The Arab coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen made major progress over the weekend in freeing the province of Hodeidah from rebel Houthi militias.
Its liberation of Al-Zaraniq Camp and the surrounding areas in the province’s Durayhi district is considered the coalition’s greatest military success in its march northward to regain the capital, Sanaa.
Hodeidah is strategically crucial because it is home to Yemen’s second largest port city after Aden. More than two-thirds of the country’s trade passes through the Hodeida port which is the maritime gateway to Sanaa.
Houthi forces have used it as a base for securing control over the western front overlooking the Red Sea. Currently, it serves as the major avenue for delivering international humanitarian relief to the war-torn country.
Yemeni political analyst Essam Sherim believes that an amphibious landing might be required to regain control over the large port complex and its environs, which are deeply nestled in the city infrastructure.
He noted that Houthi militias planted numerous roadside mines in the areas from which they have evacuated, some of which have claimed combatant and civilian lives.
He also fears that the militia will inflict heavy civilian casualties in Hodeida city itself, where the Houthis lack popular support.
If the Houthis lose Hodeidah, they will have lost one of their most crucial military and logistical bases.
The port city has served as their command headquarters on the western coast and it was their chief avenue for receiving smuggled weapons from Iran.
In addition, from Hodeidah the Houthis threatened maritime routes in the Red Sea and they have bombarded Saudi Arabian and Emirati ships.
Hodeidah is also known to have been an important ammunitions depot for the Houthis, especially naval mines, as has been revealed by photo-documented reports broadcast by pro-coalition media.
Houthi leader Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi has acknowledged the defeats his militias suffered in Hodeidah province and called on his supporters not to flee. In a televised speech broadcast by Al-Masirah channel, he described the coalition’s advances as a “penetration” and urged pro-Houthi fighters not to flee the fronts and gird themselves against the enemy.
US and British officers in coordination with Saudi and Emirati officers have directed the battle from Riyadh and from the Eritrean port of Assab.
In his speech he spoke repeatedly of “US-Saudi aggression” as a way to boost morale in the face of what he is portraying as not just a Saudi-led coalition, but a kind of neo-colonialist design.
Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, a political analyst from Taiz, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the coalition forces currently advancing on the ground in the battle to free Hodeidah are a mixture of resistance brigades from Hodeidah province, or what he called the “Tihamah resistance”, plus the Southern Movement’s “Security Belt” forces and the pro-legitimacy “Amaliqa Brigades”.
He stressed that Al-Hodeidah, in particular, contains many important military and security installations and sites, and cautioned against any hasty declarations of victory there given how that area constitutes a strategic depth for rebel forces.
Nevertheless, he added, “there has been progress and the balance of powers is in the hands of the forces of legitimacy at the present stage.”
Is Hodeidah to become the staging post for a major axis in the march to regain the capital? For an answer to such questions concerning the larger picture of the military operations, the Weekly turned to the Riyadh-based political analyst Khaled Alian who held that the current priority was to “liberate strategic areas and positions on the western coast in light of the importance attached, regionally and internationally, to halting the smuggling of Iranian arms”.
Therefore, he said, the immediate focus was on locations used for this purpose in Hodeidah. Afterwards, “combing operations would begin to progress inland in order to keep the coalition forces from getting bogged down in futile guerrilla warfare”.
He added that the focus on strategic locations, at present, would accomplish a number of aims, such as “to destroy the morale of the Houthi militiamen” and “to regain control over locations that will become important logistically to the legitimacy forces in future operations that will build up to the all-out battle for liberation”.
In a related development, Arab Coalition Spokesman Colonel Turki Al-Maliki announced, in a press conference Monday, that coalition forces had destroyed Houthi facilities for housing and arming drones in Saada.
He claimed that the drones, that the Houthis called “Qasef” were, in fact, “Ababil” type planes developed by Iran. He added that the Houthis were escalating and that this was a means to divert attention from the huge losses they sustained in Saada, Hodeida, Al-Bayda and Hajjah.
According to military experts and political analysts contacted by the Weekly, the “Battle of Hodeidah” is the key to further military inroads against Houthi rebels whose resources and morale are declining in tandem with the shrinkage of the areas under their control and the increasing difficulties they are having with recruiting.
This said, there remain major challenges ahead on road to Sanaa. It should be borne in mind that the Battle of Hodeidah was launched three months ago, yet coalition forces are still on the distant outskirts of the city, some 30 kilometres away. Sanaa is 226 kilometres from Hodeidah.
In addition, the war in other parts of the country is unfolding in areas where the Houthis have strong popular support and where Houthis militias and their popular base know that they are fighting an existential battle.
Nevertheless, the balance now favours the Saudi-led coalition, especially in the west where its forces are advancing step-by-step.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The battle of Hodeida