Houthi negotiations should not be limited to Hodeida
In the past few days, the pace of military and diplomatic developments surrounding the battle for Hodeidah has accelerated. Last week, pro-government forces and the Arab coalition launched operation “Golden Victory” to retake the key port and city. On Saturday, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths was back in the capital Sanaa to try and push forward the proposal for a Houthi withdrawal in exchange for an international or a joint administration of the port. This week, the Yemeni army, backed by UAE forces, confirmed that it had taken full control of the city’s airport.
The battle for the port city could prove decisive in the overall fate of this war. For the Houthis, losing Hodeidah would affect but not necessarily break their chances of continuing down the war path, at least in the short-term. But foregoing Hodeidah would certainly represent the defeat of Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi and the militia leadership’s grand geopolitical ambitions.
At first sight, the inflexibility of the Houthis to negotiate their control of the port remains. Commenting on Griffiths’ visit to Sanaa in early June, a Houthi spokesman declared the envoy had failed in his purpose of reaching an agreement for an international administration of the port and a Houthi withdrawal. However, Griffiths revealed he had received positive signals and his return to the capital this weekend for further talks is an indication that the plan is not dead yet.
In parallel, there are provisions to mitigate the impact of the battle for Hodeidah on civilians. An offer by the Yemeni army to open safe corridors for people looking to abandon the city to escape the fighting, which was extended to Houthi fighters willing to put down their weapons, has so far been rejected. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5,000 families from the province have been displaced this month alone.
Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi explained: “Our desire in Hodeidah is not to infuriate the Houthis or to kill as many of them as we possibly can. To the contrary, we have allowed them safe passage to the north of the city if they want to drop their arms and leave.”
The biggest concern, echoed non-stop by aid groups working in the area, is the impact a battle that could last beyond the coalition’s expectations, and a potential siege on Hodeidah, would have on the flow of humanitarian aid. The port supplies food, medical aid and fuel not only to the city’s estimated 600,000 residents — tens of thousands have abandoned it in recent months — but also much of the population in the north, the country’s most populated area. Famine and the aggravation of the cholera epidemic would be likely consequences of prolonged fighting in the area.
Another concern that has gone under the radar is the way the Houthis are preparing to use Hodeidah’s civilian population as protection and human shields.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
The Arab coalition has responded by releasing a five-point plan addressing the issue. The plan reportedly includes dedicated shipping lanes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to guarantee supplies of food, fuel and medicine to be distributed by teams on the ground.
Another concern that has gone under the radar is the way the Houthis are preparing to use Hodeidah’s civilian population as protection and human shields — a tactic that has been used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in its wars with Israel. The Houthis have now imposed a state of emergency across Hodeidah, preventing civilians from abandoning the area, and deployed their fighters in residential neighborhoods.
Hezbollah operatives have long been involved in Iranian efforts to improve the Houthis’ fighting and technical capabilities (among other organizational aspects of the militia, such as media and communications). The latest evidence of Iranian military support for the militants came this week, when the Arab coalition seized from the battlefield drones, explosives, and equipment used to produce and load fuel for the rockets that have been targeting Saudi Arabia: All of Iranian origin.
At the moment, it seems unlikely that the Houthis will agree to abandon the port and the city. Levying taxes and tariffs on imports (especially commodities) entering through Hodeidah quickly became a key source of funding for the Houthi war effort, even more so after the coffers of Yemen’s central bank were depleted. According to estimates by UAE authorities, the Houthis make $40 million of revenue per year by controlling and impeding the flow of aid at Hodeidah port .
Control over Hodeidah has probably been on the Houthi wish list for a long time. Before the present conflict erupted, the National Dialogue Conference, in which all groups and main political factions participated, devised a six-region federation as Yemen’s future roadmap. The Houthi leadership was alone in its rejection of this outcome, and highlighted lack of access to the sea and distribution of national resources as major issues. Seeing their demands to alter the six-region federation plan unmet, the Houthis used force to take over the control of various governorates, such as Hajjah and Al-Jawf, adjacent to their landlocked stronghold of Saada.
The Houthi offensive eventually reached Sanaa in 2014, when the militia found the city gates open courtesy of loyalists to late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who used the Houthis to take down the transitional government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s former vice-president. From there, the first target was Hodeidah, sitting southeast of the capital. Control of the key port city — which is the entrance for roughly 70 percent of the country’s imports — offered everything the militia was missing when its reach was mostly reduced to Saada.
The strategic and economic importance of the port for the Houthis means that a negotiation that only focuses on Hodeidah will have little chance of succeeding, at least until the Houthis see their grip on the area being more seriously undermined. A broader proposal to reach a political solution to the conflict as a whole will be more likely to achieve a Houthi withdrawal.
- 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 and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida