Trump's aid cut is a death sentence for Yemenis facing coronavirus and war

Trump's aid cut is a death sentence for Yemenis facing coronavirus and war
Comment: Yemenis are already susceptible to many preventable diseases, but for Trump to cut aid during a pandemic is nothing short of lethal, writes Marcus Montgomery.
6 min read
31 Mar, 2020
The US has halted some $70 million of aid for healthcare programmes in Yemen [Getty]
March 26 marked five years since a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The following day, President Donald Trump's administration announced that it would withhold tens of millions of dollars from being used to fund health programmes and other kinds of aid to the impoverished and war-torn country.

Ostensibly, the decision was made in an effort to pressure the Houthis to relent on their onerous restrictions on the international humanitarian aid that flows to the areas of Yemen controlled by the rebel group.

Indeed, the United States and its international partners have 
decried Houthi interference in the delivery of humanitarian aid for some time, and threatened to withhold aid. But, donor countries' plans to suspend aid to Houthi-controlled territory were made before the true scope and extent of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the disease it causes (COVID—19), was evident.

Despite the fact that they shared criticism of the Houthis' interference in aid delivery, officials from outside aid groups have said that the Houthis recently made some progress addressing donors' concerns. These developments were enough to satisfy some officials who then decided to allow aid to flow for another month.

What is clear to the United States' international partners and nongovernmental aid groups is that the state of play is different now. As the entire world faces a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, statecraft and geopolitics must take a backseat to humanitarianism.

Nevertheless, the United States, under the stewardship of President Trump, will again go at it alone, standing as the only international donor to completely end its financial support for the people living under Houthi control.

Statecraft and geopolitics must take a backseat to humanitarianism

Administration officials contend that there are exceptions to their new rule, namely for "critical, lifesaving activities, including treatment of malnutrition as well as water, sanitation and hygiene programmes aimed at keeping people healthy and staving off disease."

But, the administration's policies towards Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen are similar to its policies towards Iran, in that while they appear to carve out meaningful exceptions, they are harmful in practice because they limit the real amount of aid that flows to those that most need it.

The administration's decision to cut off aid to areas under Houthi rule - and only those areas under the group's control - is an extension of a broader set of policies. These are premised on the idea that if Washington penalises its opponents - in Yemen, the Houthis - then those living under the opponents' control will blame the nefarious actors for their struggles, and will then rise up in revolt.

It is the same strategy that has been employed against Iran, where the administration has implemented a "maximum pressure" campaign of economic and financial sanctions to strangle the Iranian economy in hopes of spurring the populace to rise up against the corrupt regime that mismanaged the country and led it to international isolation.

Read more: 
US cuts healthcare aid to Yemen despite virus worries, as America Covid-19 cases pass 100,000

Just as administration officials delight in "naming and shaming" those in the Iranian ruling regime whose corruption harms the economic fortunes for everyone else, US officials told reporters of the New York Times and the Washington Post that their recent decision to cut off aid is, at least in part, meant to place pressure on the Houthi rebels by indicating to the world and to the Yemenis living under their control, that this group alone is responsible for their suffering.

There is hardly sufficient evidence illustrating that such a policy is effective for state actors like those in Iran, let alone nonstate actors who operate with less control over state institutions and the economy. Indeed, when looking at the US strategy towards Iran, observers noted that "the US settled on a policy of making Iran as ungovernable as possible through sanctions and other forms of pressure, hoping that this leads to an uprising that topples the government."

Given that Washington's Arab allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi proved that overt war is inadequate for uprooting Houthi control, has the Trump administration instead opted to strangle the millions of Yemenis living under the thumb of the Houthis, in hopes that they will oust the group from control?

Sadly, this approach has all too predictable results. In Iran, for instance, the United States' strategy "make[s] life as miserable as possible for ordinary Iranians while failing to create political change in their country." More broadly, the most likely result of these economic pressure campaigns, when considering that they are operating against the backdrop of a global pandemic, is "wholesale death of innocent people and further discrediting of America's claim to humanitarianism."

Now is absolutely not the time to cut aid, really to any country trying to stem the tide of an extremely contagious global pandemic

The implications for the people of Yemen are even more dire.

Yemen, even before the war or the spread of coronavirus was a despairingly poor country. Since 2015, though, millions of Yemenis have migrated from their homes to packed encampments that house the internally displaced; they have faced famine and the 
outbreak of infectious diseases like cholera and diphtheria; and they have little access to necessary medical facilities and treatment for even routine ailments.

The facts on the ground make Yemenis particularly vulnerable if coronavirus spreads through Yemen like it has spread throughout the world.

It is quite clear, then, that now is absolutely not the time to cut aid, really to any country trying to stem the tide of an extremely contagious global pandemic. This is doubly so for a country so damaged by war and poverty that its people are not safe from the most preventable of diseases.

The United States, then, must craft a policy that takes into consideration the Houthis' corruption but that gives even greater weight to the fact that the world is facing a crisis unseen in at least a generation.

Instead of cutting aid, the United States should join with other members of the international community to secure an immediate global ceasefire in all conflicts, including Yemen.

The facts on the ground make Yemenis particularly vulnerable

From there, Washington should reinstate aid cuts and work even harder with international partners to ensure that aid is delivered at this most dire time. Leaving Yemen's civilian population unprotected in the face of coronavirus will not prompt Yemenis to rise up against the corrupt Houthi rulers, instead, it will result in countless lives lost.

The Trump administration, staffed by men who boldly claim to be realists, is delusional if it believes this strategy will achieve any constructive goals. The Houthi rebels in Yemen have proved to be just as malign an actor in some areas under its control as the central government it took up arms against.

But the fact remains that they are, by many measures, among the most organised and capable actors in the country; they govern as much as 
70 percent of the Yemeni population; and they will have a say in the country's direction. Trying to politically isolate the Houthis now is foolish and it will be a death sentence for thousands.  

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.