The objectives and strategy of the American starvation war against Yemen
The United States is leading the team that refuses to pay Yemenis’ salaries, using starvation as a tactic of war to subdue Sana’a.
Al-Khabar Al-Yemeni / Zakaria Al-Sharabi:
Timothy Lenderking, the American envoy to Yemen, revealed his country’s explicit opposition to the talks between Sana’a and Riyadh regarding the humanitarian arrangements for the peace process, which revolved around the issue of paying employees’ salaries from oil and gas revenues, in a statement to the UAE newspaper Al-Ittihad.
Assuring that all public sector employees receive their salary, for example, is one of the complex issues being debated, according to Lenderking. He said discussing salaries might have an effect on Yemen’s future.
The Yemenis, whose salaries have been cut off since late 2016 and who are living through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, do not understand how paying salaries can affect Yemen’s future. They can only conclude that Washington is using starvation as a means to subjugate them.
What does Washington want?
Ali Abdullah Saleh fought the Houthis in Sa’ada for American interests, according to WikiLeaks documents. One document makes mention of a conversation that took place in April 2005 between Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ambassador “Thomas Krajeski,” during which Saleh asked for more support for the bloody war against Sa’ada. Saleh said, “If the Houthis stop chanting ‘Death to America and Death to Israel,’” he assured the ambassador once again that the battle is American: “We are fighting in your battle. They are anti-US, anti-Israel, and pro-Iranian, while we are your friends.”
Another document includes a message from Ali Abdullah Saleh to Bush, he said that Yemen’s only problem with the Houthis was their animosity for the United States of America and their attempts to harm American interests and Yemeni American relations. Yemen has no other problems with the Houthis, he added. (1)
Washington clearly sees the Ansar Allah project as a threat, as evidenced by these two documents. How would it accept them now after they have arrived in Sana’a and gained power if they did not accept it when they were still a group in the Sa’ada suburbs?
In his memoirs released earlier this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledges that the primary mission of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was to assist the United States in uprooting what they claimed to be Iranian influence in Yemen. (2) Several members of Congress, such as Ro Khanna, Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Ted Lieu, and Bernie Sanders, affirm that the United States is an indispensable partner in the war, as it determines what and where the alliance aircraft will strike; it is the one who made the blockade possible; it provided the alliance with weapons and logistical support; and its officers managed the military operations from an operating room in Riyadh. (3)
US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein expressly declared in a statement to The Media Line website that the objective of the war in Yemen was to topple Sana’a and establish a government aligned with American interests. He added that the war cannot end before this objective is accomplished. (4)
Aiming to overthrow Sana’a from within, after failing to achieve its military aim, the United States used economic strangulation as a parallel tactic to the military machine. Although 80% of Yemen’s population lives in areas under the control of the rescue government, these areas lack the resources to provide services and pay employees’ salaries. Washington relied on the option of economic strangulation in conjunction with using propaganda tools and the so-called fifth column to incite unrest in the streets and eventually achieve the popular overthrow of Sana’a.
The US imposed severe punitive economic measures that, according to international descriptions, amount to war crimes. The implementation was not only by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but, as Senator Rand Paul confirms, America made the blockade possible. Its role in determining the targets of airstrikes is not hidden; it deliberately targets economic facilities, food production, and infrastructure in order to bring people to starvation.
Since August 2015, civilian and economic targets, such as water and transportation infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads, transportation, schools, cultural landmarks, clinics, hospitals, homes, fields, and herds, have increasingly replaced military and governmental targets, according to a study by British researcher Martha Mundy. (5)
However, despite the destruction caused to human life in Sana’a-controlled regions, the particular surrender specified in UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which required that the Houthis alone surrender their weapons before political negotiations, has not taken place.
Mundy points out that the start of the economic war and the isolation of the country in the fall of 2016 marked the beginning of a new phase of the war. This involved the closure of Sana’a airport to all commercial flights and the blockade of the port of Hudaydah. The Yemeni Central Bank was moved to Aden, which was the most significant event, depriving employees of their salaries.
This phase was started concurrently with the US Secretary of State’s announcement of an initiative calling for the withdrawal of Sana’a forces, or what they called the Houthis, from several provinces, including Hudaydah, whose port is the only artery supplying food and medicine to Sana’a and is under the control of a third force supervised by the international quartet. This initiative was part of the American policy of “carrot and stick.” In return, they would have a share in a future national unity government. Sana’a rejected this initiative, and at the time, the leader of Ansar Allah, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, said his famous saying, “Let them wait for the impossible and God; for us to turn into atoms scattered in the air is more honorable and dearer to us than surrendering to all those criminals.”
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the head of the Sana’a delegation for political consultations, said that Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador, directly threatened them by saying, “You now have a deal in front of you; either sign it or face an economic blockade.” We’ll close Sana’a Airport, move the bank, and stop all revenue. We told him, you only judge matters of this worldly life, so do as you please. (6)
Abdul-Salam’s account does concur with Tueller’s position that the Houthis must accept the agreement as is or else the humanitarian situation for the Yemeni people will get worse, according to the American magazine The Intercept, which cited multiple sources in Washington who were familiar with the negotiations. (7)
As the magazine highlighted his request to carry out this process, Tueller’s position about moving the bank was not a secret. In an interview with the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in September 2017, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi confirmed that “the Americans wanted to transfer the bank to Oman,” but that the decision to move it to Aden was made in the end. (8)
The decision to move the bank caused an economic disaster and a true famine, marking the pinnacle of economic coercion. Millions of people were pushed into poverty and below the poverty line as a result, and the economy collapsed quickly, causing a million government workers to lose their paychecks. (9)
In an interview with The New York Times, Alex de Waal, the author of the book “Mass Starvation,” which analyzes contemporary man-made famines, said, “People believe that famine simply refers to a lack of food. But in Yemen, it’s a war over the economy”, he continued. (10) When asked about the threat of famine, a senior Saudi diplomat said, “Once we control them, we will feed them,” according to Martha Mundy. (11)
The US intended, through moving the bank and the suspension of employee salaries, to put pressure on Sana’a and its citizens, who rely on salaries as their sole source of income. Once the bank was transferred, the United States launched propaganda campaigns, with their former ally Ali Abdullah Saleh taking a leading role. They raised slogans such as “Where is the salary, Houthi?” and accused Sana’a of corruption, calling for peace and surrender to American demands. This internal tension reached its peak in Sana’a in August 2017 when Saleh called for demonstrations on the 24th of the same month, aiming to lead a popular movement under the guise of demanding services and salaries against “Ansar Allah”. When this movement failed, Saleh resorted to military escalation in December of the same year, including demanding salaries for employees and services, among other things desired by the US, before he was killed, and popular support shifted towards “Ansar Allah,” who are at the forefront of the confrontation with the alliance.
The Intercept publication has revealed that the Obama administration, throughout 2016, thought of isolating the Houthis by making Saleh oppose them. Some thought that convincing Saleh to switch sides and ally with Saudi Arabia would create a rift within the enemy alliance and possibly end the war. Even Eric Pelofsky, Senior Director for North Africa and Yemen on the National Security Council of the Obama administration, met in private with Saleh’s family to discuss terms. Despite Washington’s discomfort with Saleh’s demands to return to the presidency, prior to his dispute with Ansar Allah, Matthew Tueller informed the State Department that “he believes that the division between Saleh and the Houthis is a possibility and an opportunity that the US can exploit. Also, he suggested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepare a white paper on how to take advantage of the tensions.
Control over Hudaydah and the imposition of a military division:
In conjunction with Saleh’s move, there was a military move towards the province of Hudaydah to forcibly impose the Kerry Initiative, at least with regard to the province, and to keep the economic targeting going by imposing a military reality. The Saudis and Emiratis were too terrified to fight this war on their own, so the US bore the bulk of it.
Despite the heavy human losses incurred in reaching the outskirts of the city in an attempt to impose surrender on the Sana’a forces, the alliance was unable to seize control of Hudaydah. In Sweden, the UN announced that negotiations are underway to establish a humanitarian truce in the province. However, when an agreement was struck, there were attempts to impose a military interpretation of what had been agreed upon, such as calling for the withdrawal of Sana’a forces from the city of Hudaydah and handing it along with the port to a local administration based on the circumstances of 2014, under the supervision of the UN.
Sana’a did not accept this interpretation and affirmed that any military steps should be part of a political agreement that includes the entire Yemen. The US sought to re-impose the regions that were rejected as a military reality in 2014, neutralize Hudaydah, and construct military boundaries that would keep Sana’a isolated in the areas under its authority.
A settlement to end the war in Yemen is being worked on under US supervision and is predicated on partitioning the nation into autonomous zones, according to US Defense Secretary James Mattis from the Manama conference on October 27, 2018. He pointed out during the “Bahrain Security Conference”: “The settlement being prepared gives traditional areas to their original inhabitants, so that everyone is in their own regions,” and he added, “The Houthis will find their opportunity in self-governance.” (12).
This does not mean that Washington would accept “Ansar Allah” remaining in power in Sana’a, as it participated in the war against them when they were still in Maran in Sa’ada. However, given that the majority of the population lives in autonomous regions without resources and that the Mattis plan calls for an end to the war, Sana’a will have neither a cause worth fighting for nor services to provide for its citizens.
The US substantially intensified the blockade after failing to implement the Kerry Initiative and passing Mattis’ plan. Despite being inspected oil tankers by the UN but the alliance detained them at sea. However, the US failed to incite popular resentment against Sana’a. On the contrary, the embargo and the continuation of the war gave people more motivation to side against the alliance. Robert Malley, who served as a leader for Middle East affairs in the Obama administration and is currently the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, was dispatched to Sana’a at that point, after Washington carefully reevaluated the situation.
Robert Malley arrived in Sana’a in 2019 as the Executive Director of the International Crisis Group, but he was not allowed to enter in any official capacity. In his assessment, published in an article on The New York Times, he highlighted important points that later shaped US policy.
Malley stated that the residents of Sana’a seem stunned and angry at what they view as the wildly disproportionate international attention garnered by every single Houthi missile or drone attack on Saudi Arabia, compared to the regular, destructive Saudi-led alliance bombings Yemenis have endured since March 2015. He noted that this angry stance against Saudi Arabia was reflected even among the leaders of the Al-Motamar Party, the traditional ally of the Saudis. People in the streets spoke about Saudi Arabia bombing everything, including graves, and said, “Even our dead have become unsafe.”
The Houthi leadership knows all this—the popular hostility toward the Saudi-led coalition; the remarkable control the movement has achieved—and finds other justifications for self-confidence. Time, they feel, is on their side. Despite formidable military disparities, they have stood up to a coalition of wealthy, powerful states backed and armed by the West.
The US official emphasized that Saudi Arabia has too much to lose to risk it, and Yemenis have too little to lose in their care. (13)
Direct US threat: We will not allow entry into Marib:
In the strategic field, Sana’a’s forces have made quick progress since late 2019. They regained control of the Nihm district east of the capital, then the entire Al-Jawf province, and advanced towards the oil-rich Marib province. The result was unprecedented direct threats from Washington as a result of its raising concerns and anxiety. The US envoy stated that his nation would not permit the Houthis to enter Marib. Accusing military leaders of leading the battle, the US Treasury placed sanctions on them. (14) Under the pretext of aiding the Houthis, sanctions were also placed on Yemeni exchange companies. Some oil tankers were held for more than a year as the blockade was tightened. Also strengthened were the restrictions on fuel entering Sana’a by land from alliance-controlled areas. Parallel to this, Washington put up a plan promising a constrained and conditional relaxation of the siege in exchange for a ceasefire in Marib and a halt to attacks on the alliance. However, Sana’a considered this an unjust trade-off because Washington seeks to use the humanitarian file to accomplish what it couldn’t do militarily. Then, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Lindhking threatened to close the ports and airports completely, claiming that if the initiative wasn’t accepted, Yemenis wouldn’t find ports to obtain food and medicine. (15)
Rather, the information points to direct American involvement in the airstrikes to stop Sana’a forces from advancing. Here, we find a significant appraisal of the situation at the time and suggestions for further action by American officials and experts. In 2021, David Schenker, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs (2019–2021), stated that “The Houthis are on the verge of taking control of Marib, which would represent a Pyrrhic victory over Washington.”
