It has taken the better part of five years but the international community is finally waking up to the fact that the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are primarily responsible for one of the world's greatest humanitarian disasters, in Yemen.
From the outset of the country’s long and bitter conflict, it has invariably been the Saudi-led coalition that has taken the lion’s share of the blame for this. Among the many accusations levelled at the coalition is that it has helped to create the crisis by imposing a blockade on Yemeni ports such as Hodeidah, thereby starving the country of desperately needed supplies of food, medicine and other aid supplies.
Now, thanks to the latest attempts by the Houthis to seize control of all aid shipments entering the country – thereby allowing them to decide who will and will not be the beneficiaries of foreign aid – the outside world is coming to understand the true extent of the Houthis' involvement in creating the circumstances that have caused the crisis in the first place.
Although the Houthis have been controlling the distribution of supplies from ports such as Hodeidah for some time, the final straw so far as international aid organisations and other donors are concerned has been the Houthis' decision to impose a two per cent levy on all the aid being distributed in the country. Aid officials working on the ground claim the levy is little more than a tax that will be used to fund the Houthis' war effort. “This is huge. It could be seen as financing the war,” one such official remarked this week.
That certainly appears to be the view of the Donald Trump administration, which – responding to the Houthi move – is threatening to suspend much of its humanitarian assistance to Yemen. The issue was earmarked as a subject of discussion at an emergency meeting of aid organisations and other donor countries, including the US, scheduled to get under way in Brussels on Thursday.
The fact that the US, one of the biggest aid donors to Yemen, is considering such a move – which would worsen the already dire conditions in the country – reflects the mounting difficulties aid agencies are experiencing in their dealings with the Houthis. US state department officials insist that no decision has been taken yet but warned of a possibility of aid suspension from March 1 if the Houthis did not change their position. “We’re in an unfortunate situation and we’re trying to work with the problem,” a state department official said. “If such an action were taken, it would be one that was forced by basically unprecedented Houthi obstructionism.”
Last year, the US provided $746 million in aid to Yemen, making it one of the most significant donors to the war-torn country. The UAE has provided more than $5.59 billion since 2015, according to Salem Al Ghafli, the country's ambassador to Yemen. The United Nations, meanwhile, provides monthly food aid to more than 12 million Yemenis – roughly half the population. But the distribution of vitally needed supplies has become increasingly difficult in recent weeks following a recent upsurge in violence, thereby undermining efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict that began in 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition – backed by the US, Britain and France – launched its military intervention in support of the country’s democratically elected government.
Attempts to resolve the conflict have been complicated by the recent upsurge in tensions between Tehran and Washington following last month’s targeted assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani. Previously Tehran has used its influence with the Houthis to frustrate UN-led attempts to negotiate a deal, and American officials fear that the Iranians could now be behind the Houthis’ decision to exercise greater influence over aid distribution.
Certainly, at a time when the Trump administration is attempting to exercise “maximum pressure” on Iran in an attempt to force the regime back to the negotiating table, Tehran will feel it has little to gain by co-operating with diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Yemen.
UN officials have already experienced difficulties dealing with the Houthis, claiming that they are seeking to divert supplies by selling it on the black market or else funnelling it to their fighters. The UN temporarily suspended part of its programme last year in Sana’a, the country’s Houthi-controlled capital, after the rebels refused to accept the imposition of a registration system designed to ensure aid supplies reached their intended destination. And last month, the UN accused the rebels of looting a Houthi-controlled aid warehouse.
Whatever the outcome of the meeting in Brussels, the challenge for organisations will always be to maintain the flow of aid to Yemen.
“Humanitarian agencies must operate in an environment where they can uphold humanitarian principles,” Lise Grande, the UN’s resident humanitarian co-ordinator in Yemen, said before the Brussels summit. “If we reach a point where the operating environment doesn’t allow us to do that, we do everything we can to change it.”
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor