On Wednesday June 13, Troops from the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen launched a major assault on Hodeida, Yemen’s main port city. Hodeida is currently under the control of the Houthi rebels, along with Sanaa, the nation’s capital. The assault began after the Houthis failed to hand over the city by a deadline set by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major coalition power.
“The liberation of Hodeida port is a turning point in our struggle to recapture Yemen from the militias that hijacked it to serve foreign agendas,” the exiled Yemeni government said in a statement carried by state-run Yemeni media.
The assault on Hodeida is the first time since the coalition joined the war in 2015 that they have attempted to capture a city with rebel forces as entrenched and as well-defended as they are in Hodeida. While recapturing the city would be a major success for the coalition in its own right, it would also serve a larger aim of pressuring the Houthis in Sanaa by cutting their supply lines, and hopefully forcing them to the negotiating table. It would also hopefully limit Houthi weapons shipments, which the coalition says are coming from Iran through the port.
While capturing Hodeida may force Houthi rebels to engage in more proactive negotiating with the Yemeni government, the attack itself has major humanitarian risks involved. Hodeida is the main aid route for around 22 million Yemeni civilians across the country, and has a population of around 400,000. The U.N. estimates that around 600,000 people are currently living in the vicinity of the port area and are endangered by the assault. In an assault on this scale, it’s inevitable some civilians will be caught in the crossfire.
Yemen’s population is massively dependent on imports to meet its basic needs, and a large amount of its food comes through Hodeida. If this is cut off, many civilians will struggle to survive. Amnesty International has called on all sides in the conflict to take precautions to protect civilians and ensure aid supplies are not impacted. The UAE has said that plans are in place to keep the port in operation, and has called on the international community to pressure the Houthis to evacuate the port and leave it intact and functional. The Emirates Red Crescent, the UAE branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has already started operations in the area.
The ICRC has said that Yemenis “fear a siege” and “are under immense pressure.” Their official Twitter account said that “You can feel the tension in the streets. Instead of focussing on celebrating [Eid] with their families, people are stocking up on food and fuel to survive.” The ICRC also warned that “more and more fighters” were arriving in Hodeida, indicating that the situation is only likely to get worse.
The U.N. Security Council has rejected a move to demand an immediate end to the fighting around the port. The motion, introduced by Sweden, was opposed by both the U.S. and U.K.. The council did call for restraint and “urged all sides to uphold their obligations under humanitarian law.” Despite participating in blocking the UNSC motion, the U.S. did also reject a request from the UAE for operational assistance. This is against previous hopes expressed at many levels of the organisation. The calls and attempts to prevent the conflict go all the way to the top, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying a few days ago that he “hope[s] it will be possible to avoid a battle for Hodeida,” and that the U.N. is “in intense consultations” to avoid this outcome.
The battle for Hodeida is thus a major cause for humanitarian concern, with both a large civilian population at direct risk, as well as the potential for food and medical supplies to much of the country to be impeded. However, should the military action be successful, it may force the Houthi rebels to the negotiating table, and hence, make progress in ultimately finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The international community should carefully watch the progress of this battle to ensure humanitarian concerns are respected, and ensure future negotiations occur in good faith regardless of the outcome of the battle.
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