Discord of War in Yemen: Is Liberating Hodeidah Strategic?

Discord of War in Yemen: Is Liberating Hodeidah Strategic?

The liberation of Hodeidah will strategically enhance the UN-led peace process and the global humanitarian response to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 100 years, unlike what some western practitioners and researchers from the outside contend. To the Houthis, Hodeidah is a supply artery for survival at best and a negotiation stick at worst. Once liberated they are debilitated militarily, financially and politically favouring Yemen Peace Process and millions of Yemenis in dire need of relief aids.

By Ibrahim Jalal

After the Coalition-backed Joint Forces made rapid military advancements and halted the Houthi supply lines in Yemen’s coastal city on the Red Sea, Hodeidah, through a concerted strategy of port’s encirclement within a 4-km diameter in early November, the Houthis defensively reinforced a strategy of terror, from mine-laying on public roads and in humanitarian facilities to arbitrary destruction [1]. Hassan Zaid, a senior Houthi leader, said on a Twitter post: “The Villains’ dream of controlling the port of Hodeidah and if you managed to, would rebuild it from scratch. Trust that! You will not rejoice victory …  Neither the port nor public and private properties be more precious than the blood of martyrs and Mujahdeen. Let it be Aleppo! [2].” Drawing on these developments, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on 12th November to de-escalate the offensive and advocated the resumption of UN-led political efforts in Sweden [3]. One day later, Lise Grande – the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen – and David Beasley – the Executive Director of the World Food Programme – visited Hodeidah and met with Houthi representatives to discuss the prospects of de-escalation and ceasefire [4]. The situation on the ground is now less intense with continued Houthi violence and the Joint Forces on standby, while Griffiths is seemingly crafting a new peace proposal.

It is, however, worth noting that this is a reoccurring international intervention to hinder the military liberation of Hodeidah based on humanitarian justification while turning a blind eye to the Houthi cruel behaviour for the second time within 5 months.

On 1st July 2018, the Coalition-backed forces de-escalated the military offensive aiming at the restoration of Hodeidah from the Houthi insurgency upon the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ plea [5]. Chief issues to the Envoy’s requests were a global apprehension of aggravating the considerably alarming humanitarian circumstance and the UN intention to reactivate ‘Yemen Peace Process’ nearly two years after Kuwait II Peace Talks collapsed.

This structural pressure, unsurprisingly, failed to convince the Houthis to either withdraw peacefully from Hodeidah as Griffiths suggested or even partake in ‘Geneva Consultations’ leading to the re-escalation of the Hodeida offensive in late October [6]. Although this cycle of peace-conflict dynamics reveals an articulated tension between hard-headed domestic needs and ambiguous global priorities, this piece argues that the liberation of Hodeidah will strategically enhance the UN-led peace process and the global humanitarian response to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 100 years, unlike what some international researchers and practitioners in London, Paris, and Washington advocate.

The UN-led Peace Process and Hodeidah Liberation

In the realm of political efforts, liberating Hodeidah province from the Houthi militia, whether peacefully or militarily, is vital to shifting the existing structure of power at the domestic level. Largely because the Houthis tightened power grip in Sana’a and areas of influence after killing their one-time ally Ali Abdullah Saleh – the Chairman of General People’s Congress and Yemen’s ex-President, they impeded the effective reactivation of peace process [7]. In fact, the Houthis abandoned attending ‘Geneva Consultations’ in September 2018 upon the UN-sponsored de-escalation [8]. Built around premises of status quo and by extension bargaining chips, the ex-Envoy Ould Cheikh condemned the Houthis’ irresponsible behaviour throughout four official rounds of UN-led consultations/talks between 2015 and 2016 in Geneva, Biel, and Kuwait at the Security Council [9].

On the other hand, it is no surprise that the delegation of the internationally legitimate government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi attended Geneva Consultations. Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Khaled Al-Yamani reaffirmed to the international community that they are not advocating war like the Houthis, but rather peace advocates – a sign of continuing goodwill and high commitment to the UN-led peace process [10]. Considering the behaviours of warring parties towards Griffiths’ invite in Geneva, it is highly unlikely that the Houthis will ‘engage constructively’ in the UN-led peace consultations in Sweden without being weakened. A critical military defeat in, or a peaceful retreat from, Hodeidah would suffice to incentivise their desire for peace. Only an imbalance in the present distribution of power will yield a rational interest in peace, and thus a propensity to meaningful peace talks designed around the three references: The Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, the conclusions of the National Dialogue Conference, and UNSCR 2216 (2015).

Strategic Viewpoint of Hodeidah’s Liberation

From a strategic viewpoint, Hodeidah’s port is a primary source of Houthi power; ranging from military and financial capabilities to often undelivered and looted international humanitarian aids. Militarily, the Tehran-backed militia has reportedly received Iranian-manufactured smuggled arms through Houthi-controlled ports, Sayyad-2C ground-to-air missiles, Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missiles and ‘Behine Pardazan Rizmojsanat’ (BP-RMS) tracking systems to name a few [11]. Financially, the Houthis have imposed taxes and tariffs on commercial goods entering through Hodeidah port to financially sustain fighting while controlling the flow of humanitarian aids by their rules [12]. According to Lise Grande, 70 % of all national imports and 90% of food and medical supplies enter through the port of Hodeidah [13]. Upon the Joint Forces’ seizure of the Red Sea Mills miles to Hodeidah on 7th November, a social media post revealed a para-military member with a large supply of grain, roughly 45 thousand tons enough to feed 3.5 million citizens for a month. Due to the proximity of the undistributed humanitarian aid to the base of the Houthis and utility of aids for business purposes in markets it suggests complicity [14]. Therefore, as along as Hodeida’s port and stores of external assistance remain under the control of the Houthis, they will be able to finance war, influence the distribution of aids, and compel the international community on grounds of calculated humanitarian consequences. The Houthis are the biggest impediment to safe and effective delivery of humanitarian aids to millions in Yemen.

By extending the above logic, no one could substantially claim that the international organisations operating in Yemen within Houthi-controlled zones have not functioned the Houthi way. This paradox alludes to two interlinked facts: the Houthis have weakened the humanitarian response on the ground and the international community has helped to sustain the insurgent’s power through reinforcing a global humanitarian discourse on the war in Yemen. In this endeavour, the global forces have systematically overlooked the root causes of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and enabled the Houthi to play the ‘human insecurities card’ shifting the political nature of the conflict at the international stage to humanitarian per se [15].

Restoring Hodeidah, therefore, will bolster humanitarian and relief efforts to the world’s biggest ‘Houthi-caused’ humanitarian crisis. The Coalition-backed regime must strengthen its internal legitimacy through the delivery of basic services, including the facilitation of international and local humanitarian efforts, should Hodeidah be under their control.

Hodeidah Between Hard Choices: The Way Forward

The battle for Hodeidah has three pathways. First, if the coalition-backed forces won decisively and rapidly, the prospects for a political settlement and effective humanitarian response would enhance sharply. British and American pressures on the coalition-backed forces to halt the offensive suggest that this scenario is the least likely. A second possibility is if a protracted destruction-based win occurred (consistent with the Houthi declaration), the humanitarian situation within Hodeidah, and wider Yemen would reach unthinkable figures [16]. The likelihood of this scenario is greater than the first due to the Houthi brutality, should the offensive continue. Up-to-date evidence includes the Houthi militarisation of a health facility – May 22 Hospital – deploying snipers on the roof, breaching International Humanitarian Law and a sign of civilians’ victimisation [17]. These breaches have discouraged the international community due to the knock-on humanitarian consequences if they destroyed the primary source of national imports: Hodeidah port.

The third scenario is the final dance of the Whitehall-backed envoy. If parties responded positively to systemic pushes of de-escalating violence and unconditional ceasefire, it is highly likely that Griffiths would propose an internationally-monitored withdrawal of military forces, including the ‘Houthi mujahedeen.’ Griffiths might also recommend the establishment of an UN-supervised consensus-based structure to neutralise the security circumstance in Hodeidah. Such an arrangement would ensure the humanitarian efforts continue through Hodeidah’s port. This scenario has greater likelihood to transpire after an expected re-escalation of offensive if the Houthis abide by confidence-building measures, potentially before Sweden round kicks off by the end of this year.

Considering how the international community has embraced the Houthi as an actor, the success of this scenario is highly reliant on whether the Houthis act responsibly, an unobserved pattern in the Houthi conduct. Hodeidah is a stringent test to the UN, success there would increase Griffiths’ prospects and by extension the UN-led peace process in Yemen.

As uncertainties continue to unfold, long-term peacebuilding in Yemen requires high-cost sacrifices in the short-term. Today, Hodeidah is caught between the Houthi terrorism and a global humanitarian failure. The present offensive is constrained, and the Houthi defeat delayed. To the Houthis, Hodeidah is a supply artery for survival at best and a negotiation stick at worst.  Once the port is liberated, they are debilitated militarily, financially and politically favouring the UN-led Yemen Peace Process and millions in dire need of relief aids. It is therefore in London’s interest to allow Hodeidah’s liberation to fulfil the UNSCR 2216 (2015) and enhance Griffiths’ chances to succeed as the third UN envoy [18]. For any envoy to succeed in such a complex mission, a lessons-learnt approach is urgently required to develop a sustainable peacebuilding for Yemen and the wider region.

If Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have made a political decision to liberate Hodeida with strategic support as a part and parcel of an overall strategy, the liberation will enhance the prospects of the UN-led peace process and relief efforts. It will also likely strengthen the status quo of the internationally legitimate government, mobilise public support vis-à-vis the Houthis within Houthi-controlled territories and speed up ‘Yemen Peace Process’ more constructively. That unresolved, Hodeidah could likely become another Aden or Aleppo.



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[2] Zaid, H. (2018, November 12). Twitter. Retrieved from Hassan Zaid: https://twitter.com/zeid_200/status/1062094730979356687?s=19

[3] Arab News. (2018, November 12). King Salman meets British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt. Retrieved from Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1403571/saudi-arabia

[4] Xuequan, M. (2018, November 14). Fighting eases in Yemen's Hodeidah amid visits by UN officials. Retrieved form Xinhua Net: www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-11/14/c_129993334.htm

[5] Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen. (2018, July 4). Special Envoy's Remarks to the Press at the end of a 3-day visit to Sana'a. Retrieved from OSESGY: https://osesgy.unmissions.org/special-envoys-remarks-press-end-3-day-visit-sanaa

[6] Al Jazeera and News Agencies. (2018, November 9). Yemeni forces, Saudi-led coalition launch 'vast' Hodeidah push. Retrieved from Al Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/11/yemeni-forces-saudi-led-coalition-launch-vast-hodeidah-push-181109133507645.html

[7] Wintour, P. (2017, December 4). Yemen Houthi rebels kill former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/04/former-yemen-president-saleh-killed-in-fresh-fighting

[8] UN News. (2018, September 11). Yemen: UN envoy asks Security Council for more support ‘to move back’ to the negotiating table. Retrieved from UN News: https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/09/1019062

[9] Security Council Report. (2018, April). Yemen: April 2018 Monthly Forecast. Retrieved from Security Council Report. Retrieved from Security Council Report: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/monthly-forecast/2018-04/yemen_33.php?print=true

[10] Nebehay, S. (2018, September 8). Yemen peace talks collapse in Geneva after Houthi no-show. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-un/yemen-peace-talks-collapse-in-geneva-after-houthi-no-show-idUSKCN1LO08Z

[11] Nadimi, F., & Knights, M. (2018). Iran's Support to Houthi Air Defenses in Yemen. Washington: The Washington Institute.

[12] Almeida, M. (2018, May 19). Why Hodeidah is a critical chapter of the Yemen war. Retrieved from Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1305751

[13] Wintour, P. (2018, June 17). UN in advanced talks to take over besieged Yemen port. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/17/un-in-advanced-talks-to-take-over-yemen-port-hodeidah-under-saudi-led-siege

[14] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2018, September 21). Briefing to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Yemen by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock, 21 September 2018. Retrieved from ReliefWeb: https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/briefing-security-council-humanitarian-situation-yemen-under-secretary-general; Alkamaly, H. (2018, November 7). Twitter. Retrieved from Hamzah Alkamaly: https://twitter.com/hamzaalkamaly/status/1060255095311527938

[15] Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen. (2018, August 28). Yemen: United Nations Experts point to possible war crimes by parties to the conflict. Retrieved from United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23479

[16] Salisbury, P. (2018, September 20). Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent. Retrieved from Crisis Group International: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/yemens-hodeida-offensive-once-avoidable-now-imminent

[17] Sanchez, R. (2018, November 08). Houthi fighters 'take up positions on hospital roof' as battle for Hodeidah intensifies. Retrieved from The Telegraph.: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/11/08/yemen-rebel-chief-vows-fight-battle-intensifies-key-port-hunger/

[18] Security Council. (2015, April 14). Security Council Demands End to Yemen Violence, Adopting Resolution 2216 (2015), with Russian Federation Abstaining. Retrieved from UN: https://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc11859.doc.htm

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