Spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen, Turki Al-Maliki, outlined in a press conference this week the progress coalition forces have been making on all fronts in Yemen.
In Saada, homeground of the Houthi rebels, the coalition had launched its Sever the Snake’s Head Operation in which seven Lebanese Hizbullah advisors were taken prisoner in Al-Malahit, he said. A statement released on Tuesday said the advisors were murdered.
He also reported progress on the Al-Beida and Midi fronts intended to surround the Houthis in the capital Sanaa and force them back to the negotiating table.
It appears that the coalition wants this to happen after the Houthis are defeated and forced to surrender. However, this may not be as easy to achieve as it appears, as the Houthis have changed their combat tactics in the port of Hodeida.
Instead of focusing on direct engagement with the army or other forces, they have opted for guerrilla warfare, which raises risks of civilian deaths, especially given the use of land mines and snipers posted on rooftops.
A Yemeni source close to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi told Al-Ahram Weekly from Riyadh that “the Houthis are looking at defeat, but they don’t want to leave Hodeida without a fight. They’re proposing the guerrilla war scenario in case the coalition moves on to Sanaa.”
“It’s just like how the Islamic State (IS) group handled the battle in Mosul [in northern Iraq]. We’re watching similar action by the Houthi militia in Hodeida. They’re digging trenches and deploying snipers,” he said.
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has so far failed to persuade the Houthis to turn over the port of Hodeida to the UN.
The Yemeni source said that the proposal to hand the port to the UN instead of the coalition was at the behest of Western pressures, particularly as the Houthis had indicated that they could accept a third neutral party that had not participated in the conflict.
However, both the UN and the coalition felt that this was a bid to gain time, as it would be a lengthy process to submit a list of candidates and reach agreement with them.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Yamani excluded negotiations over the port. “The Houthi militias must withdraw from Hodeida and surrender their arms,” he said, adding that the internationally recognised government of Yemen would need to regain control over the Red Sea Coast and all the western region of Yemen in tandem with pressuring the Houthis to negotiate.
The Yemeni position is consistent with that of the UAE. “The coalition is managing the Hodeida campaign correctly and responsibly,” Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Qarqash tweeted last week.
“The Houthi militia is taking humanitarian aid and civilians hostages. They must withdraw unconditionally. At this stage, diplomatic efforts must focus on compelling the Houthi militias to withdraw from the city of Hodeida,” he said.
The Yemeni government and its coalition supporters are still at odds with the UN envoy over the UN initiative.
“There are pressures that aim to slow down the military operation in order to promote negotiations,” the source in Riyadh told the Weekly.
“This is not preferable to the coalition and the forces of legitimacy, which are making progress on all fronts in spite of the difficulties and obstacles in the field and the performance of the Houthi militias.”
Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Maguidi agreed with the source in Riyadh, saying that the Houthis were using the guerrilla tactic to acquire a new negotiating card to use in talks with the UN.
More than 35,000 people have been killed and wounded since the Saudi-led Coalition launched its “Storm of Resolve” Operation in Yemen in March 2015.
“The Houthis know how difficult it is to engage the coalition on conditions of parity,” Maguidi said, adding that they had “redeployed military brigades equipped with heavy weaponry in the centre of Hodeida in order to prevent legitimacy and resistance forces from reaching the port.”
The Houthis have also blocked the road at Hodeida University about three kilometres from the airport, which has been largely recovered by government/coalition forces.
Three weeks after the coalition launched the “Golden Victory” Operation to seize control of Hodeida, the Houthi militias seem determined to hold out.
Iran has also re-emerged in connection with developments in Yemen recently, as the Houthis have again been carrying out missile fire into Saudi Arabia.
A Burkan-2H missile was fired in the direction of Riyadh last week, and the Houthis will continue to use missiles against unpredictable targets, said Houthi Spokesman Mohamed Abdel-Salam.
Coalition Spokesman Turki Al-Maliki said that the missiles “are proof that Iran is involved in the current battle”.
Iran has made no secret of its involvement in the Yemeni crisis and has been using it in connection with other issues.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, offered to make concessions on the Yemeni question in exchange for concessions on the nuclear deal with the West, for example.
Araghchi said that talks on the Yemen conflict were being held in parallel with the nuclear talks with the European signatories to the accord, under which Iran accepted to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
“The nuclear deal is not linked to the regional issues... Iran will not hold talks on its influence in the region, except for Yemen because of the humanitarian crisis there,” Abbas Araqchi told Iranian state TV on Sunday.
The exception was notable because of its connection with a meeting between Iran and the European powers in Brussels in mid-June in which the Iranian delegation, headed by the Iranian foreign minister, offered to use his influence to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.
Al-Maliki said in response to the Iranian visit to Brussels that a Saudi delegation, headed by himself, had also met with EU officials in Brussels to discuss the coalition’s approach to the battle in Hodeida and the negotiations.
In a press conference in Brussels last Friday, Al-Maliki said that “the Houthi militia has turned civilian homes into military fortifications.”
“The liberation of the port of Hodeida will sever all supplies that support the Houthis,” he said, adding that “a political and diplomatic solution is best for the Yemeni people.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: New Houthi tactics in Hodeida