Saudis, al­lies launch long-awaited, high-risk as­sault on key Ye­meni port

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY CARLO MUNOZ

The Saudi-led coali­tion bat­tling Ira­nian-backed Houthi sep­a­ratists in Ye­men has launched a long-awaited, high-risk cam­paign to break the back of the in­sur­gency, with Amer­i­can mil­i­tary as­sis­tance, in a mass of­fen­sive against a key rebel strong­hold in the coun­try.

But U.S. of­fi­cials at the Pen­tagon and State De­part­ment are warn­ing Riyadh that fall­out from the oper­a­tion could deepen the suf­fer­ing in what is al­ready one of the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian crises.

Saudi-led ground troops, in­clud­ing forces from Egypt, Jor­dan, United Arab Emi­rates and other Sunni-dom­i­nant Mus­lim na­tions, rolled to­ward the Ye­meni port city of Hodei­dah, which lies 140 miles of the capi­tol Sanaa, has been the main sup­ply line for in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to the war-torn na­tion. The port is also be­lieved to be the ma­jor trans­fer point for Ira­nian weapons, ma­te­rial and equip­ment for the Houthi mili­tia since civil war broke out three years ear­lier.

Re­tak­ing the port city will give the ex­iled govern­ment’s forces and their Saudi al­lies con­trol of crit­i­cal Bab al Mandab straits, which con­trols ac­cess into and out of the south­ern Red Sea. Govern­ment troops and their Saudi coun­ter­parts also re­port­edly launched coun­terter­ror­ism of­fen­sives against Houthi strongholds near Sanaa, as part of the over­all oper­a­tion.

The sheer vol­ume of air and ground forces be­ing poured into the Hodei­dah oper­a­tion by the Saudi mil­i­tary coali­tion marks one of the largest of­fen­sives un­der­taken against the Houthi sep­a­ratists since 2015.

“The lib­er­a­tion of the port of Hodei­dah is a turn­ing point in our strug­gle to take back Ye­men from the mili­tias that hi­jacked it to carry out for­eign agen­das. The oper­a­tion to lib­er­ate the port rep­re­sents the be­gin­ning of the fall of the Houthis,” of­fi­cials from the govern­ment of ex­iled Ye­meni Pres­i­dent Ab­drab­buh Mansur Hadi said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day.

The Hodei­dah oper­a­tion, if suc­cess­ful, will “elim­i­nate the in­flu­ence of Iran, which has long flooded Ye­men with weapons to shed Ye­meni blood,” govern­ment of­fi­cials say.

Bom­bard­ment was heavy, with one aid of­fi­cial re­port­ing 30 strikes in 30 min­utes.

“Some civil­ians are en­trapped, others forced from their homes,” Jolien Veld­wijk, the act­ing coun­try direc­tor of the aid group CARE In­ter­na­tional, told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “We thought it could not get any worse, but un­for­tu­nately we were wrong.”

Houthi rebels, with sup­port from Iran’s Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps and Hezbol­lah, ousted Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh dur­ing its armed re­volt in the coun­try. Since then, the coun­try has be­come a key proxy bat­tle­ground in the clash be­tween Riyadh and Tehran for in­flu­ence across the Mid­dle East.

Wash­ing­ton has pub­licly sought to dis­tance it­self from Saudi Ara­bia’s op­er­a­tions in Ye­men, de­spite the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to strengthen mil­i­tary and diplo­matic ties with Riyadh.

But the Saudis’ heavy-handed strat­egy to de­feat the Houthis, punc­tu­ated by an dev­as­tat­ing ar­tillery and an aerial cam­paign that re­port­edly in­cluded clus­ter bombs, has caused con­ster­na­tion among U.S. of­fi­cials and gen­er­ated out­rage among hu­man rights groups.

“We are deal­ing with a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Ye­men,” De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis told re­porters on Mon­day, days be­fore the Hodei­dah of­fen­sive. Of­fi­cials from hu­man rights group Amnesty In­ter­na­tional called upon Wash­ing­ton and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to en­sure the Saudi oper­a­tion would not lead to more civil­ian blood­shed.

“Dur­ing the past three years of fight­ing in Ye­men, all par­ties to the con­flict have dis­re­garded their obli­ga­tions un­der in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law, con­sis­tently car­ry­ing out un­law­ful at­tacks that have killed or in­jured civil­ians,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the group.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have con­veyed Wash­ing­ton’s con­cerns over the of­fen­sive, and the im­pact the port’s re­cap­ture may have on fu­ture hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts. “We ex­pect all par­ties to honor their com­mit­ments to ... sup­port a political process to re­solve this con­flict, en­sure hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess to the Ye­meni peo­ple, and map a sta­ble political fu­ture for Ye­men,” he said in a state­ment.

While U.S. forces in the re­gion re­main in con­tact with their coun­ter­parts in Riyadh and Sana’a, the Pen­tagon is not ac­tively back­ing the Saudi of­fen­sive in Ye­men, Mr. Mat­tis said Mon­day. “We are not en­gaged in the Red Sea” out­side of tra­di­tional U.S.-led coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions against al Qaeda’s Ye­meni fac­tion.

But the Pen­tagon has pro­vided aerial im­agery and other in­tel­li­gence to their Saudi coun­ter­parts to as­sist in the Hodei­dah of­fen­sive, the Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported Wed­nes­day. Army Spe­cial Forces teams were also re­port­edly on the ground in Ye­men, as­sist­ing Arab forces in tar­get­ing Houthi re­doubts in the south.

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