The Saudi-led Arab Coalition’s efforts to liberate Yemen’s Hodeidah port follows years of political and military deadlock, as well as a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation for the Yemeni people. Peace negotiations have stalled as the Houthi rebels are unwilling to surrender the country’s largest port. The Houthi rebels know they cannot win the war, but they also know that they cannot remain in power beyond the war. With Hodeidah, they have territory – without it, they will be forced to surrender in order to survive. The port appears to be the rebels’ last remaining major supply line.
Taking back control of the port for Yemen’s legitimate Government will allow the Arab Coalition to pump vitally needed aid into the country, ending an appalling humanitarian crisis, which has left millions on the brink of starvation and has led to the world’s largest outbreak of cholera. What often goes unreported is that this humanitarian crisis is mostly concentrated in the Houthi rebel-controlled north of Yemen, where it is said that children have been forced to fight and civilians used as human shields.
Western governments have recognised that the current stalemate cannot continue and that the people of Hodeidah should be liberated from Houthi rebel rule. With some help from Western commentary, the Arab Coalition appears painfully aware of the humanitarian challenges involved in an assault on a city of 600,000 people, including very many families with children. They have as a result continually postponed this attack for a year and half in order to give diplomatic negotiations every chance. During this time the humanitarian situation in Yemen, most of which depends on the port, seems to have spiralled out of control – it is said due in large part to Houthi rebel mismanagement, extortionate taxes, the importation of Iranian weaponry and the diversion of aid to their soldiers.
The Coalition has therefore been planning its humanitarian operation for many months. It has amassed aid ships, lorries, and planes on the outskirts of the city, ready to move in immediately upon liberation. The Coalition is advancing in a measured way, determined to avoid serious disruption to aid flows. Given previous military standoffs it will be necessary to judge them on the accuracy of their military judgement and how quickly and effectively they are able to maintain the delivery of desperately needed aid.
Some western commentators have criticised the operation as a strategic mistake, often citing the effect it could have on the peace process. This fails to give sufficient regard to the history of the conflict. There seems no viable path to peace in Yemen, away from the current military standoff between the two sides. The current stalemate has not led to even the beginnings of peace negotiations.
Doing nothing is not therefore an option. There does not appear to be an alternative, which is presumably why operations have begun so reluctantly. The legitimate Yemeni Government, the Governor of Hodeidah, and the people of Hodeidah all say that the situation is intolerable and that intervention is required to break the deadlock. The alternative would seem to be keeping the Yemeni people in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering, dependent on intermittent humanitarian aid, with many of them in the hands of ruthless Houthi rebels. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which Britain would advocate restraint as an occupying rebel force squeezed France or Belgium to the point of starvation if we had an opportunity to help the internationally recognised government retake their most strategic city.
No one can doubt the difficulty of the political, military and humanitarian judgements involved in taking action. But we should have confidence in the Arab Coalition and in particular the well trained soldiers of the UAE who are leading the operations. They know the area better than we do, and they have assessed that this is the right time to move. We should accept this cautiously and judge them on their actions and the results.