No go­ing back: UAE’s strate­gic move in Hodei­dah should con­clude the first phase of Ye­men’s war

The National - News - - OPINION - MICHAEL KNIGHTS Dr Michael Knights is a se­nior fel­low at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, and has trav­elled to most of Ye­men’s bat­tle­fronts dur­ing three trips this year

This week saw the be­gin­ning of the fi­nal bat­tle to lib­er­ate Hodei­dah, Ye­men’s largest port. A city of 700,000 peo­ple, Hodei­dah is the “mouth” of Ye­men, im­port­ing 47 per cent of the coun­try’s food in the first quar­ter of 2018, ac­cord­ing to the Ye­men Com­pre­hen­sive Hu­man­i­tar­ian Op­er­a­tion (YCHO) Sup­port Cen­tre.

Hodei­dah is also the main source of in­come for the Ira­nian-backed Houthi rebels, who charge ship­pers around $100,000 to al­low each ship to berth and off­load food or fuel.

The eyes of the world are now drawn to Hodei­dah, even though most peo­ple had never heard of it be­fore this week. The peo­ple of Hodei­dah want to be lib­er­ated from the Houthis, who are not from the area, yet lo­cals fear a long and de­struc­tive bat­tle.

Diplo­matic ef­forts to per­suade the Houthis to vol­un­tar­ily leave the port ap­pear to have failed.

With UAE-backed Ye­meni forces now only just out­side Hodei­dah, the loom­ing bat­tle has caused com­mer­cial ship­pers to stop de­liv­er­ing food to Hodei­dah, although aid agen­cies con­tinue their de­liv­er­ies. The clock is now tick­ing.

If food im­ports through the port are re­duced for an ex­tended pe­riod, Houthi-con­trolled Ye­men may slip into the dev­as­tat­ing famine that the UN and other aid agen­cies are warn­ing of.

In the eyes of the world, the Saudi-led coali­tion has cho­sen to take Hodei­dah’s port “off line” for a pe­riod, a tremen­dously risky play. The UAE is most di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the suc­cess of the Hodei­dah cam­paign and the restora­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian flows through Hodei­dah and Saleef, an­other nearby port.

The UAE has a lot of “skin in the game”. Nearly 1,500 UAE troops and mainly UAE air­power and ar­tillery sup­port the 25,000-strong Ye­meni force mov­ing to lib­er­ate the port. On Wed­nes­day, four UAE troops were mar­tyred in a Houthi strike on a naval ves­sel.

What most ob­servers fail to un­der­stand, after just tun­ing in to Hodei­dah, is that the UAE and its Ye­meni part­ners have been pre­par­ing to lib­er­ate the port since 2016 in order to weaken the Houthis, cre­ate lever­age for ne­go­tia­tors, limit the rebels’ abil­ity to im­port Ira­nian-pro­vided arms, and bring the port back up to full ca­pac­ity as a hu­man­i­tar­ian im­port hub.

Un­for­tu­nately, Hodei­dah’s lib­er­a­tion was pre­vented by suc­ces­sive protests from the United States, the UN and aid agen­cies, leav­ing north­ern Ye­men to lan­guish with in­suf­fi­cient food.

While the op­er­a­tion was pri­mar­ily an am­phibi­ous in­va­sion, the US as­sis­tance was needed to pro­tect against anti-ship­ping mis­siles, mines and drone boats. Now, as the forces drive up to Hodei­dah from the south, US sup­port is no longer es­sen­tial. The op­er­a­tion has fi­nally gone for­ward.

Lib­er­at­ing Hodei­dah and nearby ports is within the mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the UAE-backed Ye­meni forces. There are around 2,000 Houthi fight­ers in the city, sur­rounded by up to 700,000 lo­cals and 25,000 ad­vanc­ing Ye­meni forces.

In­ter­nal op­po­si­tion to the Houthis is strong, es­pe­cially since they mur­dered Ye­men’s for­mer pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh in De­cem­ber last year. The UAE has had over two years to plan and pre­pare for this mo­ment.

The bat­tle can have only one re­sult: the lib­er­a­tion of Hodei­dah and its peo­ple. Un­cer­tainty is in­stead fo­cused on the speed of the bat­tle, whether ports and mar­itime chan­nels will be booby-trapped or oth­er­wise dam­aged and whether the coali­tion’s hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief plans are good enough to save Ye­men from famine.

This is a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional test, but any doubters should re­mem­ber that the UAE armed forces have sur­prised the world time and again, lib­er­at­ing Aden and Mukalla in op­er­a­tions the US and other world pow­ers said couldn’t be done.

Yet, in the case of Hodei­dah, re­cap­tur­ing the ports mil­i­tar­ily is not the end of the story. Hav­ing ini­ti­ated this op­er­a­tion, the UAE must now show that it is up to the chal­lenge of restor­ing food and fuel im­ports to a level greater than they were be­fore the bat­tle.

More than two years of think­ing have gone into how to cap­ture the port in­tact, get its fa­cil­i­ties up and run­ning and pour aid into Hodei­dah.

One key chal­lenge of restart­ing the port will be clear­ing un­der­sea mines and booby-traps placed on port fa­cil­i­ties.

A se­cond will be con­vinc­ing com­mer­cial ship­pers to re­turn to the port even as oc­ca­sional Houthi rock­ets are be­ing fired from dis­tant launch­pads in­land.

There is still a large area of Houthi-con­trolled Red Sea coast be­tween Hodei­dah and the Saudi Ara­bian bor­der cross­ing at Al-Tuwal, pre­vent­ing large Saudi ports like Jizan from be­ing used to make up for any short­fall if Hodei­dah and Saleef are tem­po­rar­ily un­able to op­er­ate.

As a re­sult, more still needs be done to meet the chal­lenges in Hodei­dah. The post-lib­er­a­tion anti-ex­plo­sive clear­ance of the port and ship­ping chan­nels must be ex­pe­di­tious.

Cranes, si­los and fuel tanks must be re­placed or fixed im­me­di­ately. Port op­er­a­tions per­son­nel and dock work­ers must be rushed into Hodei­dah and Saleef to sup­ple­ment lo­cal staff.

The coali­tion must sup­port com­mer­cial ship­pers by in­sur­ing – or even leas­ing – their ves­sels to in­cen­tivise them to re­turn to the Red Sea ports. (This is the kind of bold move the UAE is famed for; much as the Emi­rates went out and im­me­di­ately bought its own am­phibi­ous land­ing ship after the US re­fused to loan it one in 2015.)

And all of this needs to be shown to the world – not just in slick news cov­er­age but in de­tailed, daily, multi-lan­guage brief­ings of hu­man­i­tar­ian plans, akin to the kind of press con­fer­ences the US or UK mil­i­taries would pro­vide.

The coali­tion also needs to show that the lib­er­a­tion of Hodei­dah has cre­ated a new open­ing for a cease­fire and di­a­logue be­tween the dis­parate fac­tions.

The new UN spe­cial en­voy to Ye­men, Martin Grif­fiths, has had a bap­tism of fire, try­ing to bal­ance the needs of the Houthis and the UAE-backed Ye­meni forces in Hodei­dah at the same time that he was try­ing to get all par­ties back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table.

After Hodei­dah is lib­er­ated, the coali­tion needs to be re­al­is­tic: the loss of Hodei­dah will re­duce the amount of money the Houthis can make, but they will still tax in­com­ing food and fuel wher­ever it crosses their lines.

The loss of Hodei­dah, well out­side the Houthis’ home prov­inces of Saada and Am­ran, will not break their will to fight for Sanaa, the cap­i­tal.

In­stead, the strate­gic fruit of Hodei­dah should be that it brings to a close the first, and hope­fully last, phase of the Ye­men war. Hodei­dah is the last of the ma­jor cities held by the Houthis out­side Ye­men’s moun­tain­ous high­lands, which they will de­fend much more fiercely.

The lib­er­a­tion of Hodei­dah, Saleef and the whole Red Sea coast should give Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE a great deal of re­as­sur­ance that the Houthis can no longer smug­gle in large num­bers of mis­siles ca­pa­ble of hit­ting Riyadh or else­where, and that they can­not be­come a new “south­ern Hezbol­lah”, akin to the Ira­nian proxy in Le­banon.

These fac­tors point to the need to fully com­mit to the UN peace process after the lib­er­a­tion of Hodei­dah and Saleef.

This is a ma­jor global test but any doubters should re­mem­ber that the UAE armed forces have sur­prised the world time and again


Coali­tion-backed forces after seiz­ing land from Houthi mili­tias in Hodei­dah

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