A Yemeni government fighter sits with his machine gun after returning from the front line in the battle against Shiite-Houthi rebels in the mountainous region outside Sana’a, Yemen. (Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg)

Saudi Coalition Starts Yemen Battle as UN Warns of Disaster

(Bloomberg) -- Yemeni forces and their Saudi-led allies launched an assault to retake the country’s aid lifeline from rebels, a siege that could dramatically exacerbate the humanitarian crisis without tipping the balance of the three-year-old war.

International aid workers had been pulling out as armored carriers ferried troops to the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, the entry point for 70 percent of Yemen’s imports and humanitarian assistance. The United Nations warned on Monday that almost two thirds of the city’s 400,000 residents could die if the city is put under siege.

In a statement Wednesday, the government said it had exhausted all possible peaceful means to dislodge Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Hodeidah. In preparation for the offensive, the coalition had intensified its aerial attacks and artillery strikes on Houthi positions across Hodeidah province, and thousands of fighters in traditional clothing, backed by helicopters, had been deployed to the front.

“Taking the port and the city could shut off supplies to major Houthi rebel groups and lead to a drive to the negotiating table,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East analyst at the National Defense University in Washington. “However, urban warfare in a city this size could prove to be costly and a lot longer than some may try to predict.”

The Yemen government and Gulf partners will likely claim a turning point in the conflict if they defeat the rebels. Yet a loss or drawn-out clashes with experienced street fighters that exacts a high civilian toll will deal another blow to Saudi efforts to win the proxy war with regional rival Iran.

The fighting defied efforts by UN envoy Martin Griffiths to try to head off a clash. In a statement Wednesday, Griffiths urged the sides to “exercise restraint and engage with political efforts to spare Hodeidah a military confrontation.”

Acute Hunger

On Wednesday, rebels attacked the coastal road leading to Hodeidah that is used by government forces. Ahead of the assault, they built concrete bunkers, positioned snipers in buildings and called in reinforcements from other areas, residents said by phone. From mosques and loudspeaker cars, they urged supporters to fight “the mercenaries of aggression,” residents said.

International aid groups were warned to evacuate their staff from the capital, Sana’a, by Tuesday. Even before the fighting reached Hodeidah, the aid effort was slowing down, said Abdikadir Mohamud, Mercy Corps’ Yemen chief. “Many organizations are being forced to leave the city, drivers are refusing to take their trucks there, and banks are struggling to transfer funds,” Mohamud said.

A senior official with coalition member United Arab Emirates tweeted that Hodeidah port remained open to shipping late Wednesday afternoon.

“Should the Houthis attempt to further damage and destroy any port or logistics infrastructure, we have also put contingency plans in place to move aid by other methods,” said Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs. Food and essential supplies have been stockpiled and prepared for immediate intervention, he said.

During the war, the Saudi-led coalition has disrupted food and other supplies coming into Yemen by imposing a naval blockade on ports including Hodeidah in the Houthi-controlled north. The Houthis extract payments on goods that are trucked through the areas they control, forcing up food costs.

Today, three-quarters of the country’s 28 million people need aid to stave off hunger and disease, and half of those require it urgently to survive, according to the UN. Of an estimated 1.8 million children under age 5 who are acutely malnourished, 400,000 are so severely underfed they are at 10 times the normal risk of dying, the UN says.

High Alert

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen’s war in March 2015 after the Houthis took control of Sana’a and other cities, forcing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into exile in Riyadh. While the alliance has been able to recover areas in southern Yemen from the rebels, the Houthis still control Sana’a and territories in the north, and frequently fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia.

“I can’t see the coalition losing the battle, but if they suffer heavy losses and struggle to take the city and the battle leads to high civilian casualties, it’ll really undermine their standing given that they have repeatedly said this can be done quickly and cleanly,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East & North Africa Program.

If the coalition retakes Hodeidah, it would be in a stronger position to negotiate some sort of peace or at least weaken the Houthis’ position considerably, said Allison Wood, London-based Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Control Risks strategic consultancy. But even that would bring no resolution to Yemen’s manifold problems, she said.

“There will be enduring political and security issues in Yemen regardless of the outcome in Hodeidah,” Wood said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.