Foreign Relations & International Law

Attack on Humanitarian Aid Hub in Yemen Appears Imminent

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 10:14 AM

Emirati-backed Offensive against Strategic Yemeni City Appears Imminent

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Emirati-backed Offensive against Strategic Yemeni City Appears Imminent

The strategic Yemeni city of Hodeidah is bracing for a potential humanitarian disaster. Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates are closing in on the Houthi-occupied port and an attack now appears imminent, despite months of warnings that any disruption to the port could jeopardize the food aid on which thousands of Yemeni civilians rely. Hodeida is the point of entry for approximately 80 percent of the humanitarian aid to Yemen—a country on the brink of famine, where more than three out of four people receive food aid. Making a dire situation worse, aid groups and international organizations are increasingly poorly positioned to respond.

Diplomats have been working for weeks on a deal in which the Houthis would cede control of the port to the United Nations, but no agreement has been reached. According to a new report from International Crisis Group, “The most likely outcome of a battle for Hodeida is not a quick, clean victory for government forces followed by outright Huthi capitulation, as some hope, but prolonged and destructive fighting in Hodeida’s city, port and immediate environs, followed by a period of maximalist demands from all sides. Because the port is the principal lifeline for not just the Huthi-controlled highlands but also just under two thirds of Yemen’s population, the humanitarian crisis, already the worst in the world, will deepen.” Crisis Group warns that the only thing that could prevent the offensive at this point is concerted political pressure on the United Arab Emirates, especially from the United States.

But that does not appear to be forthcoming. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a mild statement saying that he had discussed this situation with the Emiratis and that the United States would work with them “to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.” U.S. officials have reportedly been ambivalent about pro-government advances in the area, but mulled a request from Emirati defense planners to provide assistance, including drone reconnaissance for the attack. The United States has provided logistical support, including aircraft refueling operations, to Saudi and Emirati forces since they launched their intervention in Yemen in 2015, despite occassionally criticizing the Gulf states for incurring high civilian casualties. “We are not 100% comfortable that, even if the coalition did launch an attack, that they would be able to do it cleanly and avoid a catastrophic incident,” one anonymous U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal, though the source acknowledged that there was some support for the Emirati offensive. “We have folks who are frustrated and ready to say: ‘Let’s do this. We’ve been flirting with this for a long time. Something needs to change the dynamic, and if we help the Emiratis do it better, this could be good.’”

On Monday, the Journal reported that, though Emirati officials had previously said they would wait for U.S. and British approval for the attack, they now seemed ready to proceed regardless after pro-government forces were targeted by a Houthi rocket attack. U.S. officials are begrudgingly backing the Emiratis and trying to mitigate the worst consequences of the offensive, but as one official told the Journal, “This isn’t our preferred scenario.”

Containing the crisis will be made more difficult by the absence of the United Nations and Red Cross. The United Nations announced it was withdrawing personnel from Hodeidah on Monday, before the brunt of the attack. Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross withdrew its remaining 71 employees in the country on account of continued threats to their safety after one Red Cross worker was gunned down two months ago. Doctors without Borders has also come under attack—a new cholera treatment facility was bombed by Saudi or Emirati warplanes yesterday morning in Abs, east of Hodeidah. The early morning attack did not injure anyone, but will further hinder aid workers’ ability to respond to the crisis. The organization said yesterday that it has temporarily frozen its operations in the area.

Renewed Gulf Aid Buys Jordanian Government Time

The appointment of a new prime minister and reversal of an unpopular new tax law has bought the Jordanian government a reprieve after a week of protests. The new prime minister, Omar al-Razzaz, who previously was an economist at the World Bank, faces the daunting challenge of appeasing public frustration with Jordan’s high unemployment rate, skyrocketing prices, and stagnating economy, while also implementing structural adjustments mandated by the International Monetary Fund. Razzaz’s task was made a bit easier this week with a fresh infusion of aid from the Gulf states, but other problems will persist. Protesters have now had a taste of success and remain concerned about prices and corruption, and it is unclear what strings the new Gulf aid may have attached.

The IMF-backed structural adjustments—which include plans to cut subsidies and expand Jordan’s tax base to create new revenues and offset the country’s large budget deficit—were made necessary by Jordan’s decision to accept a $723-million line of credit from the IMF in 2016. Jordan has long been dependent on foreign aid flows, and only turned to the IMF because aid from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states had dried up. At least some of that decline in Gulf aid is attributable to declining oil prices, which has prompted a far-reaching reassessment of Saudi economic policy. But experts have also noted that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed an aggressive regional agenda and at times bullied regional allies, has chafed at Jordan’s independent foreign policy. Jordan has remained committed to East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state in a two-state solution, while Saudi Arabia has privately pressed Amman to drop its conditions for the peace process. Jordan has also tried to stay out of the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen, to the frustration of Jordan’s one-time patrons. And, though Jordan has nominally supported the Gulf campaign to isolate Qatar, it has refused to cut diplomatic ties with Doha or classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

The Gulf states have been frustrated by Amman’s foreign policy, but they are more concerned by the prospect of popular protests forcing reforms from an allied monarchy. In meetings in Mecca on Sunday and Monday, King Abdullah met with leaders from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Kuwait, who agreed to reopen the aid spigot. The three Gulf states will give Jordan $2.5 billion over the next five years, allowing Jordan to pay down the budget deficit and ease the country’s economic reforms.

Jordanian officials hope that the increased resources can prevent another outbreak of large-scale protests, but as the Washington Post reports, though protests have subsided in the capital, they have continued elsewhere in a smaller, more dispersed form. Reversing the unpopular tax law and subsidy reductions on fuel and electricity will not address the full extent of many Jordanians’ concerns. “The real problem of Jordan is corruption—rampant, very influential corruption—from the top down,” Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst, told the Post. “Irrespective of how much [money] you inject, it evaporates. This is why people went berserk.”

Iraq’s New Electoral Crisis

Despite some boycotts and low turnout, Iraq’s parliamentary election last month appeared to go relatively smoothly. The outcome, though, was a bit of a surprise: The most successful candidate list was a coalition led by the formerly militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has reinvented himself and gained new, widespread popularity with an Iraqi nationalist agenda. The results set the stage for complex negotiations to form a governing coalition, and in the weeks since Sadr has met with secular parties and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Victory Alliance list placed third. A peaceful transition to a new government seemed likely.

That transition now appears in doubt. Several politicians, including Speaker of the Parliament Salim al-Jabouri, have leveled accusations of electoral fraud, and Abadi agreed last week that there appeared to have been irregularities. Confidence in the country’s independent electoral commission has collapsed. Last Wednesday, the Iraqi parliament ordered a recount of millions of votes to be conducted by a board of judges, but now that may not happen. After the recount was ordered, a fire broke out in the warehouse where ballot boxes were being stored on Sunday. Officials from Iraq’s Interior Ministry said that only a small portion of electoral material was burned, but the fire has now thrown Iraq into a political crisis. Three police officers and a member of the electoral commission were arrested yesterday on suspicion of committing arson.

Jabouri, who advocated for the recount, called today for new elections to be held, saying that the fire was “a deliberate and planned crime designed to hide fraud in the election and deceive the Iraqi people.” Abadi also expressed concern about the fire, saying it had been an “intentional plot.” Sadr has said he opposes new elections “for the sake of one or two seats,” but expressed grave concern about the destabilizing crisis. “Iraq is in danger,” he said on Sunday, warning that the country was being pulled toward a civil war in which he would not participate. “All our options remain open, and they will fall within the parameters of the constitution and Iraqi laws, but we cannot predict the reaction and choices of the masses.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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