Will Hodeida become Yemen's next tragedy?

Will Hodeida become Yemen's next tragedy?
Comment: Hodeida is a city already devastated by poverty, but as the fighting edges closer, there are concerns that a fresh humanitarian crisis is looming, writes Khalid Al-Karimi.
5 min read
19 Apr, 2017
Pro-government forces in the port of Mokha, 60km from Hodeida's Al-Khawkhah port [AFP]

A recent military push by the Saudi-backed Yemen government forces in Taiz could be the prologue to a potential attack on Hodeida's Al-Khawkhah port, located 60km from the government-held Mokha port.

Emboldened by their fresh advance against the Houthi militants and allied forces in the coastal lines of Taiz, fighters near Khaled military outpost in Mawze district of Taiz were filmed saying the flame of the war would not stop.

This development puts Hodeida at a genuine risk of an all-out attack, given its proximity to the current scene of the fighting. Hodeida - a city already devastated by poverty - is now anticipating military clashes.

In 2015, Aden, Yemen's second largest city, was reduced to rubble and became almost deserted. This of course was the fallout of the bloody battles between the Houthi militias and pro-government Saudi-backed forces at the time.

Today, Hodeida is a potential Aden-like tragedy. It could face a similar destiny if the Saudi-led coalition gives the green light for their forces in Yemen to set the city alight and drive the Houthis out.

It has been reported that Houthis have been using Hodeida port to collect handsome revenues which they employ for their war purposes. Another Houthi use of Hodeida is allegedly attached to smuggling weapons from abroad to Yemen.

Whether these reports are true or not, attacking Hodeida would only give rise to unprecedented humanitarian tragedies. International aid organisations have cautioned against any likely attack on Hodeida, emphasising that this development would disrupt vital supplies to millions of people in northern part of the country. 

Hodeida is a potential Aden-like tragedy

"If this attack goes ahead, a country that is already on the brink of famine will be starved further as yet another food route is destroyed. The entire population of Yemen is suffering, with seven million people already facing famine," said Oxfam in a statement early this month.

Accordingly, expanding the military zones in populated cities will not quicken the pace of the solution or improve the livelihood of civilians. The warring sides should endeavor to spare civilians of any more bloodshed and suffering than they have already endured.

  Read also: Thousands of 'disappeared' under Yemen's reign of terror

Last week, the Saudi-allied Yemeni transportation minister Nasser Sharef assured that repairs are underway for Mokha port located in Taiz, a move aimed at establishing an alternative aid route in case the war erupts in Hodeida.

However, the fact remains that preparing Mokha seaport or any other ports would not fend off the tragedy of war if Hodeida comes under attack.

Trump's bold inclination towards military engagement

Over the past two years, the US had confined its support to intelligence and aerial refueling for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Today, however, the new US administration no longer appears to shun direct military engagement against the anti-Saudi militias in Yemen. President Trump has displayed a stronger willingness to deepen his country's military involvement in Yemen.

US officials have said the United States is considering deepening its role in Yemen's conflict by more directly aiding its Gulf allies who have been battling Iran-backed Houthis for over two years.

The superpower's use of direct military force in support of the Saudi-led coalition is no longer such a remote possibility

In the same context, the US Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived on Tuesday in Riyadh - the first visit to the Kingdom since he took office.

The visit is likely to lay the foundation for a new powerful US role in the Yemen conflict. Mattis was quoted as saying he is looking to deepen and broaden the relationship between the two countries on the visit, vowing to work with US allies to help the conflict come to an end.

The US already has a military presence in Yemen, including the ceaseless drones that target Al-Qaeda operatives in the country. The superpower's use of direct military force in support of the Saudi-led coalition is no longer such a remote possibility.

Given American apprehension about Iran's growing clout in the region, the US is likely to find convincing rationale to strike the Houthis, or at least to take action to dislodge them from Yemeni seaports.

Hodeida port is key

Hodeida seaport is a coveted goal for Yemen's government forces, and the Saudi-led coalition is seriously disturbed to see Houthis capitalising on its strategic location.

This week, the coalition's spokesperson Ahmed Asiri said Hodeida port has turned out to be a base used for targeting international navigation. He stated that the coalition has given the international community two options: Either the port be inspected, or be controlled by the legitimate government.

These two options are not easy to implement. The anti-government militias have been tightening their grip on the port, and there appears to be no peaceful way of loosening their hold. Reoeated pleas to the coalition to restrain from attacking Hodeida will be ineffective one day, and the city is likely to follow in the steps of war-ravaged cities such as Taiz and Aden.

Hodeida awaits a chapter of violence, unless diplomacy comes swiftly to the rescue

Due to its significance, Hodeida port is deemed a key factor in ending the war in Yemen. On Monday, Mohammed Abulahoum, a high-profile politician and the head of Justice and Development Party in Yemen, made four points to resolve the conflict in Yemen. One of them addresses the issue of Hodeida port.

"It [the port] should be kept open and operate fully for all cargo under UN supervision and the Houthis should pull back from the port to an agreed upon location. After a UN inspection, shipments at the port should be handed to business people who will then distribute them to different parts of the country. Any interception by the Houthis will result in the deal being canceled,” Abulahoum said in a lecture in Washington.

This point by Abulahoum is easier said than done. Hodeida bears tremendous strategic significance, and the Houthi militants would not withdraw based on the request of the UN or any other force.

In addition, the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition would not be adequate to free this city from the Houthis. As long as this is the case, it is likely that Hodeida awaits a chapter of violence, unless diplomacy comes swiftly to the rescue. 

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.