Why the battle to free Hodeidah should be decided swiftly
The Yemeni national army and allied forces began the Hodeidah operation to retake the port from Houthi control on June 13. They have already freed the city’s airport, as well as some of the neighboring suburbs and military installations. There has since been a lull in the fighting to clear mines, safeguard civilians and give UN mediation a chance to reach a political agreement.
The battle to free Hodeidah needs to be concluded swiftly. Ending Houthi control over the port will allow free passage of humanitarian assistance and food imports and will speed up the recovery of that important part of Yemen.
Hodeidah has suffered greatly since coming under Houthi control in 2015. Since then, the militia has used the port for two main purposes: To bring in war materials and use its considerable revenue — estimated to be $1 billion annually — for its war effort. While Hodeidah serves as the main port in Houthi-controlled Yemen, bringing in badly needed humanitarian aid and food imports, the city and province of Hodeidah have been largely deprived of that assistance, as the Houthis appropriated it for their own supporters or sold it on the black market. Despite the substantial aid that comes through its port, Hodeidah has registered some of the worst cases of humanitarian suffering in the whole of Yemen.
One of the main reasons for neglecting Hodeidah’s civilians is that the Houthis do not think of them as potential supporters. As the people of the Tihama coast do not share tribal, social, political or religious affiliations with the Houthis, they are treated with suspicion, disdain and even open racism. The Houthis consider the people of Hodeidah and all inhabitants of the Tihama coast as inferior.
In response, the people of Hodeidah have shown no genuine support for the Houthi project, but on the contrary have welcomed the return of the legitimate government and have joined it in the fight to dislodge the Houthis from their town.
While the government of Yemen and the coalition of nations supporting it have issued permits for ships carrying fuel to Hodeidah, Houthis have also systematically delayed the arrival of key imports, including fuel, though the port. Ships have been stranded for months awaiting approval by the Houthi militants controlling the port.
The battle for Hodeidah has to be quickly and decisively concluded. Delaying the inevitable can only perpetuate the suffering of civilians.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Confirming reports by the government of Yemen that the Houthis are using the port for military purposes, they have refused to allow access for inspectors from the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen, making a mockery of that system. The UNVIM has been able to inspect only some, but not all, ships before they arrive into the port, and those inspectors have no clear idea of what takes place there.
But the government and coalition forces are determined to continue their march up the western coast. Since 2015, they have secured 1,750 kilometers of Yemen’s coastline, starting with the whole of its southern shores on the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden (about 1,300 kilometers). Since 2017, they have liberated an additional 450 kilometers, from Aden to Hodeidah, with their march up the coast accelerating since last December thanks to the retaking of Al-Khokha town and port, some 120km south of Hodeidah.
Over recent months, wresting other ports from Houthi control has improved the passage of food imports and reconstruction material, as well as passenger traffic and humanitarian assistance. Therefore, the alarm being expressed by some international non-governmental organizations about Hodeidah is misplaced. Its liberation will only improve the humanitarian situation. The port has been run by Yemeni professionals and civil servants and that will continue, but will be augmented by additional staff and experts to improve its capacity and efficiency.
Control of Hodeidah will also improve the security of shipping lanes in the Red Sea, which are being threatened by the Houthis. While Bab Al-Mandab was secured last year by retaking the areas immediately adjacent to it, the need still exists for securing the rest of Yemen’s western coast. The Hodeidah operation is a major part of that process. After its liberation, only about 200 kilometers remain to completely secure Yemen’s 2,000 kilometers of coast.
The UN’s role in Hodeidah has been skewed in favor of the status quo, but the status quo has been bad for the civilians there. The Houthis are using the lull in fighting and UN mediation to gain time by entrenching themselves further in the city and its surrounding area. They have cut roads and increased the use of land mines, which have made it difficult for civilians to flee to safety. Those actions have also slowed down the distribution of food and water in some city neighborhoods. In another flagrant violation of the rules of war, the Houthis have placed artillery, tanks and rocket launchers inside civilian neighborhoods, in schools and on rooftops, jeopardizing the lives of those living nearby.
These are some of the reasons that the battle for Hodeidah has to be quickly and decisively concluded. Delaying the inevitable can only perpetuate the suffering of the civilians.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @abuhamad1