The Battle of Hodeidah Begins

[Update June 19]: According to reports on the ground, the Arab Coalition has finally gained control of the rest of the Hodeidah airport and surrounding areas. The port has remained open and deliveries of humanitarian aid have continued. The Houthis are still refusing diplomatic efforts brokered by the United Nations to peacefully withdraw from Hodeidah.

[Update June 15]: Until now, the fighting has taken place in the outskirts of Hodeidah, not within the city limits. Today, the Guardian reported that the Arab coalition seized the entrance of Hodeidah Airport. The seizure is significant because it demonstrates the swift advance of the coalition, an important factor in preventing wide-scale humanitarian issues. In the three days of fighting so far, 139 fighters have been killed.

Ignoring warnings from the United States, the Arab coalition, led principally by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), launched its invasion into Yemen’s key port city Hodeidah on Wednesday, June 13th. Although hopeful to avoid it, international observers expected the coalition to move into Hodeidah eventually due to its strategic location and symbolic importance, which has been controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.

The coalition began its operation, Golden Victory, to recapture the Houthi rebel-controlled city by launching attacks on the city’s airport and other neighborhoods around the city. In addition to Yemeni ground troops, the coalition has employed Saudi warplanes and U.A.E. attack ships to support the offensive.

It has been reported that Saudi airstrikes have struck most Houthi defense forces and the majority of fighting is taking place in al Durayhimi district, which is about 10 kilometers south of Hodeidah along the coast. The coalition has been slowed thus far by mines, but they are widely expected to take control of Hodeidah.

The operation has sparked international fears of another humanitarian crisis in Hodeidah, home to 600,000 Yemenis and importer of at least 80% of Yemen’s total food supply, along with medicines and other vital supplies.

Humanitarian fears are further exacerbated by the recent airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders clinic and the withdrawal of 71 International Red Cross workers from Yemen. United Kingdom-based aid organization Reprieve has reported that port operations have continued despite the battles, so for the time being humanitarian aid does not appear to be affected. If the battle continues and the port is targeted, this may change.

In the lead up to this operation, residents and aid groups were warned to evacuate and avoid the militias. U.A.E. officials allowed the United Nations 48 hours to convince the Houthis to withdraw from Hodeidah. After 48 hours, the Houthis refused to withdraw, prompting the operation to begin Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday, before the operation, U.S. lawmakers petitioned U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to prevent the offensive and avoid the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe. The letter was circulated just days after it was reported that the U.S. military had increased its support for the coalition. Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement recognizing the security needs of the Saudis while ensuring the humanitarian needs of Yemeni civilians remains a high priority. Some have interpreted this statement as tacit approval for the coalition to proceed.

Speaking from within the U.A.E on Wednesday, Yemen’s President, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, called for a “swift liberation” of the city from the Houthi rebels and is confident that a victory in Hodeidah will lead to victory over all of Yemen. Eventually, the coalition must recapture the capital, Sana’a, and by acquiring the port in Hodeidah, the coalition will be in a better position to defeat the Houthis.

Qatari-based sources have speculated that Hadi will relinquish control of Hodeidah to the U.A.E. and that Hadi was pressured into agreeing to the operation in Hodeidah by U.A.E. government officials. However, Yemen’s government revealed in a statement that it exhausted all political and diplomatic moves to reach an agreement with the Houthis, efforts which the Houthis rejected. The United Nations even attempted to set up a neutral zone in Hodeidah to protect humanitarian supplies. A victory in Hodeidah would also represent a turning point in the war for Yemeni forces, so control of Hodeidah remains a high priority for Hadi’s government.

After success in Hodeidah, the coalition will be primed to recapture the capital and reinstate the legitimate Yemeni government. Victory in Hodeidah will be a key win for the coalition, but it won’t end the war and a new humanitarian crisis may be left in its wake. It appears the coalition has the military technology and support necessary to defeat the Houthis, limiting U.S. military involvement for now.

There may be a need for the U.S. to provide an increased amount of aid and assistance rebuilding the government, however. The coalition has united against the Houthis, but it is made up of several different groups with separate interests. Key enemies of the U.S. in the region, Iran and al-Qaeda, may be emboldened by continued instability, although the coalition gaining control of Hodeidah will minimize Iran’s influence in Yemen.

After the defeat of the Houthis, pro-government forces will divide again and jockey for power, while separatists will seek to re-form Southern Yemen. The beginning of the Battle for Hodeidah may be considered the beginning of the downfall of the Houthis, but conflict in Yemen will likely continue.