As Yemen’s humanitarian crisis reaches a critical juncture, with an estimated 80% of the country’s 24 million people in need of assistance, aid organisations are finally waking up to the central role the Iranian-backed Houthis have played in creating the disaster. Pictured: Displaced persons fill water containers at a makeshift camp in a village in Hajjah province, Yemen, on May 9, 2019. (Photo by Essa Ahmed/AFP via Getty Images)
In the five years since Yemen was plunged into its bitter civil war, it has invariably been the Saudi-led coalition, which enjoys the support of the US, Britain and France, that has been blamed for causing what is widely regarded as the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster.
Throughout the conflict the main focus of coverage in most of the Western media has been on the role played by the Saudi military in intensifying the conflict, with Riyadh taking the lion’s share of the blame for the estimated 100,000 Yemenis that have died.
The Saudis, it is true, have not always covered themselves in glory in the way they have conducted the military campaign, with frequent reports of Saudi warplanes attacking civilian targets.
The Saudis, though, are not the only outside power that has involved itself in the Yemeni conflict. The Houthi rebels, who provoked the civil war in the first place by overthrowing the country’s democratically elected president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2014, have received backing from Iran, with the Revolutionary Guards regularly supplying the Houthis with weapons, including long-range missiles.
The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, moreover, have been instrumental in escalating the conflict. Not only has the steady flow of weapons smuggled in from Tehran enabled the Houthis to sustain their offensive against the Saudi-led coalition. It has also enabled the Houthis to expand the conflict well beyond Yemen’s borders by using Iranian-made missiles to launch a series of attacks against neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Now, as the humanitarian crisis reaches a critical juncture, with an estimated 80% of Yemen’s 24 million population in need of assistance, aid organisations are finally waking up to the central role the Iranian-backed Houthis have played in creating the disaster.
As humanitarian officials prepare to meet in Brussels this week — Thursday — to discuss the Yemeni aid crisis, the main topic of discussion will be what has been described as the unprecedented and unacceptable obstruction tactics being employed by the Houthis that are preventing vital aid supplies from reaching the country’s starving population.
In what aid officials have described as “an extremely hostile environment”, the Houthis have been accused of harassment and obstruction as they seek to prevent humanitarian supplies from reaching the 6.7 million Yemenis who are said to be on the brink of starvation.
In their latest bid to seize control of the aid distribution, the Houthis have recently imposed a 2 percent levy on all the international aid agencies operating in the country, prompting one aid worker to claim that the Houthis could be using the aid money to finance the war.
Washington has responded by threatening to suspend much of its humanitarian assistance to Yemen on March 1 if the Houthis continue to insist on their aid levy.
Such a move, if implemented, would add considerably to the already dire conditions affecting large swathes of the country. It would also, however, highlight the challenge of managing aid operations in areas controlled by an Iranian-backed rebel movement that is openly hostile to the West.
“We’re in an unfortunate situation and we’re trying to work the problem,” said a senior official at the US State Department. “If such an action were taken, it would be one that was forced by basically unprecedented Houthi obstructionism.”
A final decision will only be taken following a crunch meeting of aid agencies and donors this week in Brussels, where the thorny topic of how to respond to the Houthis’ tactics will be discussed, as well as the implications of suspending aid to a country that is already teetering on the brink of total collapse.
Whatever the outcome, no one will be in any doubt that it is the Iranian-backed Houthis, and not the Saudi-led coalition, who are primarily responsible for creating Yemen’s disastrous humanitarian crisis.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.