The multi-faceted conflict in Yemen has thus far cost over ten thousand lives and left 75% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. It has roots in the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ but fighting did not begin until 2014 when Houthi rebels seized control of the western part of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. In 2015 Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states, backed by the US, UK, and France, began airstrikes against the Houthis. While both Al-Qaeda and the ISIS have a presence in the country and there have been splits in the rival sides the conflict is dominated by the war between the rebel Houthis and the Yemeni government.
On the 12th June the Saudi-led coalition began their offensive on the city of Hudaydah (also known as Hodeidah), a strategically important port controlled by the Houthis and one through which food and humanitarian aid reaches a population on the brink of starvation. The offensive to take the city has been paused while the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, attempts to mediate between the warring parties and broker a deal whereby the UN takes control of the port. Should the talks be successful the Houthis will lose control of one of their two most important strategic assets (the other being the capital, Sanaa) but avoid a major battle for the city. Should the talks fail, then the coalition, which includes the forces of the UAE and Yemen, will resume its offensive and there will be a battle for a city of 600,000 people and the crippling of a crucial route for an estimated 80% of supplies into Yemen. The stakes are high and the pause is short, due to last into early July. Humanitarian organisations have been unanimously unequivocal about the consequences of the port being shut down by fighting, stating that it will lead to the displacement of city’s population and tip the impoverished people of Yemen into starvation.
Strategic considerations will be high amongst the concerns of the protagonists. The Saudis allege that the port is a transit route for Iranian supplied weapons, including the missiles that the Houthis fire into Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis and Iran vehemently deny this, claiming that the missiles are from captured government stocks. The port is a key asset either way, and controlling it means controlling a substantial proportion of the flow of goods and aid entering Yemen. There are also reasons for the sides to avoid a protracted battle for Hudaydah and the UN is offering them both a way out. A battle for the city would be destructive for both sides as while the airpower of the coalition would prove decisive Houthi forces are currently in control and would be able to exact a cost in any ground assault. In the wider political context, the coalition has been under pressure from its western backers due to discontent in the West over the use of western supplied weapons in its campaign. These concerns, however, will come secondary to strategic considerations as the support is unlikely to be cut off and without concrete action from western governments the only limit on the use of coalition airpower is words of protest and warring parties tend not to listen to criticism. As accurate as the weapons used may be, the outcome of every recent battle for a city in the Middle East between government forces backed by airpower against insurgents has been the destruction of the city.
As it stands, the talks over the future of Hudaydah have stalled, reportedly due to the Houthis wishing to retain a presence in the port while the UN controls it and the government insisting that all their forces be withdrawn. The pause in the coalition offensive is temporary and it will not become a ceasefire without an agreement being reached that will definitively stop an offensive that could break the military deadlock between the two sides and change the course of the conflict. The consequences of the continuation of the offensive are predicted to be dire for both the city and the country.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator