Liberating Hodeidah is a must for cutting the Houthi lifeline

Liberating Hodeidah is a must for cutting the Houthi lifeline

The rapid advance of coalition-backed forces toward the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, one of the militia’s most valuable strongholds, heralds a new milestone in Yemen’s war. Yemen’s joint forces stationed on the Red Sea coast were able to take over large amounts of land as the militia shifted between retreat and defeat. While it looks like the Houthis are not putting up much of a fight, it is more likely that their leadership is preparing to defend the city. The Houthis have already fired a ballistic missile at a Turkish cargo ship carrying wheat as it approached the coast. As the allied forces approach the port, it is likely that Abdulmalek Al-Houthi, the leader of the militia, will mobilize his troops to stand firm in Hodeidah and battle to the death rather than spare the city the fighting.
Hodeidah has been a red line for the Yemeni government and the coalition, which has so far conducted various operations through airstrikes with the help of a limited amount of the Yemeni military and foreign militias. Hodeidah is Yemen’s deepest seawater port and it has substantial capacity, enabling the distribution of large amounts of commercial shipments and aid to the country. The US and humanitarian organizations have shown considerable concern over military action around the port, given the fact that any sabotage of the port facilities could affect the delivery of much-needed food and medicine to the entire population.
The prevailing narrative is that impeding the capacity of the port in any way would entail a large-scale humanitarian crisis and jeopardize access to food for millions of people in Houthi-controlled areas. While this is a genuine concern, it completely overlooks any alternative solutions to circumventing the worst-case scenarios. The importance and sensitivity issue around the port also leaves Al-Houthi emboldened in enforcing his authority on the helpless regions under his control, knowing that the coalition’s hands in Hodeidah are tied.
The port has been a significant revenue generator for the militia and is the backbone of its economy. Since 2015, the Houthis have controlled its customs, imposing tariffs on the port and critical land checkpoints to collect an estimated $30 million a month, making Hodeidah their most lucrative source of income. Taxes levied were allocated to fund the war rather than to help in building state institutions or support the collapsing economy. The Houthis also relied on aid agencies to deliver life-saving food, medicine and other resources, only to capture and redistribute them to fund their war effort and pay their soldiers. Without the port, the Houthis would not have the resources or the ability to either deliver services or fulfill their obligations toward civilians and fighters.
In addition to the port’s monetary incentives, Hodeidah is a vital source of morale for the Iranian-backed Houthis. Last month, Houthi No. 2 Saleh Al-Sammad was killed in an airstrike in Hodeidah after he met with recruits in the city. Al-Houthi has repeatedly vowed to avenge Al-Sammad’s loss and has used it to mobilize for the battle and gain recruits. The symbolic worth of avenging the killing of the Houthi leader is invaluable to the militia.

There is no question that Hodeidah is going to fall into the hands of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, but the problem is how long one should wait knowing that the Houthis have no incentive to give it up.

Fatima Abo Alasrar

It is true that Houthi fighters surrendered as Yemen’s forces advanced along the Red Sea coast, but it is most likely that the leader of the militia has little interest in skirmishes around the port, instead choosing to abandon the periphery and fortify the city. While local support for the militia among Hodeidah residents is almost non-existent, Houthi websites have shown some local tribes pledging allegiance to the Houthi movement and offering their youth to join the battles. Grassroots support has given the militia the perception of a real success despite the setbacks it has been incurring in its homeland of Saada.
Indeed, there are no signs that the militia could relinquish this prominent city and port, and no reason for Yemeni forces and the coalition to wait indefinitely for the Houthis to surrender. Restoring Hodeidah to the control of Yemen’s internationally recognized government remains a critical priority. For Al-Houthi, it is clear that this is a moneymaking port that prolongs his powers. He is holding Hodeidah for as long as possible to maintain the perception of strength he needs and to demonstrate that his followers are worthy of significant attention in any peace plan. Last year, Al-Houthi’s tone was clear: “Today the port of Hodeidah is being threatened, and we cannot turn a blind eye to that… If the Saudi regime, with a green light from the US, attacks Hodeidah then we have to take steps that we haven’t taken before.”
There is no question that Hodeidah is going to fall into the hands of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, but the problem is how long one should wait knowing that the Houthis have no incentive to give it up. While currently the Houthis will fight to keep Hodeidah city under their control for as long as possible, they realize that they can enter negotiations at any point, even if they lose. In a sense, they are banking on a generous understanding that they will be a part of any political deal for a new Yemen. From that perspective, the Houthis are neither eager to end the war nor accelerate a peace process, as they have demonstrated that maintaining a perception of strength or resilience is the most critical element of their survival strategy.
For the Yemeni government and the coalition, the failure of negotiations compels it to enforce this military solution that will cut off resources from the Houthis once and for all, ultimately shifting the balance of the war and ending the suffering. It is not just a military objective, but a moral imperative.

• Fatima Abo Alasrar is a senior analyst for the Arabia Foundation in Washington.
Twitter: @YemeniFatima

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