De­ci­sive ac­tion is the only way to break the Houthi stran­gle­hold

The National - News - - OPINION - CON COUGHLIN Con Coughlin is the Daily Tele­graph’s de­fence and for­eign af­fairs ed­i­tor

For all the criticism the Arab Coali­tion’s mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to lib­er­ate the Ye­meni port city of Hodei­dah has at­tracted from some quar­ters in the West, the of­fen­sive is vi­tal if this war-rav­aged coun­try is to stand any chance of end­ing its three-year con­flict.

Thou­sands of troops, backed by Saudi and Emi­rati forces, have now launched what is un­doubt­edly the largest of­fen­sive un­der­taken dur­ing the course of the con­flict in an ef­fort to re­cap­ture the port on be­half of Ye­men’s in­ter­na­tion­ally-recog­nised gov­ern­ment.

The two-pronged as­sault has in­volved col­umns of jeeps and ar­moured ve­hi­cles filled with coali­tion-trained Ye­meni forces ad­vanc­ing from points 15 miles south and south­east of the port city. This has been ac­com­pa­nied by a se­cond am­phibi­ous as­sault from the sea, with Saudi ships car­ry­ing troops trained in Eritrea across the Red Sea to land at lo­ca­tions to the south­west of the city.

At the same time coali­tion air­craft have launched op­er­a­tions to at­tack Ira­nian-backed Houthi po­si­tions around the city.

From the mo­ment, though, that coali­tion com­man­ders an­nounced they were launch­ing op­er­a­tion Golden Vic­tory, the co­de­name for the mil­i­tary of­fen­sive to lib­er­ate Hodei­dah from Ira­nian-backed Houthi rebels, there has been a well-or­ches­trated out­cry claim­ing that the of­fen­sive will plunge the coun­try into an even greater hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

At present in­ter­na­tional aid groups claim that the war in Ye­men is now the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. United Na­tions sec­re­tary gen­eral Antonio Guter­res re­cently warned that more than 22 mil­lion peo­ple – three-quar­ters of the pop­u­la­tion – were in des­per­ate need of aid and pro­tec­tion.

But the cru­cial fact that Mr Guter­res and other aid or­gan­i­sa­tions con­sis­tently ap­pear to over­look in their damn­ing as­sess­ments of the Ye­men con­flict, which of­ten lay the blame at the door of the Saudi-led coali­tion, is the role the Houthi rebels have played in cre­at­ing this hu­man­i­tar­ian disas­ter, par­tic­u­larly through their con­trol of Hodei­dah.

Ever since the Houthis seized the port, the rebels have im­posed a stran­gle­hold over all goods en­ter­ing the coun­try, leav­ing them in con­trol of the dis­tri­bu­tion of vi­tal food and aid. The Houthis have man­aged to fi­nance them­selves through loot­ing, ex­tor­tion and im­pos­ing il­le­gal tax­a­tion on com­mer­cial ships – in­clud­ing those car­ry­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

And it is the Houthis’ fail­ure to en­sure an eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion of this aid that has con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to the mass star­va­tion now af­fect­ing large ar­eas of the coun­try. At the same time their fail­ure to dis­trib­ute med­i­cal sup­plies has been a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tory factor in the coun­try suf­fer­ing the worst cholera out­break in his­tory.

But rather than hold­ing the Houthis and their Ira­nian backers to ac­count for their role in bring­ing Ye­men to its knees, the more com­mon nar­ra­tive em­a­nat­ing from aid work­ers is that this hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy is solely the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Arab Coali­tion and their West­ern backers, such as Bri­tain and the US.

The other trou­bling is­sue – one that pre­cip­i­tated the coali­tion’s de­ci­sion to lib­er­ate Hodei­dah – is that the port is in­creas­ingly be­ing used to im­port a va­ri­ety of Ira­nian weapons, in­clud­ing so­phis­ti­cated mis­siles and drones. Apart from be­ing used in the fight against pro-gov­ern­ment forces in Ye­men, these weapons are in­creas­ingly be­ing used to launch at­tacks across the Ye­meni bor­der against Saudi Ara­bia. Saudi se­cu­rity of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that the Houthis have launched 150 at­tacks on the King­dom with ad­vanced bal­lis­tic mis­siles, while more re­cently there has been an up­surge in at­tempts by the Houthis to launch drone at­tacks.

The Houthis’ in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive con­duct with re­gard to de­ploy­ing the arms ship­ments they re­ceive from Iran on a reg­u­lar ba­sis also has po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions for the rest of world.

An es­ti­mated 15 per cent of global com­merce passes through the re­gion, and the Houthis now pose a very real threat to the se­cu­rity of in­ter­na­tional ship­ping lanes, es­pe­cially the area stretch­ing from the Bab Al Mandab strait to the Red Sea ap­proach to the Suez Canal.

This sharp es­ca­la­tion in the mil­i­tary threat posed by the Houthis and their Ira­nian backers has been one of the main fac­tors be­hind the coali­tion’s de­ci­sion to re­claim con­trol of Hodei­dah.

An­other im­por­tant el­e­ment has been the ob­struc­tive tac­tics the Houthis have adopted to thwart any hope of find­ing a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to the cri­sis. For ex­am­ple, a me­di­a­tion plan pro­posed by the coali­tion, whereby the port would be placed un­der in­ter­na­tional su­per­vi­sion un­der the aus­pices of the UN, and which had the back­ing of Ye­men’s demo­crat­i­cally-elected gov­ern­ment, was re­jected out-of-hand by the Houthis.

The prospect of Ye­men be­ing plunged into an even deeper hu­man­i­tar­ian disas­ter ef­fec­tively left the coali­tion with no al­ter­na­tive but to act. Con­trary to the claims be­ing made by some that the coali­tion ac­tion will only cause more mis­ery, the coali­tion in­sists the best way to bring Ye­men’s ap­palling civil war to an end is to take de­ci­sive ac­tion to break the Houthis’ stran­gle­hold over vi­tal lo­ca­tions such as Hodei­dah.

The coali­tion’s strat­egy has been suc­cinctly summed up by Dr An­war Gar­gash, the UAE’s Min­is­ter of State for For­eign Af­fairs. “Once Hodei­dah is re­turned to gov­ern­ment con­trol it will help to break the im­passe that has frozen Ye­men’s progress over the last three years, by fi­nally forc­ing the Houthis to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table in good faith, so that the coun­try can move for­ward.”

The aim of the coali­tion’s of­fen­sive, there­fore, is to end Ye­men’s suf­fer­ing, not to pro­long it, an ob­jec­tive that is now prob­a­bly the only prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion to re­solv­ing this dread­ful con­flict.

The aim of the coali­tion’s of­fen­sive is to end Ye­men’s suf­fer­ing, not to pro­long it. It is now the only prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion

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