Fight for Port of Hodeidah Stalls

Fighting south of Hodeidah (social media)

By The Maritime Executive 07-12-2018 08:48:00

The Saudi- and UAE-backed campaign to retake the port of Hodeidah, Yemen from Houthi rebels has come to a near-halt, one month after Yemeni government forces began their offensive. Despite promises of a quick, decisive victory that would give the Saudi-led coalition new leverage in negotiations with the Houthis, the battle lines remain stalled at Hodeidah's airport, which lies on the other side of the city from the port complex. 

While the fighting has slowed, the coalition has not indicated any change in its desire to retake the port and expel Houthi forces from the city. In UN-facilitated negotiations, the coalition's members continue to insist that the Houthis must withdraw, unconditionally. As a compromise, Houthi leaders have offered to transfer control of port operations to the United Nations if they can remain in the city. 

Some international observers - notably the Democratic party leadership in the United States Congress - have expressed support for this arrangement, and have encouraged the coalition to accept it as an alternative to a protracted seige. In a letter to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Representatives Steny Hoyer, Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey, Adam Schiff and Ted Deutch called for assurances that the port of Hodeidah's operations would continue uninterrupted, and suggested that the coalition should "be flexible with regard to [its] requirements" - in particular, the demand that the Houthis leave the city and port. 

Rep. Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking member, linked his concerns over Hodeidah to American assistance. The Saudi coalition's air campaign is facilitated by foreign in-flight refueling services, and its ground forces are resupplied with munitions purchased abroad. The U.S. State Department approved a $1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in March, including $670 million for anti-tank missiles, $100 million for military helicopter maintenance, and $300 million in parts for Saudi tanks and military vehicles. “If an offensive by Saudi Arabia and the UAE further escalates the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, President Trump must make it clear that it will jeopardize the U.S. support that has helped enable the military campaign in Yemen,” said Rep. Schiff.

However, a political agreement to end the fighting may take some time to materialize. In a statement carried by pro-coalition social media, Yemeni Republican Guards Brigadier Tariq Saleh said that he is "preparing for the post-Hodeidah-battle," and will continue to advance until the Houthi capital at Sanaa is retaken. Social media reports indicate that coalition airstrikes and fighting around the airport continue.  

Humanitarian concerns

Aid groups have expressed concern that fighting in Hodeidah could lead to casualties among Yemen's civilian population, including some of the estimated eight million people who are already at risk of starvation in the country. Hodeidah is the primary port of entry for Yemen's food and medicine imports, and an interruption in the flow of relief supplies could have an impact on aid efforts. Separately, damage to water mains and sewer lines could raise the risk of a cholera outbreak within the city - especially given Yemen's hot weather. 

An estimated 35,000 people have fled to escape the fighting on Hodeidah's outskirts, according to the charity Mona Relief, including 12,000 people who traveled inland to Sanaa. Aid groups are distributing food in Sanaa to assist displaced families.