A bloody battle for the Yemeni port of Hodeida is under way, but veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says whatever the outcome it is unlikely to be the beginning of the end of Yemen’s devastating and under-reported war.
The war in Yemen has reached a decisive stage with the announcement that the army of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by the Saudi-UAE coalition and forces loyal to General Tareq Ali Abdallah Saleh, had taken control of Hodeida airport and were only seven kilometres from the centre of the port city.
The decision to attack Hodeida and the deployment of thousands of troops for the purpose followed the ultimatum given by the UAE to the Houthi Ansarallah movement last week to withdraw completely from the city or face a devastating ground, air and naval assault. \
This scuppered the negotiations UN envoy Martin Griffith was holding with the Houthis, which according to The Economist magazine were on the verge of a deal under which the port would be placed under UN supervision in return for the Central Bank paying the salaries of public employees in Houthi-controlled areas.
The main aim of this offensive – in which the French daily Le Figaro revealed that French forces are taking part on the ground – is to deprive the Houthis of their last remaining big port on Yemen’s western coast through which 70% of the country’s imports pass, earning them tens of millions of dollars monthly in customs and other revenues.
The Saudis and Emiratis claim the port is used to smuggle in Iranian-made missiles that threaten their security and prolong the war in Yemen. The Houthis deny this and say these missiles, some 120 of which they have fired at Saudi military installations and cities since the war began three years ago, are locally-modified Scuds from the Yemeni army’s inventory.
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The Saudi/UAE-led coalition believes the capture of Hodeida will give it total control over the entire western coast and deal a massive military and morale blow to the Houthis, which may force them to come to the negotiating table and agree to surrender terms which could be imposed on them. Otherwise, an assault would be launched to take the capital Sanaa as the next step.
But it has been demonstrated by the war of the past three years – as well as the six wars the Houthis fought earlier against the forces of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh – that the word “surrender” does not exist in the Houthis’ lexicon. They might withdraw from one town or another, but only to continue fighting on other fronts. Laying down their arms is out of the question, at least in the current circumstances.
More than 22 million Yemenis rely on humanitarian supplies that come through Hodeida. If the war continues and the port is closed or its facilities are damaged, a humanitarian disaster would result making eight million people face the prospect of starvation.
News reports of the course of the fighting in an around Hodeida cannot be fully trusted because they virtually all come from the same source, namely the coalition and its massive empire of media and television outlets, while the Houthi media are feeble. What is clear, however, is that controlling the airport does not mean that the city is about to fall nor the war in it to come to an end.
Impartial diplomatic sources say the battle for Hodeida could prove protracted despite the heavy bombardment to which Houthi military positions have been subjected to by air, sea and land, and despite the forces of the Islah Party in the city joining forces with the coalition. The Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated party’s leadership issued a statement urging its followers to rise up against the Houthis and give a hero’s welcome to the army and allied forces.
These sources point out that while the Houthis are massively out-gunned by the coalition and allied forces, their numerical disadvantage is offset by the fact that they are in defensive positions (according to some military theorists an attacking force needs to outnumber defenders by five to one in order kill or capture them in such circumstances). A long urban war of attrition could ensue, which would mean increased casualties both among the city’s 600,000 civilian population and among the combatants, especially the attacking forces.
We do not know whether Hodeida will fall or how long it could take to achieve that goal, nor how the international community might react to mounting civilian casualties and suffering. But we do know that it is hard, indeed impossible, for the Houthis to accept defeat. They will continue fighting, and the war could move to more difficult terrain, to the mountains where the Houthis enjoy two big advantages: combat experience and a huge base of popular support.
The Houthis pulled out of the southern capital of Aden when they realised they could not defend the city, and might withdraw from Hodeida for the same reason, though there is reason to doubt that. But they would do so after waging fierce urban warfare, in which they are the more practiced and knowledgeable side, and for an extended period in the knowledge that Hodeida is the strongest line of defence for Sanaa.
A road-map for a solution offering all sides a way out of this bloody conflict was provided by the late president Ali Abdallah Saleh in the last video he recorded just hours before he was killed. Its key provisions are dialogue, the inclusion of all parties, and a transitional period followed by general elections.
The question is whether such a roadmap will be accepted by the coalition and the Houthis or adopted by the international community and the United Nations. We have no answer, but we can be sure that the fall of one city or the conquest of another will not bring this war to an end. Failing to pursue such a roadmap, and insisting instead on the imposition of military defeat on one side or the other, could mean prolonging the war for years to come.