A view of cranes, damaged by air strikes, at the container terminal of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah By ABDULJABBAR ZEYAD / REUTERS

Hodeidah, Yemen’s fourth-largest city (population 400,000), is strategically situated on the Red Sea coast and houses the only major port under Houthi control. The port, which the Houthis captured from Yemen’s internationally-recognized government in October 2014, is a key source of strength for the Houthi militias and a lifeline for much of Yemen’s civilian population. Last week, a group of anti-Houthi Yemeni forces made up of remnants of the Republican Guard under the command of Tareq Saleh, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, the UAE-backed Giants’ Brigade, and local fighters from the Tihama region began pushing north along the Red Sea coast toward the city. These forces, which six months ago were on opposite sides of the war, have made surprisingly quick progress. By Tuesday morning they were reportedly within twelve miles of Hodeidah as Houthi resistance melted back toward the city. With an attack on Hodeidah seemingly imminent, we asked our two Yemen experts, Gregory D. Johnsen and Fatima Abo Alasrar, to give their different views.

Question #1: Will Yemeni and Arab Coalition forces be able to capture Hodeidah?

Gregory: The short, unsatisfying, answer is maybe. But any battle for control of the key Red Sea port city, short of a complete Houthi withdrawal, will likely be protracted and bloody. The Houthis have repeatedly stated that they will fight to defend the city and, earlier this year, threatened to disrupt Red Sea shipping lanes if the Saudi-led coalition were to attack. As Houthi fighters have abandoned the unprotected coastal scrublands for the protection of the city, they have left behind numerous minefields, which will have to be navigated. The grouping of Republican Guard forces, the Giants’ Brigade, and local fighters from Tihama will also need time and men to secure crucial intersections along the road into Hodeidah to ensure that Houthi reinforcements do not outflank them or cut off their supply route. Yusuf al-Madani, an experienced fighter who is related to Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi through marriage, is the Houthi commander responsible for the defense of Hodeidah. Al-Madani was placed in charge of Hodeidah more than a year ago, in April 2017, when it looked as though the Saudi-led coalition was about to launch an offensive against the city. Although he has had months to prepare for such a scenario, the Houthis are weaker now than they have been at any point in the past year. In December, the alliance between the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh collapsed, resulting in Saleh’s death and the capture of two of his sons. Saleh’s nephew Tareq, whose eldest son is also being held by the Houthis, is now spearheading the offensive against his former allies. More recently, in April 2018, the head of Houthi naval forces in Hodeidah, Mansur al-Saidi, a key military strategist who was also known as Abu Sajad, was killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike.

Fatima: While there is no indication that the fighting in Hodeidah will be quick, clean, or easy, the odds remain decisively in favor of Yemeni and coalition forces. For the moment, the different Yemeni forces converging on the city are united in opposition to the Houthi occupation, which is advancing the interests of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In addition, the coalition-backed forces enjoy several advantages over their Houthi counterparts. Although the precise number of Houthi defenders in Hodeidah is unknown, the combined strength of the Tihama fighters, three Giants’ Brigades, and two brigades of Tareq Saleh’s Republican Guard will almost certainly outnumber the Houthi forces occupying Hodeidah. In addition, both the Tihama fighters’ local knowledge of the terrain and the presence of the Republican Guard, who as former Houthi allies understand Houthi military tactics, will help. Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) also enjoys widespread support in Hodeidah. Because of this, the city’s residents are more likely to rally to the former president’s nephew than to the Houthis. Analysts also overlook the fact that the Houthis are currently fighting on two fronts—Hodeidah and their home province of Saada—and are spread thin. Finally, the allied Yemeni forces and the Arab Coalition may not need to conquer the city outright. With the United Nations’ special envoy Martin Griffith’s announcement that he will submit a framework peace agreement in three weeks’ time, allied forces may need only to apply just enough military pressure to compel the Houthis to use the UN envoy’s proposal as a basis for negotiations. Without this pressure, the Houthis have no incentive to submit to any plan.

Question #2: Will capturing Hodeidah mark a turning point in the war?

Gregory: For the past two years Hodeidah has been the most tempting of targets for the Saudi-led coalition. The thinking on the coalition side has been: capture the city, cut off Houthi access to the sea, foment internal dissension, and the Houthis will fall or, at the very least, be forced to negotiate on terms favorable to the coalition. But these suppositions are less dominoes than independent assumptions, with no guarantee that one will lead to another. Top Houthi leaders are largely insulated from any shortages associated with the economic shortages of this war. The civilian population will suffer long before the Houthi political leadership does. The Houthis are not a representative political body, and it is unclear if suffering civilians will do much to alter their decision-making. In all likelihood, the Houthis would use the images of widespread starvation, gruesome as those would be, to turn world opinion against the Saudi-led coalition. Nor will taking Hodeidah likely do much to stop the smuggling of Iranian weapons to the Houthis. Although the Saudi-led coalition has long argued that Iranian missile components are being smuggled through Hodeidah, the UN, which oversees inspections of ships entering the port, has found no evidence to support this assertion. More likely, the Iranian missiles are being sent across the border from Oman or landed on small boats in the eastern Yemeni governorate of al-Mahra and smuggled cross-country to the Houthis. The weapons that have been interdicted have been along this route, and taking Hodeidah will do nothing to stop the missiles from being brought in. Some also argue that taking Hodeidah could be the beginning of the end, a staging ground for a final push on Sana’a and the end of the war. But while Hodeidah lies along the coast, on flat, largely unprotected territory, reaching Sana’a would require coalition troops to fight their way through the mountains, a bloody step-by-step process that would be as difficult as it is ill-conceived.

Fatima: The loss of the Hodeidah seaport will severely disrupt the Houthis’ ability to wage war and hold Yemen’s civilian population hostage. The majority of Houthi arms and munitions are smuggled into Hodeidah via dhows, small, often Iran-made ships that pose as fishing vessels. With coalition forces in Hodeidah, this conduit will be cut off. Hodeidah is also the principal source of revenue for the Houthis. Each month, their forces take in approximately $30 million (USD) from customs collections and other taxes and tariffs levied on imported goods. They “earn” additional revenue by reselling food and aid shipments that come into the port on the black market at wildly inflated prices (control of food and aid shipments also gives them control over the local population). Should the Houthis lose this revenue, they may only have enough currency to pay their militiamen, who earn between $80 and $120 per month, for an additional one to two months. Given that many Yemenis, including child soldiers, join the Houthi militias out of economic desperation, this could cause recruitment, which is already faltering, to dry up. Victory at Hodeidah would also cap the momentum shift that began after the Houthi killing of their onetime ally, former president Saleh, which sparked an uninterrupted string of small but significant victories for anti-Houthi forces. The recent defection of ten parliamentarians from Sana’a, and the Houthis’ detention of hundreds of opposition leaders and GPC members, suggests that morale may already be crumbling. The highly symbolic loss of Hodeidah could accelerate this process. 

Question #3: Will the battle for Hodeidah spark a humanitarian crisis?

Gregory: Almost certainly. This is exactly why the US, the UN, and the UK have repeatedly pressed Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to launch an offensive on Hodeidah. Any fighting, no matter how brief—and the fight for Hodeidah is unlikely to be brief—will have a disproportionate effect on Yemen’s civilian population. Already nearly 18 million Yemenis are food insecure. The margins in Yemen are razor-thin, and any disruption to the delivery of aid could result in thousands of preventable deaths. Port facilities could be damaged or sabotaged during the fighting, fighting could last longer than expected, or the Houthis could leave behind small teams to disrupt the offloading of materials. Any one of these, or a dozen other scenarios, could interrupt the shipment of aid and spark a greater humanitarian crisis. International shipping companies are already paying heavy insurance premiums to offload in Hodeidah, which has caused some companies to cease service, seeing it as unprofitable. Active fighting in and around the port will only increase these rates, making it less lucrative and more dangerous for companies to offload their products. The Houthis could also exacerbate the humanitarian situation by deliberately placing civilians inside military targets, by pushing child soldiers to the front, or by abusing hostages. The fight for Hodeidah will not be easy or quick, and in all likelihood it will make the situation in Yemen worse, not better.

Fatima: Dire warnings that an attack on Hodeidah will spark a humanitarian crisis are alarmist and unfounded. The spokesperson for the Arab Coalition emphasized that they will make every effort to avoid damaging or disabling the port (although it is possible that the Houthis will seek to attack Yemeni and Arab Coalition forces after they seize the port). In the event the Hodeidah port is disabled, alternatives exist in Aden, Mukalla, and the recently liberated port at Mocha. Counterarguments that question the Yemeni government’s ability to effectively run the port ignore the gross corruption and inefficiency of the Houthi forces in charge of Hodeidah who have done so much to hinder the distribution of humanitarian aid to Yemen’s population. In addition, sky-high shipping insurance rates are a result of the Houthis’ control of the port. Just last week a Turkish cargo ship was attacked by a Houthi ballistic missile. Events like these affect both the insurance rates and the willingness of foreign vessels to sail to the port. If the port is under the control of the internationally recognized government and stability is restored, these rates will undoubtedly fall and port traffic will increase. Proponents of the humanitarian argument also ignore the fact that living conditions for Yemenis in Houthi-occupied territory are far worse than for those in liberated areas, which are open to local, regional, and international aid organizations (which also provide much-needed jobs for Yemenis). Furthermore, the Saudi-led coalition has put forward the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), which would provide alternative access points to facilitate the entry of goods into Houthi-controlled areas such as Saada and Sana’a. Rallying behind this plan, and holding the coalition accountable for its promises to deliver aid to the local population, will pay far greater dividends for Yemenis who have next to nothing under the Houthi occupation.

Gregory D. Johnsen is a Resident Scholar with the Arabia Foundation

Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Senior Analyst with the Arabia Foundation