Why we oppose the coalition's Hudaydah offensive

The Yemen Peace Project and many other advocacy and humanitarian organizations are currently using every tool at our disposal to pressure the White House to try to stop the offensive on al-Hudaydah currently being mounted by Yemeni army, Southern Resistance and coalition forces. This position is controversial. I’ve heard from many Yemeni and Yemeni-American contacts who agree with our stance on this, and from a number who disagree. So I feel it’s necessary to explain, personally, why I think the YPP’s position is the right one, and why we think this offensive should not go forward. I hope those who think I’m wrong will take the time to read it.

We’ve been here before; back in the spring, the Emirati military planned an assault on the Houthi-occupied city, which is home to Yemen’s most important seaport. Several powerful voices in the Trump administration were in favor of providing US military support for the operation; a few others were opposed. We wrote to the president and cabinet secretaries, we met with administration officials, we talked to dozens of members of Congress, and finally the US leadership pulled its support for the plan, and the offensive was indefinitely postponed.

At the time, a few pro-coalition individuals slandered me and the YPP online. The Yemeni embassy in Washington attacked our credibility. A man whom I admire greatly and consider a friend told me that I was “doing the Houthis’ work for them.” I was also told that the humanitarian crisis is “a distraction,” and the only thing that matters is the destruction of those responsible for the coup against the republic. I completely understand this criticism, and I also understand why this issue is so emotionally charged. The Houthis have behaved monstrously throughout this war. They have done irreparable damage to Yemen, killed civilians with abandon, and locked up and tortured noncombatants by the hundreds. And they are responsible for starting this horrible war. The YPP does not oppose the assault on Hudaydah out of any fondness for the Houthis or their cause. We do so, instead, because we are sure the offensive will do disproportionate and irrevocable harm to the civilian population, while failing to achieve its stated goals.

There is consensus among the agencies and organizations responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to Yemen that this offensive will dangerously disrupt humanitarian and commercial deliveries, which are absolutely vital for the survival of millions of people. The UN Secretary-General and UN humanitarian coordinator have said as much on the record, as have most of the major NGOs involved. There is no way to carry out a military operation like this without doing serious damage to the city, its people, and its port. The coalition and the Yemeni government argue that the liberation of Hudaydah would cut off a key Houthi supply line and allow the free flow of aid and goods into Yemen. We believe that this is simply not the case, for two specific and interconnected reasons:

  1. We do not believe that a swift, decisive military victory in Hudaydah is possible. The Houthis have had a substantial military presence in and around the city since before the war began. They will probably be able to mount a very determined defense of their positions. The coalition will no doubt bring the full weight of their air and naval power to bear on the city, followed by intense street-by-street combat. The city and the surrounding areas--including the few roads leading out of Hudaydah--will be an active battlefield for weeks, if not months, during which time no shipments will be able to land at the port, and no supplies will be able to leave the city by road. Even if the city were to be liberated, the Houthis would establish fortified positions on the roads leading out of it to defend San’a. Humanitarian experts believe that a disruption of that scale would result in the deaths, by starvation and disease, of tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands.

  2. Even the successful liberation of Hudaydah would not result in an increased flow of aid and goods to those in need. It is very likely that a successful offensive would leave the city and its port in ruins. The reconstruction of the port and its supporting infrastructure would take a long time, and many thousands of people would starve to death in the interim. Even the very best-case scenario--a speedy liberation of the city, with the port remaining intact--would not result in an increased flow of goods. Saudi Arabia has maintained a partial blockade on the port for two and a half years. It shut down all ports in Houthi-controlled territory entirely for a month. Saudi Arabia did this despite the fact that no arms were being smuggled to the Houthis aboard UN-inspected aid ships. It did so not in the interest of security or out of military necessity, but rather to deliberately starve the population in the hope that this would somehow weaken the Houthis. If the coalition were to take control of the port entirely, there is every reason to believe it would continue to prevent aid and commercial goods from reaching civilians in Houthi-controlled territory, and no evidence whatsoever to the contrary. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the capture of Hudaydah would actually cut off the Houthis’ weapons supplies. UN experts have found that most arms shipments are reaching the Houthis via overland routes from the east and south, rather than from Hudaydah.

One of the strange things about my job is that I often work very hard on a particular issue while hoping that I am wrong about it. When we advocate for an end to America’s drone strikes and military raids against al-Qaeda because of the civilian deaths they cause, we hope all the while that the next strike will kill no innocents. When we call for an end to US support for the coalition’s airstrikes because they frequently kill civilians and destroy homes, we hope that every subsequent bombing proves us wrong. We have to hold this self-contradictory hope, because we know that we will often lose. The YPP is part of a combined advocacy effort involving dozens of other organizations, but even so, we are up against forces much more powerful than we. Last spring we lobbied against the Hudaydah offensive and we were successful; this time we probably won’t be. And if that’s the case and the offensive proceeds, I sincerely hope that our critics are right, and that the government and its allies quickly drive out the Houthis and establish safe and open routes for the distribution of aid and goods. We will certainly do everything we can to pressure them to do so.

I understand those who insist that the Houthis must be destroyed before any other considerations are dealt with. This war never should have happened, those who started it are criminals, but it is happening, and millions of people are starving. The humanitarian crisis will continue as long as the war goes on. I believe that Yemen’s interests will be best served by a peaceful settlement, even if that means forgoing vengeance. And as long as the fighting continues, we have to do everything we can to protect the innocent, feed the hungry, and heal the sick. You may not agree; you may think it’s not my place to say any of this. But at least, I hope, you can understand why we do what we do. Thanks for reading.