Pause on Hudaida Offensive Could Prevent Further Tragedy in Yemen

Last week, the United Arab Emirates announced a pause on Operation Golden Victory, the effort to push Houthi rebels out of the port city of Hudaida. Operation Golden Victory began on June 12th. It was the biggest military maneuver by the Arab-led coalition in three years—UAE troops attacked from the ground while Saudi helicopters attacked from the air. There were no civilian casualties, however the assault has the potential to push the already-tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen even further into disaster.

Hudaida plays a critical role in the conflict between the Yemeni government (backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and the Houthi rebels. The Houthis took control of Hudaida in late 2014. The Saudis claim that the Houthis are using the port to smuggle in weapons from Iran and estimate that they glean 30 to 40 million dollars of revenue from the port every month. If the Arab-led coalition were to regain the port, they would cut rebel supply lines and deprive them of massive funding. That could create a spillover effect that would break the military deadlock of the past couple years.

Before the Houthis took control of Hudaida in 2015, 70% of Yemen’s imports passed through its port. These imports consisted primarily of humanitarian aid, food, and fuel. More than two thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million currently rely on aid that comes through the Hudaida port. 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation. The UN fears that the assault on the port will trigger a major famine, worsening an already devastating situation. Their statement is entirely unequivocal—this is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Amnesty International said that the offensive would have a “devastating impact for hundreds of thousands of civilians—not just in the city but throughout Yemen. With an estimated 600,000 people living in and around Hudaida, all sides to the conflict must take feasible precautions to ensure that the civilian population is protected.” Racha Mouawieh, Amnesty’s Yemen researcher told Al Jazeera that millions of lives are at risk. “The closing of the Hudaida port would prevent life-saving supplies from reaching civilians in desperate need.” Joost Hiltermann, Program Director of the MENA for International Crisis Croup, said that if ground battles reach the city, the damage would be massive. “Urban warfare is utterly destructive, and if there is street-to-street fighting in Hudaida city, the impact on civilians will likely be devastating, physically and psychologically.”

Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy to Yemen, had worked to avoid an all-out attack on the port. Now, he scrambles to find a diplomatic solution that could prevent devastating loss of life. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, stated that the pause is intended to open the door to negotiations for an “unconditional” rebel withdrawal from the port. “We have paused our campaign to allow enough time for this option to be explored. We hope he will succeed,” said Gargash (quote courtesy of Al Jazeera). The Houthis state that they may be willing to share control of the port with the UN, however they refuse to withdraw their troops entirely. SABA, the official news agency, reported that the government stated that ceasefire efforts will not work unless the Houthis withdraw from all territory that they currently hold.

Both sides of the conflict should stop to consider the potential implications of their inability to compromise. It is overwhelmingly clear—the Hudaida port must remain open. The lives of millions of people are at stake. Resolving the civil war is secondary to preventing massive loss of life. The UN must continue to push for a solution that prioritizes the lives of the Yemeni people, and both sides of the conflict must come to the negotiating table in order to avoid an unforgivable tragedy.