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What you need to know: The battle for Hodeidah

The Yemeni port is one of the key fronts in the three-year war - but a prolonged fight could only worsen the country's dire humanitarian crisis
Yemeni pro-government forces firing to the south of Hodeidah airport on 15 June 2018 (AFPTV/AFP)

The Yemen war began in March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched air strikes against Houthi targets after the rebel group started to advance towards southern Yemen.

By January 2017, the UN estimated 10,000 people had been killed, more than half of them civilians, and 55,000 injured, although according to Human Rights Watch the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher.

Operation Golden Victory was launched by a UAE-led coalition of Saudi, Emirati and Yemeni forces against the Houthi-controlled western port city of Hodeidah on 13 June 2018, after an ultimatum set by the UAE for the Houthis to leave had expired.

As of 20 June 2018, the assault has left at least 350 people dead, including 156 Houthis and 28 coalition soldiers, according to AFP.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a predominantly Zaidi Shia political movement based in Saada in northern Yemen. Shia Muslims represent 35 percent of the Yemeni population, while 65 percent are Sunnis.

They were part of the political dialogue process that emerged in Yemen following the post-2011 Arab Spring. However, they later became disillusioned and turned against the government, fearing the Gulf-sponsored political deal was designed to weaken their influence. 

Supporters of the Houthi rebels at Friday prayers in Sanaa, September 2014 (AFP)
The Houthis were once politically opposed to long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh, but later allied with him out of convenience. With his help, they seized control of the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, then moved southwards towards the key port of Aden.

Saleh stepped down as Yemen’s president in 2012 and was replaced by his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi after a Gulf-sponsored political transition plan. The former president was killed by the Houthis in 2017, when his former allies accused him of treason as he tried to switch to the Saudi side.

The Saudis perceive the Houthis as Iranian proxies, accusing them of receiving significant financial and military support from Iran. The Houthis and Iran deny the accusations. 

What is the significance of Hodeidah?

Hodeidah is Yemen’s main city on the Red Sea and, with a population of 600,000, the fourth-largest city in Yemen. It has been under the control of the Houthis since 2014 but the Gulf coalition has imposed a blockade on the city since 2017.

The city's seaport is the gateway for approximately 80 percent of essential food, medical and commercial supplies for Yemen. Saudi Arabia accuses the Houthis of using the port to smuggle weapons from Iran, thereby generating some $40m in monthly revenues from this and other contraband. The Houthis deny the accusations.

Operation Golden Victory is seen as a crucial battle in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. The Saudi-UAE coalition wants to return the port to the Yemeni government, which is led by Hadi, who was ousted from Aden by the Houthis in 2015.

The Yemeni government say the operation seeks to “secure marine shipping in Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood".

How big are the sides involved in this battle?

According to a senior Chatham House consultant, the Saudi-led coalition has up to 25,000 fighters, in addition to fighter jets and Apache helicopters, involved in the operation.

The Houthis have no more than 10,000 mostly inexperienced fighters around Hodeidah. 

What are the likely outcomes of Operation Golden Victory?

A Saudi-led victory in Hodeidah would see the coalition gain control of a strategic source of supplies and revenue, thereby tipping the balance of the war in its favour.

Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said that the loss of the port would be a “major blow to the Houthis, both in terms of loss of a key city and loss of port income.

“The coalition is keen to make the battle as clean as possible, particularly owing to the importance of the port. Nonetheless, there is still a risk that the Houthis could pull them into urban warfare, something that would risk significant infrastructure damage and civilian suffering."   

What about the humanitarian outcome?

This could be dire: Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is already suffering “the worst cholera outbreak in modern history” due to the lack of sanitation and clean water.

A Yemeni child, suspected of carrying cholera, at a hospital in Hodeidah in November 2017 (AFP)
Amnesty International has warned that violating international humanitarian law in Hodeidah “would put thousands of lives at risk and must be avoided at all costs”.

A protracted conflict in Hodeidah risks escalating the humanitarian crisis which has already left 8.4 million people on the verge of starvation, 22 million dependent on aid, and some 2,300 cases of cholera-related deaths since 2017.

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