to launch an offensive against rebel-held Hudaydah, adding that such an assault would cause the mass displacement of civilians and cut Sana’a off from food and humanitarian aid, leading to “disastrous consequences.” The Russian spokesperson also said its embassy in Sana’a – one of only two foreign diplomatic missions operating in Yemen, along with Iran’s – had established a secretariat to facilitate cooperation between the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, and “the de-facto authorities in the capital.”  

On March 14, the “Quint” multilateral group – until recently dubbed the “Quad”, which consisted of the US, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but now also including Oman – met with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in London. International observers noted that the lack of a press statement following the meeting likely implied that the talks were unproductive. The London meeting was part of a four-day European tour by Ould Cheikh Ahmed, during which he also visited Paris and Berlin, met with senior officials and Middle East experts, and publicly reiterated the need for a political settlement to the conflict and increased international humanitarian assistance.  

Following another Russian request, on March 17 UNSC member states discussed the expected attack on Hudaydah, with Political Affairs Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman providing a briefing. At the talks many member states expressed concern that the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, though none went as far as saying the assault should not take place. In an “elements to the press” – the weakest form of Security Council public statement – following the briefing, UNSC member states called for there to be access for humanitarian and commercial goods in Yemen, including through Hudaydah, and for the warring parties to abide by international humanitarian law.     

On March 23 the Swedish mission organized a meeting of the UNSC’s Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security, which included the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as the UN Special Envoy and the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. The discussions revolved around various issues arising from the past two years of conflict – including the rising rates of violence against women, child marriage, female-headed households, women enduring famine – as well as ways to address these issues and promote more equitable political engagement for women.  

On March 29, both Special Envoy Ould Chiekh Ahmed and Ambassador Koro Bessho of Japan, Chair of the Yemen 2140 Sanctions Committee, briefed UNSC members. The Special Envoy reiterated his dismay at the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation and the likelihood of intensified military operations. He urged UNSC members to pressure all sides in the conflict to engage constructively with his proposed framework for achieving peace, and emphasized that the impacts of the current situation threaten to undermine Yemen’s stability far into the future.

“It is my firm belief that further military escalation and humanitarian suffering will not bring the parties closer together,” said Ould Chiekh Ahmed, urging the UNSC to “use all of its diplomatic weight to push for the relevant parties to make the concessions required to reach a final agreement before more lives are lost. We must give peace another chance.”

 

The prospect of a Hudaydah offensive

Hudaydah city, situated along Yemen’s north-western Red Sea coast, contains an urban area of some one million people, with the wider governorate having a population of some 2.6 million. Being within close proximity of the country’s largest urban centers, the city is home to Yemen’s most active port facilities and is currently the entry point for 70-80 percent of the country’s current humanitarian deliveries, and an even greater share of commercial fuel and food imports.

At the beginning of the year, forces fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, backed by the Saudi-led regional military coalition, launched a renewed effort to retake the country’s west coast and cut off the Houthi rebels and allied forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from their access to the Red Sea. In early February pro-government forces succeeded in capturing the town of Mokha, less than 200 kilometers south of Hudaydah, and made public their intentions to push their offensive north to retake Hudaydah itself.

Through the rest of February and March, however, despite sustained support from coalition airstrikes and shelling from warships offshore, pro-government ground forces made little headway, held back by the Houthis’ heavy use of landmines and stiff armed resistance. This contributed to renewed calls by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their supporters in Washington, for increased US military support to pursue the Hudaydah offensive.

 

The debate in Washington

March witnessed intense debate among members of congress, current and former government officials and US agency representatives as to the implications of a Hudaydah offensive and whether, or to what degree, the American military should engage.

Those advocating for robust US military involvement – including mainly Republican senators, some White House officials and Pentagon staff, among others – argued that capturing Hudaydah was essential to protect American interests, given that it would help secure Red Sea commercial shipping and assist American allies in containing Iranian attempts to destabilize the region through proxy forces. Proponents also argued that denying the Houthi rebels their last major seaport and means of resupply would likely force them to re-engage in peace negotiations, that capturing Hudaydah would facilitate speedier access for humanitarian aid delivery in Yemen, and that support for the Saudi-led coalition is necessary to help counter Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Late last year the Obama administration rejected a request to aid Emirati forces in attacking Hudaydah, after it concluded that even with US support the assault was likely to be unsuccessful against rebels who were well entrenched and well armed, also noting that the assault would dramatically exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which the UN shortly thereafter called the largest food security emergency in the world.   

Vocal opponents of last month’s push in Washington for greater US involvement in an offensive against Hudaydah repeated the same concerns, while also warning that the US risked being drawn into a military quagmire with no clear exit, that the Houthis posed no direct threat to American interests, and indeed that “Al Qaeda in Yemen has emerged as a de facto ally of the Saudi-led militaries with whom your administration aims to partner more closely,” as noted in a letter addressed to the US president penned by a bipartisan group of senators. (For more on how Al Qaeda has benefited from US policy in Yemen, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: The Limits of US Military Power in Yemen: Why Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to thrive.)

While the Trump administration itself is currently undertaking a review of its Yemen policy, with the results not expected until the end of April, many observers suggest their position will ultimately align with that of Saudi Arabia; indeed, following a White House meeting on March 13 between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and President Trump, the two reaffirmed their commitment to “a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region… [and] the importance of confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.”

In the first week of March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson approved measures to restart the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia, which the Obama White House had banned following a Saudi air strike on a funeral hall in Sana’a last October that killed well more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more. At the end of last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis then issued a request for the White House to rescind another Obama-era restriction preventing the US military from supporting Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen. Both requests require presidential approval to go into effect, which President Trump had yet to give as of this writing.

 

UN reaction

In speaking with representatives from UNSC member state representatives and other UN sources through March 2017, the Sana’a Center found there was a general sense that the new US administration will erase all diplomatic efforts over the past two years aimed at ending the Yemeni conflict. Despite UN reports detailing only small-scale Iranian support for the Houthis to date, UNSC member states foresee the Trump White House embracing the Saudi-led coalition narrative that casts the Houthis in Yemen akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and thus as an existential threat to American interests. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen has also been seen as welcoming the prospective increase in US military support, with President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi concurrently showing decreased interest in engaging with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in the peace process.  

Faced with the shifting policies in Washington, through March it became apparent that neither the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, nor UNSC member states, had any practical suggestions regarding how to move forward the peace process, beyond the general idea that the framework for domestic negotiations and the international political process should be broadened.

 

Humanitarian and economic updates

On March 13, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin, following a three-day trip to Sana’a and Aden, urged the international community to help prevent famine in Yemen, given that 17 million Yemenis are food insecure – an increase of three million people since January this year – and seven million of these were “severely food insecure.”

A Famine Early Warning Systems Networks report at the end of March noted that: “Recent food import data suggest that food imports into Al Hudaydah port have recently declined sharply. As this port supplies many key markets in western Yemen, these declining imports raise concerns about future supply levels and food prices at markets that rely on this port as a source.” At the beginning of April the WFP then reported that increased tensions around the port had spurred commercial shipping lines to cease deliveries. The WFP noted that “as an immediate implication, a rise in transportation costs and an increase in delivery times are expected.” The agency then said it was working on a contingency plan, with one option to redirect humanitarian operations to Aden.

While the WFP was able to reach 4.9 million people with food aid in February, “because of inadequate funding WFP reduced the food ration to stretch assistance to more people.” As of March 10, the $2.1 billion international humanitarian appeal for Yemen for 2017 had only been 6 percent met. In an effort to raise funds the governments of Switzerland and Sweden are co-hosting a “High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen,” slated to take place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on April 25. As of the end of March, however, no governments had made any public pledges for the event.

In a move that is certain to impact future Yemeni relief efforts – and indeed was described by one observer as possibly entailing “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it” – the American administration instructed government staff last month to identify cuts of up to 50% in general US spending to the United Nations for 2018, with Foreign Policy reporting that this likely includes a 36% cut in US funding for humanitarian programs. The US is currently the largest financial contributor to the UN, with roughly $10 billion in annual spending. In an attempt to stave off the devastating funding cuts, the UN responded by appointing South Carolina governor David Beasley, a Trump loyalist, to head the WFP.

