Since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has been targeting the Iranian-backed Houthi group to force them out of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. In the midst of the volatile and complex Yemen civil war awaits the impending military operation to retake the Houthi-controlled Hudaydah port located on the Red Sea coast – a vital entry path for humanitarian aid. The civil war has already claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians, with war crime allegations against parties to the conflict. Any attack on Hudaydah will be a clear game changer for the conflict, escalating Yemen’s political strife and deepening the humanitarian situation.
Hudaydah is a lifeline for the Yemeni people who are currently living through a developing famine crisis. Vital cargo deliveries through the port have reduced by more than half, leaving 3.3 million Yemenis, including 2.1 million children, malnourished according to the United Nations (UN).
Strategically positioned with easily accessible routes to the north and south of the country, Hudaydah is also located south of Ras Isa, a floating terminal which exports oil produced from the Marib governorate fields – a location which has attracted US counter-terrorism operations in recent days. The pipeline from Marib to Ras Isa transports 125,000 barrels per day, making Hudaydah of strategic importance.
On 22 May, the UN voiced concerns over any impending attack on the Hudaydah port and the need to keep it “safe. The UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, travelled to the capital Sana’a this week to call upon the Houthi group to attend negotiations in Kuwait or Geneva.
However, the envoy came under attack by the Houthis who accused him of being “biased” and offering nothing new, “but only what the [Saudi-led] coalition is dictating on him”. Ould Cheikh was forced to leave Yemen without reaching an agreement with the warring factions.
The United States and the Saudi-led coalition have not seriously attempted to settle the Yemen conflict through political means or address the worsening humanitarian situation. Instead, President Donald Trump’s first diplomatic trip to Saudi Arabia was used to finalise a $110 billion arms deal which affirms Saudi-US strategy for Yemen’s conflict trajectory.
Saudi Arabia claims that the port is being used by the Houthis to receive arms from Iran, although there is no empirical evidence put forward to substantiate the claim. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerman, stated that the Saudi-coalition operating in the Red Sea has uncovered and “revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis”.
The Saudi-coalition and the US Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, has warned Iran against fuelling the sectarian civil war.
Although the coalition is determined to target Hudaydah, there’s no denying that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemeni Presiden Abd rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s loyal army are not capable of maintaining the security of the port. It is for this reason that the UAE has requested the US intervene and broaden its already long-lasting counter-terrorism operation against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen to include Houthi targets.
US-Saudi conflict trajectory
In a memo to US national security adviser Lt. Gen. McMaster, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis showed interest in supporting the Saudi-led coalition by military means. However, US lawmakers still question whether it would be lawful to fight the Houthis. Any US military use of force will require new authorisation from Congress which currently doesn’t see a need for American forces to enter a war with the Houthis. As it stands, the US’ engagement with the Houthis has been peripheral, although infrequent Houthi rocket fire towards US and allied ships along the Red Sea coast has been responded with targeted lethal strikes. In addition, it is no exaggeration that the US’s alliance with the Saudi-led coalition facilitates a proxy war with Iran.
The Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to recapture Hudaydah and force the Houthis into negotiations will be met with a fierce battle. The Houthi group is well resourced and there’s a risk that they may retaliate and fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia and undertake more frequent incursions into southern Saudi Arabia.
Make no mistake, there’s no military solution to this war. Armed groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh in Yemen are primarily benefitting from a long-lasting Yemen conflict, and enjoying dynamics which assist their cause on the battlefield. Ultimately, it’s the civilians who are caught between the cross-fire in the midst of famine, cholera and malnutrition. Political negotiations must begin immediately otherwise, civilians will die as a consequence of proxy wars, sectarian violence and political domination.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.