by James Spencer
The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was initially supposed to have lasted only a few weeks, has now dragged on for more than two years. The fighting has reached a predictable stalemate, in roughly the same place as it has so often before: the steep and nearly impenetrable mountains.
It is widely conceded that there’s no military solution to this conflict: the Saudi-led coalition has used what one analyst termed a strategy of coercive strikes and has already destroyed most targets which had strategic or operational leverage. They are now running out of tactical targets.
The stalemate has led to calls for the US to intervene further—to produce a decisive effect. This is variously assessed as giving the Saudis a face-saving ‘victory’ and putting pressure on the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh to negotiate. After meetings with the Saudis, the US seems persuaded that “both sides would be more likely to compromise after one more military fight,” although Secretary of Defense James Mattis sensibly called instead for a “political solution in Yemen.”
The location for that decisive effect is understood to be the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, with “Saudi-backed Yemeni forces ready for offensive on key port.” This attack involves a pincer-move, with Saudi-led coalition forces advancing simultaneously from the north and the south, possibly with an amphibious assault by Emirati forces. Official estimates of the operation’s duration are from four to six weeks.
The Problems of the Hodeidah Offensive
The first, and most pressing, problem with this operation is that even if everything goes as hoped, it is likely to have a very severe impact on the flow of food to the majority of Yemen’s population. Putting Hodeidah—through which nearly 90% of Yemen’s food imports pass—out of action even for the minimum four weeks would be catastrophic, let alone if the plan is at all disrupted. Further, even after displacing the Houthi-Salehis from the ports of Aden and Mokha, it has taken a long time for the coalition to provide or enable food supply: those areas held by the coalition are now the worst affected by famine. Given the slow going to capture Aden, Mokha, and Ta’iz, even six weeks is probably not accurate. Mosul, a town of similar population, has taken the Iraqis six months so far, required the active involvement of UK and US Special Forces, and is still far from secure.
Militarily, there is little need to take Hodeidah, and there is certainly no need for a risky amphibious assault (although this much telegraphed move may be a deception plan.) As coalition forces have advanced south from the Saudi border and north from Aden, this has made Hodeidah into the end of a salient. All the coalition needs to do is advance further, cut off the Houthi-Salehis from their mountain bases, and thereby control access to Hodeidah. However, although surrounding a town achieves the military effect, it does not meet the PR need. It is therefore likely that the coalition will try to storm Hodeidah. Indeed, there are signs of preparations for just such an attack.
Despite claims of Hodeidah being “the Yemeni terminus of the arms-smuggling route that begins in Iran,” the smuggling routes that Conflict Armament Research found went via Puntland, three of the four landfall sites in Yemen were in areas not under Houthi-Salehi control, and the Red Sea terminus was not in Hodeidah but in Mokha, which the coalition captured in January. The UN Panel of Experts “has not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms from the Government” of Iran, although some limited smuggling seems to have gone overland via Oman. The Houthis and Salehis have little need of foreign weapons, given their access to Yemen’s infamous arms bazaars and the stockpiles of Yemen’s Armed Forces. In fact, the near-by port of al-Salif is far more important to Saleh (and to a lesser extent the Houthis), through which much is indeed smuggled—but as goods to be sold for great profit, not materiel to be expended in the war.
Who will be involved in the attack on Hodeidah is unclear: presumably mostly recently trained Yemenis, as at Mokha and Aden. However, as the coalition and anti-Houthi-Salehi forces advance north from their homelands, their soldiers are less enthusiastic to fight. Indeed, many have deserted. Further, the Houthis and Salehis are well prepared and likely to put up a fight. Although the small town of Mokha was “captured” in late January, there was still fighting in mid-March. This will all likely extend the conflict in Hodeidah (and thus increase the famine in Yemen). If that happens, Saudi calls for “direct U.S. engagement through special teams” may mount.
There is also the question of whether taking Hodeidah will be a sufficient “victory” for the Saudis. The driving force behind the Yemen campaign is the Saudi Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. His other main project, the complete realignment of Saudi socio-economic policy known as Vision 2030 is causing some anxiety, which has led to the reversal of some reforms. A “decisive” victory in Yemen would distract attention from his domestic woes. One well-informed Saudi analyst has suggested that capturing the upland city of Ta’iz—where the war has raged for two years—is the Saudis’ real goal before restarting talks. Although the Emiratis may be involved in the operation in Hodeidah (an Emirati soldier was killed recently), it is highly unlikely that the UAE would help take Ta’iz. Many of the anti-Houthi-Salehi forces in Ta’iz are from al-Islah—the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—whom the UAE oppose implacably. There is thus even more likelihood that any such attempt would end in ignoble failure. Despite this, efforts to capture Ta’iz continue.
If, as Mattis said, “In Yemen, [the US] goal is to push this conflict into UN-brokered negotiations to make sure it is ended as soon as possible,” the US will need to push both the Saudis and the transitional president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, into genuine negotiations. Although the Houthis and Salehis—who have much to gain—are currently prepared to negotiate, Hadi and the coalition—who have something to lose—are adamantly opposed to negotiation. Rather they continue to re-iterate their maximalist demands, which the Houthis and Salehis have already rejected:
There are but three conditions for these talks — the same three as before, and the same three that shall remain should these proposed talks now fail: That Al Houthis adhere to previous agreements and the terms of UN Resolution 2216; that they disarm; and that they allow the government of Yemen to return to Sana’a.
There are two factors the coalition and Hadi should consider before spurning genuine negotiations. The first is that the US is not uncritical. President Trump opined recently, “Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.” Emirati patience is also wearing thin, particularly with Hadi and the forces fighting with him.
The second factor is that although Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may believe that coalition forces “can uproot the Houthis and Saleh in a couple of days,” Ali Abdullah Saleh has been on the winning side of two acknowledged civil wars (1962-1970 and 1994), two un-acknowledged civil wars (1978 and 2011), and several conflicts with the former South Yemen. For their part, the Houthis have fought six insurgencies (against their current ally Ali Abdullah Saleh). Neither shows any sign of capitulating.
The question now is what the coalition and Hadi want victory to look like: a workable compromise and a chance to rebuild Yemen or a fading hope of victory and more starving children?
Photo: Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with a Saudi delegation, including King Salman.
James Spencer is a retired infantry commander who specialised in low intensity conflict. He is a strategic analyst on MENA political, security and trade issues, and a specialist on Yemen.