Middle East

Ending Houthi control of port city Hodeidah could lead to peace in Yemen

BY Julie Lenarz   /  27 September 2018

In front of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump warned that Iran is spreading “chaos, death and destruction” across the Middle East. One of those places is Yemen, where the Islamic Republic is using the Shiite Houthi rebels as a vehicle for their regional ambitions.

The Coalition offensive in Hodeidah has restarted in earnest, following a hiatus in the fighting aimed at allowing UN peacekeeper Martin Griffiths time to seek a political solution. That time ran out after the Houthi leadership, like the plane due to fly them to Geneva for peace talks, remained grounded in Saana.

This isn’t the first time the Houthis have stalled peace efforts before they’ve even begun, with the latest no-show a near carbon copy of their failure to appear at talks two years ago. It is now clear that a peaceful solution to the conflict can only be found through the capture of Hodeidah by Coalition forces, as sanctioned by UN Resolution 2216.

UN Resolution 2216 mandates the Yemeni Government and Coalition to ensure all territory seized by the Houthis, including Hodeidah, is returned to the internationally recognised Hadi government. Diplomacy has failed and the recapture of the port is the only way to jumpstart the political process.

The port is the rebels’ prized possession, accounting for at least 70% of Yemen’s aid and the illegal flow of Iranian weaponry to Houthi fighters. Throughout their occupation, humanitarian aid shipments into the port have been routinely mismanaged, with extortionate taxes applied and resources intended for civilians across Yemen instead finding their way into the hands of Houthi fighters.

Ending Houthi control of Hodeidah must be a first priority to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and provide new momentum for finding a long-term solution to the conflict. With the failure of peace talks, critics of the offensive have yet to suggest an alternative.

Although the Houthi failed to show at long-awaited peace talks in Geneva, the Yemeni government and their allies arrived in Switzerland on schedule, having paused the fighting around Hodeidah for nearly three months, despite concerns that the Houthi would use that time to significantly strengthen and further entrench their forces in and around the strategic port.

The rebels have used the lull in fighting to reinforce their positions, including the alleged laying of landmines at points throughout the city. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a report saying that since the conflict began, landmines have been responsible for the deaths or maiming of “hundreds of civilians”, laying the blame firmly at the Houthis’ door. This is a problem, they say, that will now plague Yemen for years to come. HRW also reported that almost 70% of child soldiers on the Yemeni battlefield are recruited by the Houthi rebels and their allies, some of which are younger than 15 – a war crime under international law.

Iran’s use of Yemen as a southern gateway to attack Gulf states via Houthi missile attacks, primarily aimed at the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has been one of the most concerning developments of the conflict. Their ability to wage proxy war on the region, which has seen nuclear power plants, civilian airports and oil tankers all targeted, may well be curtailed by the capture of Hodeidah.

The removal of the Houthis’ ability to illegally import arms and heavy weaponry from Iran via the port will add a further incentive for the Houthis to finally take peace talks seriously, ending a military lifeline that has enabled them to prolong the fighting.

As with a similar effort two years ago, the Houthis have shown a complete disinterest in achieving peace and no terms will convince them to release this city and port from their grip. Only the retaking of strategic Houthi positions in and around Hodeidah by the Coalition can force their hands, finally bringing the rebels to the table and in time end this destructive conflict.

Julie Lenarz is Executive Director of the Human Security Centre