A major Yemeni seaport, Hodeida, has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing struggle between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition aiming to restore the government of the ousted Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
The emerging battle likely represents the single most significant operational development in the war since the United Arab Emirates forces landed in Aden in 2015. Indeed, the push itself comprises the single largest offensive undertaken by the coalition thus far. But while the city’s capture may strike a serious militarily blow against the Houthis, it also has the potential to seriously exacerbate one of the region’s most dire humanitarian crises.
Strategically, Hodeida serves multiple interests for multiple parties. The Red Sea port has been a major source of arms flowing to the Houthi forces from Iran. This includes ballistic missiles launched at targets deep in Saudi Arabia, as well as drones, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and advanced anti-tank systems that continue to extract a heavy toll on coalition armour and mechanized forces.
By moving to seize Hodeida, the coalition is aiming to simultaneously sever its enemies from a key source of matériel. Control of the port will also strengthen coalition logistical lines and ease support for continued operations into the Houthi heartland in the country’s northwest.
But while framed by the Saudi-led coalition as a military concern, the coastal city has served as a major ingress point for humanitarian relief. As Yemen’s largest port, Hodeida has been key in staving off a looming famine threatening millions, as well as providing aid to some 22 million Yemenis who have struggled for basic survival under the conditions of the war and abject poverty.
The coalition’s claim that the operation will be relatively bloodless, rapid, non-destructive and not disruptive to aid flows rings as hollow rhetoric. Years of precedent has demonstrated the coalition showing little regard for the safety of civilians within the conflict.
Since 2015, Saudi and allied Emirati airpower have made extensive use of internationally banned cluster munitions, while the wider coalition has imposed blockades intensifying human insecurity, disease, and food shortages and have regularly and purposefully targeted critical civilian infrastructure including hospitals. All such activities have only served to undermine heroic efforts to protect the people of Yemen. In this context, Gulf Arab pledges of aid for Yemeni civilians seem farcical.
A partial explanation for the dispassionate and brutal mentally of planners concerns the nature of the war itself. Limited pro-Houthi activity on the part of Iran has led the Saudis and their Emirati partners to view the conflict as part of a wider existential geopolitical struggle currently being waged between Riyadh and Tehran across the wider Middle East. In this, the destitute and brutalized population of fragile Yemen matters little and is only seen as a nuisance to be surmounted in the war planning, rather than a central concern.
Despite being over three years old at this stage, the Yemeni conflict still sees the Houthis in control of the majority of population centers in the country, while the coalition continues be bogged down in a strategic quagmire it is unable to disengage from.
Despite Hodeida’s strategic importance for both sides, its capture is unlikely to significantly hasten the end of the protracted violence, which will likely continue for months, if not years if current trends persist. At the same time, humanitarian conditions inside the country are only to deteriorate, producing further refugee flows, internally displaced persons, and general misery. The conflict remains what it has always been: a tragic, wasteful and avoidable crisis that has only brought ruin to all the frontline actors involved.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.