The worst-case scenario for Riyadh and Washington was presented by Schenker in a piece that was published in Foreign Policy magazine, where he claimed that the Houthis’ win in Marib would represent a triumph in the entire battle. In the same way that Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban, he cautioned against America’s enemies seizing control of Yemen.
He advised Washington to make continued and additional maritime interdiction efforts, as well as enforcement of the embargo on air traffic, to prevent the smuggling of advanced Iranian military equipment.
He also stated that the Houthis’ victory is not only a concern for Saudi Arabia but also for Israel. He urged the Biden administration to prevent this victory either by working with the Saudis to better arm and organize the Hadi government and its local allies or by ordering the U.S. military to intervene directly. If neither of these options is possible, according to Schenker, the Hadi government should unite with Yemeni factions opposing the Houthis to launch a counteroffensive, the Saudis will begin aggressively arming the Yemenis in Marib to give them a chance at winning, or fortunes will otherwise dramatically reverse. (16)
Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made recommendations that were similar after visiting Saudi Arabia multiple times to assess the causes of their defeats, notably on the border. (17)
According to Knights, the control of Sana’a forces over Marib, the “power center in Yemen,” would essentially mean their victory in the war in Yemen. Even without Marib, a win or a draw would transform the Houthis into the new “Hezbollah of the South” on the Red Sea, mirroring Hezbollah’s position on the Mediterranean.
Knights comes to the conclusion that the conflict in Yemen goes beyond geographical boundaries and the frameworks discussed in negotiations. It is a conflict linked to the Houthis’ goals and their future project.
According to him, “Washington must conduct a neutral review of its policy towards the Houthis and analyze their future objectives, not just toward American components and facilities in the region but also toward Israel, international shipping, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Regardless of how the conflict in Yemen ends, officials should start considering a containment strategy now rather than later if such a review determines that the Houthis are likely to become an enemy of the United States in the future. Such emergency preparation seems logical in light of the Houthis’ expanding long-range arsenal and their dedication to their official slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
Knights made a number of recommendations, such as “tightening the screws on the Houthi striking forces,” which is a phrase meant to tighten the siege under the pretext of combating “arms smuggling, according to his claim,” and “undermining the Houthi leaders by revealing intelligence about their corruption,” as well as providing US support to bolster Marib’s defense, such as supporting information for operations and resupplying the defenders. The last recommendation was later implemented in the creation of what is known as the 153 Naval Force, along with building combined early warning networks in the Red Sea under the guise of combating arms smuggling.
The US sees Sana’a’s control of Marib as a violation of military dividing lines and breaking economic isolation barriers, even if it is just one stage for Sana’a towards reclaiming every inch of Yemen. This is due to the fact that Sana’a would regain some of the oil and gas fields, which would help to lessen the suffering of the citizens and on which America has bet as ammunition for victory.
In late 2021, US officials made significant efforts to align the Saudi and Emirati directions and the factions loyal to them in the battle of Shabwa to restore areas that were controlled by Sana’a forces. This was done in accordance with the recommendations provided by American officials and experts. US envoy Timothy Lenderking met with Emirati and Saudi officials under the slogan “Coordinating Orientations Regarding the Security of the Region.” (18)
To counter common threats from Houthi provocations, Lenderking called for cooperation. Cathy Westley, Acting US Ambassador to Yemen, has also led similar efforts to unite factions loyal to the alliance, including with the Southern Transitional Council and other groups, when she traveled to Aden with Lenderking and, according to the embassy statement, urged them to “continue to strengthen internal coordination, because division weakens all the parties”. (19)
These efforts led to a battle in Shabwa, through which the UAE returned to the forefront despite announcing its withdrawal from Yemen years earlier.
The forces of Sana’a were in a good position to dominate the major energy hub at Marib as well as another crucial oil production and gas pipeline corridor between that city and the Gulf of Aden, which runs through Shabwa province, according to an assessment by Knights and Alex Almeida following this battle. They hoped that the results of the Shabwa battle would relieve the pressure on Marib.
According to the assessment, the forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen are coordinating their actions at the tactical level for the first time since the start of the Gulf alliance’s intervention in 2015 by utilizing a combined operations cell at Ataq airfield in Shabwa.