 

Economic collapse  

Widespread economic collapse is magnifying Yemen’s humanitarian crisis: per capita GDP is estimated to have dropped 35 percent in two years; most civil servants – roughly a quarter of the country’s employed – have not been paid since August 2016; fishing and agricultural activity are down 65 and 50 percent, respectively, and “over 70 percent of small and medium enterprises have been forced to lay off half of their workforce,” according to March 18 OCHA bulletin. OCHA further highlighted the collapse of public services: roughly half of all healthcare facilities closed – and most of those remaining open suffering shortages of medicine, equipment and staff – leaving an estimated 14.8 million people without access to basic healthcare, while two million children are out of school.

Furthermore, immediately threatening to exacerbate the humanitarian situation is the likelihood of a rapid depreciation of the Yemeni rial, should there be no robust international financial intervention to provide the Yemeni market with access to foreign currency exchange. (For more on Yemeni rial depreciation, see this recent Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies report: Rapid currency depreciation and the decimation of Yemeni purchasing power). Given the country’s massive reliance on imports, such would devastate remaining per-capita purchasing power, undermine Yemenis’ ability to buy food and other necessities and significantly accelerate the spread of famine.

Among the only positive trends emerging in the humanitarian situation in Yemen last month was in regards to the cholera/Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) outbreak: in January this year there were 15,000 suspected cases in 156 Yemeni districts; thanks in large part to the efforts of the UN and partner organizations, OCHA reported last month that “the cholera/AWD epidemic curve shows a declining trend of incidences occurring in the most affected districts.”

 

Continuing evidence of war crimes

On March 24 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein released a statement detailing attacks over the previous month that had killed 106 civilians. These included helicopter gunships and warships from the Saudi-led military coalition firing on fishing boats off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and air strikes on food trucks and markets. Al Hussein also noted the Houthi forces had shelled a market in Taiz and were laying siege to densely populated areas of the governorate, causing severe shortages of food, water and milk for infants for civilians trapped inside.

The human rights commissioner said the worst incident last month occurred on March 16 off of the coast of Hudaydah, when a boat carrying Somali refugees attempting to get to Europe was fired upon by coalition forces. A Reuters report, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, said that for half an hour an Apache helicopter had fanned back and forth over the vessel spraying it with bullets, killing a total of 43 people.     

The human rights commissioner then reiterated his call for an independent international investigation into war crimes by all sides – a proposal that has been repeatedly put before the Human Rights Council during the Yemeni conflict and each time rejected by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the council, including the United States and the United Kingdom.  

Following the incident the UAE issued a statement saying its forces had not targeted the Somali vessel, having “clearly recognised the non-military nature of the boat which was carrying a large number of civilians”; the UAE then called for an independent international investigation into the incident – an unprecedented move which observers say was an attempt to ensure that Riyadh bore responsibility.     

Days later the Saudi-led coalition called on the UN to assume jurisdiction over the port and supervise its operations; the UN refused, with spokesperson Farhan Haq adding that “Parties to the conflict have a clear responsibility to protect civilian infrastructure and fundamentally to protect civilians. These are not obligations they can shift to others.”

Speaking later in the month about the incident and other attacks against civilians, Human Rights Watch warned that continued US arms sale to Saudi Arabia risked exposing American individuals involved in these transactions to criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes.

In related news, US Secretary of State Tillerson said the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council if it did not undertake “considerable reform.” As reported by Foreign Policy, Tillerson said in a letter to various NGOs that “the United States ‘continues to evaluate the effectiveness’ of the Council, [and] remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.”

 

In brief

  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had, as of April 5, received 10% of the USD $2.1 billion it has appealed for to implement its humanitarian response plan for Yemen in 2017.
  • In the month of March, 41 vessels applied for clearance from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); 34 requests for clearance were issued certification and the average time to issue clearance was 31 hours, an average of three hours less than the month before. A total of 636,810 metric tons (mt) of cargo was approved through the UNVIM in March, consisting of 636,810 mt of food, 236,854 mt of fuel and 145,266 mt of general cargo. This is a increase by a total of 223,467 mt of cargo from the month before.

 


Yemen at the UN is a monthly report produced by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies to identify and assess UN-led efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Through this analysis, Yemen at the UN aims to provide readers with an understanding of the international political context that accompanies developments on the ground. This month’s Yemen at the UN report is in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert- Yemen office.