Pompeo backs Saudi moves in Yemen
As government forces make progress in fighting around the port city of Hodeidah, the US has indicated that it will continue backing Saudi Arabia and its allies
In a statement to Congress, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo effectively gave a green light to continued American support for Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in the war in Yemen. Against the background of growing international anger at the deaths of civilians from Saudi air strikes, Pompeo said what the Arab coalition wanted to hear. He said the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were "undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure".
He added that "ending the conflict is a national security priority" for the Trump administration.
The timing of the American endorsement of Saudi-led action is significant. Over recent days, the coalition has notched up a success on the battlefield, helping forces loyal to the internationally recognised Yemeni government capture a main road leading from Hodeidah to Sanaa, the capital.
This is by no means the beginning of the end of the conflict, with the rebel Houthis still holding both cities themselves. But the Houthis will now have more difficulty maintaining a supply route between them.
The question now is whether the pro-government forces will turn their attention to the city and port of Hodeidah, where vital supplies for the Yemeni population arrive. The UN has been desperately trying to arrange a truce in the area as the first step towards achieving a wider ceasefire. The hope was that this would be achieved in talks scheduled to be held in Geneva last week. But they never began because the Houthis didn't show up.
Lives in the balance
So, with success close to Hodeidah, the pro-government forces may feel emboldened to go further. Humanitarian organisations are horrified at the prospect. "Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance in Hodeidah," said Lise Grande, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. "The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the past few days. People are struggling to survive."
Grande added that "more than 25% of children are malnourished; 900,000 people in the governorate are desperate for food and 90,000 pregnant women are at enormous risk".
Around 70% of all humanitarian assistance and nearly all commercial food stock for northern Yemen arrive via Hodeidah port. The prospect of it being closed has dangerous implications for the survival of millions of people—not to mention the likely loss of civilian life in any military assault on the city.
In his statement of support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pompeo at one point called the conflict a "civil war". If it was just that, it might be easier to find a way of stopping it. But the conflict is far more complicated. For example, the Saudis and their allies believe it's an essential war against Iran and its Houthi proxies; and many in southern Yemen see it as an opportunity to press their case for a state that's independent of Sanaa and the north.