[The following report was issued by International Crisis Group on 11 June 2018.]
Yemen’s civil war has reached an inflection point. In late May, an array of irregular forces backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a breakthrough in their campaign along the country’s Red Sea coast, arriving within 10km of the port city of Hodeida, which, like most of north-western Yemen, is held by Huthi rebels. By midJune it had become clear that the UAE intended to go ahead with the assault despite international pressure, including from the U.S., and despite having previously said it was willing to consider a UN-brokered deal for a handover of the port. This continues a clear trend in Yemen’s war: the warring factions are overconfident in their military prospects, almost always press for military advantage when there is an opportunity for negotiation, and are all too often starkly indifferent to the humanitarian impact of their actions and the plight of ordinary citizens.
It seems likely this trend will continue in Hodeida, and that the conflict will descend into a more devastating new phase. The most likely outcome of a battle for Hodeida is not a quick, clean victory for government forces followed by outright Huthi capitulation, as some hope, but prolonged and destructive fighting in Hodeida’s city, port and immediate environs, followed by a period of maximalist demands from all sides. Because the port is the principal lifeline for not just the Huthi-controlled highlands but also just under two thirds of Yemen’s population, the humanitarian crisis, already the worst in the world, will deepen.
Time to avert such a scenario is fast running out. Government officials and diplomats in the region report that the UAE has informed them the assault on Hodeida is imminent and has reportedly given humanitarian organisations until 12 June to pull staff out of the city. The U.S. government appears to have given the UAE a “yellow light” for the attack. But if Martin Griffiths, the UN’s recently appointed successor to Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as envoy to Yemen, can mobilise international support and pressure for negotiations, he might yet broker a deal that prevents an outright battle for the port and city of Hodeida. This would have dual benefits: avoiding a bloody and costly fight, and creating momentum toward a broader agreement to end the fighting nationwide. The U.S. in particular should support such an initiative and make a determined last-minute diplomatic pitch to persuade the UAE to stop the advance of forces under its control.
Failing that, Yemen will slip further into humanitarian catastrophe. Policymakers need to work urgently and energetically to effect a course correction. But as the offensive looms, they also must accelerate preparations for the worst-case scenario: a bloody, destructive battle for the port and city. This means holding the UAE to its commitment to mitigate human suffering, pressing the Huthis to do the same, providing additional targeted humanitarian assistance, putting in place measures to keep open Hodeida and Saleef ports, and increasing aid and supplies channelled through ports in areas held by Saudi-UAE-led forces.
II. A Three-Year War, Stalemated
Shortly after Yemen’s Huthi rebels seized Sanaa with the assistance of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in September 2014, their combined forces tried to bring all of Yemen under their control. In October 2014, the Huthi-Saleh alliance secured Hodeida, Yemen’s biggest port, facing little to no resistance. Hodeida was the entry point for more than 70 per cent of the country’s food and fuel imports; trade there generated more than 40 per cent of its customs income before the war. The allies also moved south along the Red Sea coast, taking control of the smaller port of Mokha.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see the Huthis, who receive support from Iran, as the Yemeni equivalent of Hizbollah. Angered by the Huthi takeover and worried about the group’s access to Yemen’s stock of ballistic missiles, the Saudis announced a coalition (in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have played the biggest roles) that entered the conflict in March 2015, launching a huge campaign of aerial bombardments. This assault was initially able to cut off maritime access to Hodeida and nearby Saleef, which coalition leaders argued at the time were being used by the Huthis to smuggle weapons into Yemen. Under pressure to allow humanitarian aid into Yemen, the coalition eased access restrictions somewhat, particularly after the establishment of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM). This is a UN-run offshore inspections system developed to allay coalition concerns and ease commercial traffic. It operates in coordination with the coalition-run Evacuation and Humanitarian Operations Committee (EHOC).
During the war’s first two years, Hodeida was not a military target, although coalition airstrikes badly damaged two cranes at the port in August 2016. Saudi Arabia focussed on supporting tribal, military and other forces loosely structured around Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, to the east of Sanaa. For its part, the UAE, whose leadership reviles Islah as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, limited its operations to the south and east of Yemen. There it worked with secessionist and Salafist forces first to push out the Huthi-Saleh alliance and then to roll back al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in cooperation with the U.S.
Yet Huthi-Saleh control of Hodeida remained a source of frustration for the coalition, which claims that weapons, including missile components, continue to find their way into the country through the port. (A UN panel of experts has said it does not believe Hodeida to be a weapons transit point.1 ) Repeated Huthi-Saleh attacks on Red Sea maritime traffic, including on a UAE navy high-speed “Swift” trimaran in October 2016, and mounting evidence that the Huthi-Saleh alliance was benefitting economically from control of the port, led the UAE in late 2016 to begin discussing options for a military takeover.
Western policymakers, including senior officials in the Barack Obama administration, pressed the UAE and other coalition members not to attempt an amphibious assault on the city, citing the risks associated with such an operation. In early 2017, UAE-backed forces launched Operation Golden Spear, an overland campaign to seize Hodeida by pushing north along the Red Sea coast from their base in south Yemen. Islah-affiliated forces supported by Saudi Arabia and barracked in the northwestern port town of Midi were said to be planning a simultaneous southbound campaign in order to surround Hodeida in a pincer move. UAE-backed forces seized Mokha in February 2017, but thereafter progress along the coast was slow.
[Click here to read the full ICG Report.]