The humanitarian situation has deteriorated in Yemen’s crucial port city of Hodeidah as Saudi, Emirati, and allied Yemeni forces close in on the city amidst cries from the international community to exercise restraint. The operation may sound like an unpleasant but necessary step in the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to evict Houthi rebels from their only major port. The main body of Houthi support resides in the country’s rugged north, and the group relies on shakier alliances with local fighters on the coastal plain to retain access to the critical city. Hodeidah is also, however, a key point for distributing aid to beleaguered civilians ravaged by the conflict. The plight of average Yemenis is as dire as it gets. Food and water are scarce, and plague has swept through urban centers – cholera has claimed more than 2,000 lives, infected a further million, and is expected to intensify with the August rains.
The Saudis, Emiratis, and their allies argue that wresting control of Hodeidah away from the Houthis will compel the group’s leadership to hold talks, and insist on its necessity in light of new evidence that Iranian missile components arrived in Yemen via Hodeidah. The view that military force is justified by Houthi intransigence is a favorite of coalition lackeys seeking to legitimize the Riyadh- and Abu Dhabi-led operations (which depend on American intelligence and material support). Letting the coalition off the hook for its excessively brutal approach to breaking Houthi control, which has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths the UN believes to have been unnecessary, commits two logical errors. It assumes, wrongly, that the Saudi-led coalition is already doing due diligence to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. Plainly, it is not. Modern warfighting technology, combined with intimate American operational support, gives the coalition access to know-how and tools it needs to tighten up its campaign. That civilian casualties have been so high, and are expected to rise with continued investigation, amounts to a conspicuous failure by the coalition to avail itself of options for limiting collateral damage.
More damning still, defenders of the coalition’s move on Hodeidah assume that any amount of force will actually bring the Houthi command to the table. The coalition has no precedent to justify its assumption that Hodeidah will be the turning point it needs to make the Houthis see sense. Losing Hodeidah would be a severe blow to Houthi finances, which rely on fees extracted from goods passing through the port. But the coalition needs Hodeidah to draw the Houthis to the table because it knows the battle to evict fighters from their strongholds in the mountainous north would be arduous, and perhaps too costly to bear. The Houthis are aware of the advantages they enjoy, and have demonstrated the mettle to reject negotiations they deem disadvantageous even in the face of overwhelming odds.
The push to claim Hodeidah, and the savagery of its execution, reflect the coalition’s desperation to find an exit from the conflict, not the mindset of the Houthi leadership. Observers should remain skeptical of justifications that peddle faulty assumptions of Houthi intent.
Nicholas Norberg graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic, and he has worked as a Middle East and Turkey analyst at Dataminr. He currently writes for the Journal on Middle East Politics and Policy at Harvard University, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.