Why Hodeidah is a critical chapter of the Yemen war
According to various reports, the Yemeni military supported by Arab coalition forces is preparing to launch a critical assault to recapture Hodeidah, controlled by the Houthi militia since 2015. A battle for Yemen’s fourth-largest city, home to the country’s largest port strategically located on the Red Sea, would have significant implications for the course of the conflict and the efforts to mitigate the tragic humanitarian impact of the war.
Reports of an impending assault by the Saudi-led coalition on the city and key port circulated throughout 2017, but it now looks more likely than ever. The offensive to recapture a number of areas on Yemen’s west coast from Houthi control, launched late last year, has known some significant advances.
Since the beginning of the year, government forces recaptured two towns in Hodeidah province and, over the past few months, the Houthi militia’s supply lines from the north have been cut or placed under severe pressures. Earlier this week, the coalition announced the liberation of Western Taiz from the Houthi presence.
Another sign that an offensive on the port and city is on the way are the various reports by UN and humanitarian organizations about an exodus of tens of thousands of people from the southern areas of the province.
It is clear that the epicentre of the conflict has presently moved to Hodeidah. Last month, a coalition airstrike in the province killed Saleh Al-Sammad, the chairman of the Houthi Supreme Political Council. Al-Sammad was the most senior member of the Houthi leadership to be killed since the beginning of the conflict and occupied a prominent second position on the coalition’s most wanted list.
Last year, after the alliance between the Houthis and the forces loyal to late president Ali Abdullah Saleh lost control of Mokha – located in Taiz province on the south of Hodeidah – the offensive by pro-government forces looked imminent.
This generated an intense exchange about the consequences of a military offensive to retake Yemen’s most important port, previously the point of entrance for about three-quarters of the country’s commercial cargo and humanitarian assistance. The UN and various humanitarian groups warned against the operation due to the heavy cost it would bear on the already desperate situation of millions of civilians.
It is clear that the epicentre of the conflict has presently moved to Hodeidah.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Acknowledging these concerns, the Saudi-led coalition put forward an ambitious and detailed proposal for the UN to take over the administration of the port and transform the governorate into a “safe zone, free from armed conflict.” Despite growing international support for the idea, diplomatic efforts to convince the radical Houthi leadership of the merits of the plan were unsuccessful.
From the very beginning of the conflict, the Houthis have looked to expand their geographical reach and saw Hodeidah as a coveted prize. The group’s leadership rejected the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference and its six-region federation and highlighted access to the sea and distribution of natural resources as major issues. Various governorates sitting next to Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold, were taken over by the militia, which invaded Hodeidah only a few weeks after taking control of the capital Sanaa.
There are very relevant implications, both political and humanitarian, of an offensive to retake Hodeidah from the Houthis. Politically, losing Hodeidah could either force the Houthis to recognize they will not be able to indefinitely stick to the present course, or further add to the group’s inflexibility to negotiate. This latter view was recently echoed by the new UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who told the Security Council in April that an attack by government and Arab coalition forces on the city would “in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”
On the humanitarian front, the key objective of the operation is to remove from Houthi control a key entrance for imports in Yemen and corresponding revenues. The naval and aerial blockade imposed by the coalition has eased to an extent, and in January the World Food Programme was able to deploy four cranes in the port, which had been partially destroyed by coalition air strikes.
But the looting and mismanagement by the Houthis and their inability to provide basic services has contributed to worsening humanitarian conditions. Short on resources, the militia has consistently prevented food and medical aid from reaching disputed areas and levied taxes and tariffs on imported commodities, a key source of funding to continue the fighting.
Military experts note that the port is vulnerable to an amphibious operation and the fact that it is situated far from residential areas contributes to that strategic vulnerability. The concern is that the fighting could move from the port to surrounding areas, thus having the same negative effects on aid delivery that the operation is aiming to resolve. In any case, the humanitarian situation would likely get worse before getting better.
Overall, the capture of Hodeidah by Yemeni government and coalition forces would mean that the Houthis would find themselves landlocked again. In the case this has no effect on the peace negotiations, a likely scenario given that the Houthi leadership is dominated by hardliners, it would probably mean the conflict would eventually shift towards Sanaa.
- Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida