What the Battle for Hodeidah Means for Yemen and the Region

بغداد بوست

by Michael Horton*    10 August 2018

On June 13, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with their Yemeni allies, launched “Operation Golden Victory.” The grandiosely named offensive is aimed at seizing the Yemeni Red Sea port of Hodeidah, which has been occupied by Yemen’s Houthi rebels since 2014. Hodeidah is Yemen’s most important port and is the transit point for as much as 70 percent of the country’s critical food and humanitarian aid.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies correctly calculated that seizing Hodeidah would be a critical step toward isolating the Houthis. The loss of the port city would curtail the Houthis’ ability to threaten ships transiting the Bab al-Mandeb straight and would make it more difficult for the Houthis to provision their forces. It is doubtful, however, that Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their Yemeni allies are capable of fully prosecuting the offensive or willing to sustain the kind of losses that taking the port will likely require in the case that the Houthis decide to fully commit their forces to defending the port.Even if Hodeidah is captured, it does not mean that its capture will mark the beginning of the end of the war in Yemen. On the contrary, it may well mark the start of a new and far more violent chapter in a war that has already gone on for three years. Rather than shortening the war, the capture of Hodeidah could prolong it and lead to a further escalation of regional tensions. What is certain is that Yemen’s long suffering civilian population will bear the brunt of the violence, ever increasing food insecurity, and worsening humanitarian crisis.

A Golden Victory or an Impossible Offensive?

Operation Golden Victory commenced with the bombardment of Houthi defensive positions in the city of Hodeidah, which has a population of approximately 400,000. Saudi and Emirati naval vessels led the initial assault. Then followed aerial attacks on positions further inland (al-Jazeera, June 19). The bombardment looked as if it was going to be the first step toward an amphibious invasion of the port that would be supported by allied Yemeni troops once they had moved toward the port from their positions to the south. However, the Houthis’ ability to defend the port and to rapidly deploy reserve forces was underestimated.

At least one Emirati naval vessel was struck by the Houthis, prompting the other vessels to move further offshore (al-Bawaba, June 14). The Houthis blocked the planned land and water assault, and seven weeks into the offensive, they retain control of the city and port. Ground forces allied with Yemen’s internationally recognized government have advanced toward Hodeidah’s airport on the southern edge of the city, but have thus far failed to consolidate their gains (Middle East Eye, July 27).

The Houthis were well aware that an attack on Hodeidah was imminent and had deployed reinforcements and reserve troops to their heavily fortified positions in and around the city. Concurrent with the deployment of reserve troops to Hodeidah, the Houthis also sent forces to reinforce the ancient town of Zabid, which is a 100 kilometers south of Hodeidah. The battle for Zabid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is ongoing and is now the primary focus for the coalition backed forces. These forces have been trying to liberate Zabid for four months with limited success (al-Jazeera, March 6).

Both in Zabid and in Hodeidah, the Houthis are using a layered defense that takes maximum advantage of the urban environments that they are defending. In Zabid, this defense is organized on a smaller scale than in Hodeidah but has proved to be just as effective at preventing the coalition-backed forces from gaining ground. The first layer in the Houthis’ defense of strongpoints is the installation of minefields. The Houthis are using both anti-vehicle mines and banned anti-personnel mines as an inexpensive force multiplier that allows them to slow down and stop the movement of coalition forces. The second layer is made up of hardened positions on the outskirts of the cities where the Houthis frequently use civilian populations as cover (The National, August 6). The forces that occupy these positions are highly mobile and are able to rapidly engage coalition forces and then return to the shelter of these positions without drawing fire on them. The third layer, and this is especially the case in Hodeidah, consists of heavily fortified—often underground—bunkers in the interior of the cities. [1] These locations are now the command and control centers for the Houthi leadership and rest areas for frontline soldiers. However, if a full scale invasion of—for example—Hodeidah is launched, these well-provisioned and defended sites may act as bases for a prolonged urban battle that will allow the Houthis to exact a high death toll on coalition forces while ensuring that the bulk of their own soldiers are able to retreat to the mountains to the east of Hodeidah.

The Houthis also continue to launch lethal hit-and-run attacks on coalition backed forces using lightly armed fighters. [2] Just as they did in their long running war against the government of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis make excellent use of small nimble units. These units are typically made up of fifteen or fewer fighters who use light trucks for transportation and rely on small and medium weaponry to attack vulnerable targets that are often made more so by having to slow down for mine and IED clearance. These fighters are able to operate for weeks without re-provisioning and are often autonomous since their only mission is to remain on the attack. [3]

Even with air support and superior weaponry, the coalition backed forces face a protracted battle to retake Zabid and then Hodeidah. While Houthi-led forces have been weakened, they retain three critical advantages: they are defending complex urban environments; they control the mountains to the east, which provide a secure line of retreat and a natural haven for launching counter-offensives; and their core fighters, the most battle hardened soldiers in the country, are highly motivated. Even the most capable armies in the world—as Afghanistan has clearly demonstrated—struggle to secure areas where rugged terrain and a sympathetic or frightened population provide shelter for determined insurgents.

An Army of Factions

Seizing Hodeidah from the Houthis and securing the western coast of Yemen will be incredibly costly for the coalition-backed forces who are the forefront of the offensive.  These forces continue to struggle with uncoordinated chains of command and factionalism within their ranks. Currently, at least seven different forces—with almost wholly separate chains of command—are involved in the offensive against the Houthis on Yemen’s western coast. These armed groups include forces that nominally support Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd Raboo Mansur Hadi, members of the Tihama Resistance (whose leader is fighting for self-rule for the Tihama region), the Southern Resistance (whose members want an independent south Yemen), militant Salafists, Sudanese troops, UAE-backed mercenaries, and forces led by Brigadier Tariq Saleh (Middle East Monitor, April 30; al-Araby, June 20; al-Jazeera, August 6; see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 3).

Brigadier Tariq Saleh is at the forefront of the effort to re-take both Zabid and Hodeidah from the Houthis. Tariq Saleh is the nephew of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and formerly commanded the elite Presidential Guards. Following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014, Tariq Saleh, like his uncle, formed an uneasy alliance with the Houthis. However, this alliance ended when Ali Abdullah Saleh broke with the Houthis in December 2017. The break resulted in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s assassination by Houthi fighters. Tariq Saleh, who was initially thought to have been killed with his uncle, escaped and re-located to south Yemen (The National, January 12; see Militant Leadership Monitor, February 7). There, he and other Saleh loyalists, with the help of the UAE, have built a relatively cohesive force made up of roughly four thousand men (al-Araby, April 19). Many of these men were members of Yemen’s Republican Guard and are relatively well-trained professional soldiers. Tariq Saleh’s forces also enjoy a clear chain of command staffed by experienced officers.

The UAE has lavished funds and equipment on Tariq Saleh and his forces. The government of the UAE recognizes that Tariq Saleh has the unique ability to draw on his uncle’s deep and still extant network of supporters as well as the ability to attract former members of the Republican Guard. This has meant that Tariq Saleh has been able to play a leading role in the offensive on Yemen’s west coast. However, the Saleh brand is decidedly tarnished, especially in the south where Ali Abdullah Saleh is remembered for his repression of southern activists and secessionists as well as his early alliance with the Houthis. Tariq Saleh’s forces are often at loggerheads with those forces dominated by southerners. These tensions have prevented effective coordination of offensive and defensive operations between what are—at least at times—more rival forces than allies.

A Prelude to Negotiations?

The offensive on Yemen’s western coast, despite its slow progress, could bear fruits. Speaking to members of the UN Security Council on August 2, Martin Griffiths, the UN Envoy to Yemen, said that a political solution to the war in Yemen is available and that peace talks could convene in Geneva in September (The National, August 3). This statement follows the envoy’s trip to Muscat to meet with Houthi officials. While it is unlikely that there will be a political solution to the war in Yemen any time soon, all sides in the war are looking for a way of preserving some of the power they have attained while saving as much face as possible. This is especially the case for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The war in Yemen is costing both countries billions of dollars a month and, most critically, the war is costing them a great deal of domestic and international political capital.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both want a way to end the war that allows them to achieve their primary aims: contain the Houthis, curtail what they view as Iranian expansionism, and ensure that the Yemeni factions they back play a significant role in both negotiations and in any future Yemeni government. The Houthis, especially the remaining moderates within their leadership, also want an end to the war that allows them to play enough of a role in a future government to remain relevant for what are still tens of thousands of supporters. All sides in the war likely recognize that a clear-cut victory for any one group is impossible. This is reflected in the way much of the fighting in Yemen has progressed: most factions in the war are far more interested in preserving their forces, weapons, and funds than aggressively engaging an enemy. These men, materiel, funds and, most importantly, alliances, will all be used to negotiate roles in a future government. [4]

While it remains unlikely that the offensive on Hodeidah and the west coast of Yemen will succeed in any definitive way, the offensive could well succeed in forcing all sides in the conflict to recognize that a negotiated settlement is more likely to secure their particular interests than additional years of war. Despite the factionalism of the forces that oppose the Houthis, the offensive has weakened their resistance. Their fighters are spread across an ever-growing number of frontlines. They also face unrest within some of the areas that they control. The Houthis’ effort to defend Hodeidah and Zabid has drawn hundreds of their most experienced commanders and fighters away from the frontlines in the north and east of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. However, the Houthis maintain their hold on Yemen’s easily defended western highlands, they still enjoy considerable support, and due to the factionalism of the groups that they are fighting, they have few issues with acquiring weapons and materiel.

The Houthi leadership knows that, even if it loses Hodeidah, it can fight on for years. However, the moderates among the Houthi leadership recognize that the prolonged fighting will erode their base of support and eventually result in their political isolation. Dissatisfaction with Houthi rule in northwest Yemen is growing as a result of the increasing levels of oppression by the Houthis (Arab News, December 8, 2017). Houthi backed security forces have illegally detained and, in some cases, disappeared hundreds of Yemenis whom they deem to be dissidents or threats to their rule. The coalition-led airstrikes and blockade give the Houthis a kind of political cover for many of their abusive and illegal practices. The airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians, and the blockade, which is slowly killing tens of thousands through starvation and disease, are key drivers of continued popular support for the Houthis. [5] The Houthis easily capitalize on these attacks by presenting themselves and their movement as defenders of the nation against foreign aggressors.

Going Asymmetric

In April 2018, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Sammad, was assassinated by a coalition drone strike (al-Jazeera, April 23). Al-Sammad’s influence within the Houthi organization was on the increase before his death. Al-Sammad was, by all accounts, a moderate who favored negotiations and was wary of Iranian influence. With his death, the moderate branch of the Houthi leadership that he represented was marginalized with the appointment of Mahdi al-Mashat to head the Supreme Political Council (Arab News, April 28). Al-Mashat is a hardliner who has ties to Lebanon based Hezbollah. Al-Mashat and those around him are more likely to look for martial and especially asymmetric responses to what they view as Saudi and Emirati aggression.

If negotiations do not produce results, with al-Mashat as head of the Supreme Political Council, the war in Yemen will intensify as he and those around him continue to demonstrate their ability to strike back at the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, and the parts of what was the Yemeni Army that are allied with them, have already launched numerous missiles toward targets in Saudi Arabia (al-Arabiya, August 6). On July 25, the Houthis attacked and slightly damaged a Saudi oil tanker off the west coast of Yemen. In response, the Saudis temporarily halted oil shipments through the Red Sea (Gulf News, August 7). Following the temporary halt, the prime minister of Israel implied that the Israeli military would act if the Bab al-Mandeb were blocked (Haaretz, August 2). This is the kind of response that the Houthis’ asymmetric attacks are designed to provoke. Such a response by the Israeli military would allow the Houthis to rally support and recruit more fighters.

These kinds of attacks are likely to increase in the coming months if there is no progress with a negotiated settlement to the war. Such attacks dramatically increase the chances of escalation and of bringing other regional powers such as Israel into a war that already has actors from multiple countries.

Outlook

The golden victory in Hodeidah, if it happens, will be hard won, costly and devastating for Yemeni civilians. Furthermore, the capture of Hodeidah may only be the beginning of a new and even more dangerous chapter in Yemen’s now three-year-old war. The Houthis have repeatedly surprised their opponents with their resilience and their ability to mount effective counter-offensives. This has been the case since they first engaged the Yemeni Army and the government of then Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2004. Since then, their capabilities have only increased. So long as they retain most of Yemen’s northwestern highlands, they will remain formidable opponents who will enjoy what may be some of the best terrain for guerilla warfare in the world. The Houthi leadership knows this and they know how to make effective use of this terrain. Just as in Afghanistan—where the United States is now engaging in talks with the Taliban after seventeen years of war—short of a massive invasion, which neither the UAE’s nor Saudi Arabia’s armies are capable of, there is no military solution to the war in Yemen. [6]

While it is unlikely that the offensive on Hodeidah and the push to secure parts of Yemen’s Red Sea coast will remove the Houthis from these areas, the campaign could still prove useful. The pressure on the Houthis, which is significant, could result in even hardliners like al-Mashat being more amenable to some of the demands being made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and those forces they back. At the same time, a negotiated end to the war could achieve Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s primary goal of containing the Houthis and eliminating limited Iranian influence by removing one of the primary reasons that many continue to support the Houthis: coalition airstrikes and the presence of foreign troops on Yemeni soil.

NOTES

[1] Author interview with a Yemeni officer (August 2018).

[2] See: https://videos.funker530.com/bitmotive/public/funker530/v1.0/videos/funker530/5716e060b3d65a74fa72235183c4986f/854×480.mp4

[3] Author interview with a Yemeni officer (August 2018).

[4] Author interview with a former member of the Yemeni government (August 2018).

[5] See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the-deadly-war-in-yemen-rages-on-so-why-does-the-death-toll-stand-still-/2018/08/02/e6d9ebca-9022-11e8-ae59-01880eac5f1d_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.113db1c776d9

[6] See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-talks-with-the-taliban-could-be-a-breakthrough-in-the-afghan-war/2018/07/31/092c5c28-942c-11e8-818b-e9b7348cd87d_story.html?utm_term=.44c3efbb9c99

 

 

  • Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.

 

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