Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is multi-tasking. Not only is he working hard to follow up on the Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but he also is concerned with Hudaydah.
In a few days, we could all become relative experts on that Red Sea port city, which may have escaped our attention until now. It’s complicated, but the one-sentence version (with apologies to the late Evelyn Waugh, author of the epic journalistic novel “Scoop") runs as follows: Pro-government Yemeni forces, supported by a Saudi-United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition, are attacking Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control Hudaydah, currently the only way that food and other humanitarian aid can get to 20 million Yemenis who live in the rebel-controlled territory, including the capital, Sana.
(The literary reference is twice justified. The setting of “Scoop” is 1930s Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea from Hudaydah, and the novel’s hero, a mis-assigned gardening correspondent, is sent to cover a confusing civil war with foreign involvement — in reality, the Italian invasion of then-Abyssinia.)
In a recent press statement, Pompeo declared: “The United States is closely following developments in Hudaydah, Yemen. I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian and life-saving commercial imports. We expect all parties to honor their commitments to work with the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy ... on the issue, support a political process to resolve this conflict, ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people, and map a stable political future for Yemen.”
That sounds like diplo-speak for:
Washington is extremely concerned;
UAE leaders take a different view;
a humanitarian disaster is almost inevitable;
no-one is listening to the U.N. special envoy;
and all our efforts to resolve the problem are being thrown out the window.
The Emiratis, rather than the Saudis, appear to be leading the assault, advising the advancing Yemeni forces and providing crucial logistical support. According to the BBC, those forces began attacking the city early Wednesday, when Iranian-backed forces ignored a midnight deadline to withdraw. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that U.S. military forces are providing the former “with intelligence to fine-tune their list of airstrike targets ... . ‘The intent is to minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure,’ said one U.S. military official.”
How big a disaster is possible? The Guardian of London, citing U.N. officials, said “in its worst-case scenario ... as many as 250,000 civilians would be killed as a result of an attack.” Another 300,000 or more could be forced to flee, according to various sources.
Clearly, London is taking the lead on this issue. The British government told aid agencies that it had done “everything we can through diplomatic channels to discourage an assault” but to no avail.
The extent of British concerns and frustration is reflected in earlier news that, on June 2, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke by telephone with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, widely known as MbS. Later, a spokesperson said: “The prime minister and the crown prince agreed that ultimately the dire situation in Yemen could only be resolved with a political solution, and welcomed the efforts being made by the U.N.’s Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. They discussed the humanitarian situation and agreed the importance of doing everything they could to ease the suffering of Yemenis.”
If MBS agreed then, he appears to have since changed his mind, perhaps after talking with his Emirati counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed, aka MbZ, at last week’s inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council.
The official concern about the course of events in Hudaydah has jumped the Atlantic from London to Washington, where nine U.S. senators — Republicans and Democrats — have signed a letter to Secretary Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, expressing “grave alarm” about the attack on the port and describing the threatened humanitarian crisis as “unacceptable consequences.”
Bipartisan congressional threats to sever U.S. assistance to the Saudi/UAE coalition because of humanitarian concerns will now be tested — although, with the U.S.-North Korea summit dominating the headlines at the moment, Hudaydah likely will have to take an inside page.