The two American experts urged Washington to participate in returning Sana’a forces to the mountains and not even to the areas near Marib, so that Marib would be out of their reach, and to tacitly support this effort to achieve stability on the Marib front, permanently blocking the road to the Houthis achieving a comprehensive victory.
To achieve this goal, Knights and Almeida recommended several steps to make Sana’a submit to American conditions, most notably tightening the blockade under the pretext of preventing arms smuggling and preserving the remaining international sympathy for the alliance by reducing the collateral damage from airstrikes.
The assessment concluded that the Houthis would respond to American pressure once they realized they would be increasingly isolated and weakened by sanctions. (20)
Early in 2022, in conjunction with the worldwide crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine, the blockade was tightened more fiercely than in earlier phases. However, these pressures failed to subdue Sana’a’s forces; instead, they intensified their operations and carried out blockade-breaking operations, which raised Washington’s concerns and prompted Saudi Arabia to blame the international community for the shortage of energy fuel supplies. The alliance was forced to succumb to negotiations and offer a two-month truce (which was extended twice), which was seen as an important step by Sana’a to alleviate humanitarian suffering, hoping that the strikes that preceded it had sent a strong message about the necessity of pursuing a just peace.
Let the Houthis bring down the Houthis:
The American plans and recommendations revolve around isolating the power in Sana’a economically and employing various methods and tactics to achieve that while inciting the street under the pretexts of corruption and services to overthrow it from within. In an analysis released by the Jamestown Foundation in October 2021, American expert Michael Horton stated, “After six years of war in Yemen, there is little prospect that any force inside or outside Yemen can militarily defeat the Houthis. Similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan, only the Houthis themselves can defeat the Houthis. They will have to transition from war fighting to real governance at some point in the near future in order to offer services, economic opportunities, and security to the Yemenis who live under their rule. Their military skills won’t save them if they fail to accomplish that, which is likely. (21)
With the truce coming into effect, Sana’a re-proposed paying employee salaries from oil and gas wealth and lifting the entire blockade on the port of Hudaydah and Sana’a airport as a first step towards advancing peace. This shows that Sana’a is aware of its responsibility to its citizens. Washington strongly opposed these humanitarian demands, considering their implementation a failure of the isolation and hunger plan as collective punishment.
Gregory Johnsen, a former member of the International Group of Experts, stated that the Houthis still have control over Sana’a after more than eight years of destructive war in Yemen. The Saudi and Emirati airstrikes and international pressure did not compel them to surrender at the negotiating table or to seek refuge in the mountains. In this sense, the Houthis have won the war. It is unlikely that the group will be forced militarily or diplomatically out of Sana’a at this late stage, but they will be more vulnerable as a result of their lack of economic might. (22)
The Intercept magazine indicates that for the US, the issue of paying over salaries was thorny in order to win this bet. As the manifestations of the war fade and people start to hold authority accountable for pay and services, they lose the alignment that was present during the confrontation, which is what the US seeks, at least to reach a point where people evaluate Sana’a and the alliance on the same level.
According to The Intercept, a leaked U.S. document from the Pentagon reveals Washington’s concern about any progress towards ending the war in Yemen before achieving the American objective. U.S. diplomats rushed to Saudi Arabia in April of last year to affirm Washington’s desire to continue the war. The Houthis should stop practicing this form of political maneuvering, according to Lenderking, who called their demands to disburse salaries “extreme.”
The magazine adds that salary payment has been a thorny issue in the US. Washington does not want any agreement in which it loses its interests or takes its clients out of the political arena. (23)
The U.S. envoy emphasized time and time again that the salary issue is complex (24) and will require Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations after the war has ended. (25) This means more than trading the humanitarian file for the military file. It would also give the alliance the right to shirk facing the war’s repercussions. Since they lack independent decision-making authority, it seems unlikely that an agreement will be struck soon with the factions loyal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the end, the war would become a local civil war that the world would not care about when it stopped.
Sana’a realizes the risks of accepting the status quo, “the phase of no peace and no war. This is why Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the head of Ansar Allah, made his assertion and issued a grave warning to the alliance about the status quo and what he called “Plan B,” stressing that Saudi Arabia must pay the price for caving to American pressure.