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‘Catastrophic is becoming an understatement,’ aid groups lament as new Yemen battle begins

The Saudi-led coalition that supports Yemen's government has begun an operation to retake the vital port city of Hodeidah, currently controlled by Houthi rebels who are aligned with Iran. Aid groups sounded alarms over the new escalation in the bloody proxy war, already the world's largest humanitarian crisis. Jeffrey Brown learns more from Gregory D. Johnsen of the Arabia Foundation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the ongoing brutal war in Yemen.

    The Saudi-led coalition that supports Yemen's government has begun an operation to retake the vital port city of Hodeidah. It is now controlled by Houthi rebels who are aligned with Iran.

    And, as Jeffrey Brown reports, the world's most dire humanitarian emergency somehow could get even worse.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    War cries rang out from Saudi-led fighters early today closing on Hodeidah. They're being aided by a fierce air campaign involving nine Sunni Muslim-majority countries and supported by the United States.

    But aid groups sounded alarms over a new escalation in what is already the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

  • Marie Claire Feghali:

    Today, we are at the point where catastrophic is becoming an understatement.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's the latest turn in a bloody proxy war, the Saudis and their Sunni allies backing the exiled government on one side, the Houthis aligned with Shiite Iran on the other.

    In 2014, the rebels seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, plus other territory in the northwest and eventually Hodeidah on the Red Sea, a critical port of entry for some 70 percent of all humanitarian aid in Yemen.

    Abdikadir Mohamed is director of Mercy Corps in Yemen. He spoke via Skype from Sanaa and warned of what happens if Hodeidah is cut off.

  • Abdikadir Mohamed:

    The larger part of the population is in the north. And if that is cut, then we will have a crisis, you know, a shortage of food. We're already experiencing that. And then you will be seeing food prices hiking because there are not supplies coming in. And then a fuel crisis will set in, where even transportation will be affected.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's estimated more than 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the war, while eight million face starvation. Another million are infected with cholera.

  • Abdikadir Mohamed:

    Unless we have more supplies coming in and more personnel coming in to support that, we will be dealing with a very bad situation. The endgame is to have open channels for a humanitarian corridor, so that aid delivery can resume.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    United Nations officials warned again today there is no military solution in Yemen, as they watched the battle for Hodeidah begin.

  • Filippo Grandi:

    I'm very worried that that will not put an end to the conflict, and, therefore, there will continue to be pressure on civilians, and that pressure has been terrible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The U.S. military says it is not directly involved in attacks on Hodeidah, but American planes are refueling Saudi coalition warplanes and providing logistical and intelligence support.

    The Trump administration has stepped up support for the coalition, even as bipartisan groups of lawmakers seek to end the American role in Yemen's war.

    We dig deeper into this battle for Hodeidah, the broader war and the humanitarian crisis with Gregory Johnsen, a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation and author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia."

    Welcome to you.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    First this place. Why Hodeidah? What's the significance of it?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Yes.

    Hodeidah is probably the most important port city in Yemen. It accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all the food and aid that comes into the entire country of Yemen. So, it is really a lifeline.

    And Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and their allies in the Yemeni government are worried about two things. One is that the Houthis are receiving smuggled ballistic missiles from Iran through this port. And they also believe that the Houthis are making a vast amount of money through illegal taxation at this port.

    And, so, they want to deprive the Houthis of this port and basically keep them landlocked.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, I referred to it as a proxy war, but it is one that has been off the radar for most of us for a while here.

    So, just to remind us of some of the players, you mentioned the Houthis and Iran.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do we know how much aid Iran is giving them?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    We do know that Iran is giving them aid.

    So, for the past two years, I have been on the Yemen panel at the U.N. Security Council, and we found in a report that Iran was smuggling ballistic missiles into Yemen, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    We also — there was a lot of smoke, but we couldn't pinpoint the fire for actually Iranian advisers on the ground. How much other aid is a matter of debate.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then, if you look at the coalition side, the U.S. influence, how much influence does the U.S. have? And would they be undertaking a raid like this without U.S. acceptance?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Well, the U.S. — for the offensive on Hodeidah, the U.S. has essentially giving the United Arab Emirates what one official called a blinking yellow light. That is, proceed, but with caution.

    This is different from what the U.S. has done over the past couple of years, when the U.S. has put the brakes on any offensive going into Hodeidah. Hodeidah has been a target for the United Arab Emirates, for the Saudi-led coalition, for the Yemeni government for a number of years.

    What's changed now is, last December, the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a man who ruled the country for more than three decades, he had allied himself with the Houthis. That alliance collapsed in four bloody days of a gun battle in the capital of Sanaa.

    Saleh's nephew survived that battle. And he has flipped sides. And he's joined the government and he's joined the Emiratis and the Saudis. And his troops are pushing up the Red Sea coast toward Hodeidah. And the Houthis are moving back in front of him.

    And so that offensive is one of the reasons that they're going in now, along with the U.S. yellow light.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, beyond the yellow light, what is the Trump administration's stance on this now and how much support are we giving them?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    The U.S. continues to provide — as we just saw in the video, they continue to provide refueling, they continue to provide intelligence.

    What the U.S. is saying or what they're saying most recently is that they're not giving offensive capabilities to the Emirates or to the Yemeni forces. That is, they're giving intelligence about what not to hit. So, don't hit this mosque. There's a hospital here. Don't hit this.

    That's what the U.S. says it is, because the U.S. is very, very concerned that it not be considered a party to the conflict, that it's only providing support to the UAE and the Saudis, but that it's not actually involved in the fighting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I reported in that piece that there was some growing pushback in Congress.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How strong is that?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    I think we have — it's not as — not strong enough to get something done, but I think it is growing.

    And I think one of the reasons is because of the humanitarian concerns of U.S. congressmen about what's going to happen if this battle, if the offensive doesn't go as well as the Emiratis and the Trump administration seem to think that it will.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, separately, we should remind people that the U.S. is continuing to fight in a different part of Yemen, right? Against Al-Qaida.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    That's right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Which is a separate thing altogether.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Yes, the U.S. is carrying out a number of air and drone strikes, in fact. And they're even conducting raids with UAE soldiers against Al-Qaida and ISIS targets.

    So, just to give an example, in 2017, the U.S. carried out over 130 air and drone strikes in Yemen. This is more than four times the amount that was carried out in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

    So there's been a rapid uptick of these strikes, largely outside of any oversight or any sort of media attention.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, just briefly coming back to the humanitarian crisis, it's already there. How afraid are you of what happens next?

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    It all depends on how quickly the battle goes.

    So, if the battle drags out for weeks and weeks, it could get very, very bad. But if the Houthis are pushed back, very quickly, as the Emiratis and the Trump administration seem to think will happen, then it won't be as bad as many of these aid organizations seem to think.

    The other thing I would point out is the status quo in Yemen is very, very bad. There are eight people — eight million people — excuse me — who are severely food-insecure, and 18 million people who are food-insecure out of…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even before this.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Even before this.

    And I think that's one of the things that's driving the U.S. is, something has to be done. And when we have had a war that's been stalemated for so long, they're hoping that this is the thing that will do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Gregory Johnsen, thank you very much.

  • Gregory Johnsen:

    Thank you.

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