Fighting has raged at Hodeida airport, on the Red Sea, since Tuesday last week when forces of the internationally recognised Yemeni government entered the main airport compound.
International observers fear “heavy losses” due to the sustained hostilities since the Saudi Arabian-led coalition launched “Operation Golden Victory” against Hodeida, which has been controlled by the Ansar Allah Al-Houthi Movement since the outset of the Yemeni Civil War more than three years ago.
Hodeida, Yemen’s main port, located 220 kilometres west of Sanaa, is the country’s most vital port of entry for food, medicine, fuel and other necessities. Officials in the Arab coalition claim that it is also the main port for smuggling in Iranian arms supplies to the Houthis.
In March 2015, the Saudi-led Sunni alliance declared war against the Houthis who had occupied the capital, Sanaa, a few months earlier, forcing the internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee to his hometown Aden, in the south, and then to Riyadh to plea for military intervention to help him return to power in Sanaa.
For most of the time since the war began, the lines have remained unmovable between the Houthi rebels who control most of the north and the forces of “legitimacy” that control most of southern Yemen.
If the latter succeed in seizing control of Hodeida Airport and its seaport facilities, this will severely weaken the Houthis (who are affiliated with the Zeidiya Shia sect) and compel them to negotiate a peace.
At least this is how pro-Arab coalition mouthpieces speak of the goal of the operation. Iranian sources maintain that the “military solution” fails to address the root causes of the Yemeni crisis.
Militarily, however, Hodeida will not be easy. According to AFP, citing an Emirati official speaking on condition of anonymity, there are some 3,000 Houthi fighters in the port city. Such a large force could protract the battle. Moreover, it appears that the determination to resist exists. Houthi leader Abdel- Malek Al-Houthi has repeatedly appealed to his supporters to fight to defend Hodeida.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Qarqash has given assurances that the Arab coalition and Yemeni government forces are taking pains to avoid large numbers of civilian deaths.
However, observers doubt the feasibility of this, regardless of stated intentions. No matter how carefully planned and executed the military operation, it is certain to cause significant loss of civilian life.
In fact, according to The Independent, “at least 280 people are believed to have been killed in the six days since the Arab coalition, which fights on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government, launched Operation Golden Victory to reclaim the port city.” France 24 reports that the number of dead has almost reached a thousand.
Regardless of which is the most accurate figure, the deaths compound the anguish of the 600,000 residents of the city who have sustained some of the most brutal humanitarian conditions since the outset of the war. Thousands of children suffer malnourishment according to relief workers in Yemen.
According to UN sources, more than 70 million people throughout the country as a whole require humanitarian relief while around half a million children suffer from acute malnutrition.
More than 20 million Yemenis are dependent on relief and, according to UN sources, more than eight million are at risk of starvation.
On Sunday, the UN reported that more than 4,000 families, caught in fierce hostilities between the two sides, have been displaced from Hodeida and its environs.
Meanwhile, the UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is in Sanaa, engaged in difficult talks with Houthi leaders who have stated that they support a “political solution” to the Yemeni crisis but so far have not yet clarified whether they would surrender Hodeida to a UN administration.
This alternative, proposed by Griffiths, would theoretically forestall the advance into the city of pro-government forces which are supported by Arab coalition aerial bombardment and contingents of Sudanese and UAE ground forces.
If the Houthis agree to the proposal, it would avert a huge civilian toll while simultaneously permitting for the resumption of the flow of food, medicine and fuel supplies needed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country as whole.
If the Houthis do not agree, Hodeida will become the scene of a fateful battle which UAE Foreign Minister Qarqash vowed would continue until the Houthis are driven from the city.
Supporters of the Saudi-led coalition maintain that it is only “a matter of time” until it seized control of Hodeida and its airport and seaport in particular, as Adwan Al-Ahmari of the Saudi-owned London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper tweeted last week. Al-Ahmari, who is also a supporter of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s reformist approach, added, “the centre of the city is not important,” indicating that the coalition wanted to avoid confrontations with residents.
Hodeida is not only the port through which Yemen receives most of its imports, it is also where most international relief workers and officials arrive to the war-torn country.
The Houthis maintain that Brigadier General Tarek Saleh, nephew of late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was the prime instigator of the battle of Hodeida.
According to Mohamed Abdel-Salam of the Saba news agency, Tarek, who escaped death the day his uncle was assassinated, fled to Mareb where he met with Saudi officials and proposed that “the liberation of Sanaa had to pass through Hodeida.”
Tarek Saleh’s name has not appeared in any news or research reports since the outset of “Operation Golden Victory”.
Abdel-Salam also claims that Tarek is manoeuvring to take control of the network of interwoven interests that had previously been loyal to his uncle, the late president. The network consists, according to many sources, of the majority of the Yemeni army, the civil service, a large number of tribal leaders, the religious establishment and a significant portion of the business community.
This network extends beyond the Zeidi Shia, who make up the majority of the population of north Yemen, to include Sunnis opposed to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to build up and control such an extensive network of vested interests during his 33 years in power during which he had acquired a reputation as a brilliant manipulator with a talent for “dancing on the heads of snakes”, as he, himself, boasted.
Analysts believe that Houthi ranks may fracture under sustained military pressures between a camp that favours a truce and negotiations as a means to preserve the Houthi political and military movement and organisation and a hardliner camp that calls for “resistance against the forces of aggression and foreign occupation”, as the Houthi media refers to the Saudi-led coalition.
Coalition sources rule out the likelihood of a schism. They argue that the Houthi movement, as a whole, has inclined towards the hardline stance since the president of the Houthi government, Saleh Al-Samad, was assassinated in an airstrike against Hodeida and succeeded by Mahdi Al-Mashat.
The UN Security Council is expected to convene in the forthcoming days to discuss the situation in Hodeida.
Meanwhile, the port city and its inhabitants will continue to struggle for survival, caught in the vice between aerial bombardment, naval blockade and a battle that could drag on indefinitely.'
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hodeida’s suffering