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Hodeida: prospects of humanitarian catastrophe brings Yemen back into the news

Was the decision to carry out the offensive in the summer, when living conditions are the worst for the population, specifically intended to worsen civilian suffering?

lead Displaced Yemenis, who fled their homes in the war-torn port city of Hodeida, rest after arriving in Sanaa as clashes intensify in western coast areas, Yemen, 22 June 2018. Hani Al-Ansi/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Prospects of famine and humanitarian catastrophe seem to be the only way Yemen gets increased international media attention in the west. Hodeida city and its port are now the focus of this concern. Hodeida is Yemen’s main port which receives 70% of Yemen’s imports of basic necessities and has the best access to the densely populated parts of the country. While, prior to the war, the country already depended on imports for 90% of its staple foods, this ratio has certainly increased with reduced agricultural production.

In addition to commercial imports, the country now needs very considerable humanitarian imports due to worsening poverty, as the country’s GDP dropped by 47 % in the first three years of this war and millions are lacking any income as most state staff have remained unpaid for close to two years. Although humanitarian shipments have gained importance, commercial imports remain the main source of supplies.

Blockade

The country has been under effective blockade since early in the war, with UN and other humanitarian agencies struggling to persuade the Saudi-led coalition to lift this blockade. In November 2017, after the Huthi movement had successfully launched a missile at the Saudi capital Riyadh, the coalition intensified the blockade by preventing ALL shipments, including medicines (at the time of the world’s worst cholera epidemic) and emergency food from reaching Hodeida and Saleef ports. Even Sana’a airport, closed to civilian traffic since August 2016, was closed to UN and other humanitarian flights.

In the following weeks, under increasing pressure from the US, UK, EU member states and UN political and humanitarian agencies, the intensity of the blockade was reduced, allowing shipments to arrive though, since then, only insufficient quantities of food and fuel have been allowed into either port.

‘Alternative’ ports

Having abandoned its planned offensive on Hodeida in 2017 due to lack of practical US support and strong opposition from its other allies, this year is different. The Saudis and UAE, have prepared their offensive in some detail. First the coalition established the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO) in January 2018 to ‘address immediate aid shortfalls while simultaneously building capacity for long term improvements.’ During his visit to the US in April, Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, ceremoniously handed over US $930 million to the UN Secretary General for the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan.  

Although a third of the total required for the UN’s humanitarian effort, it is peanuts by comparison with the amount spent on the military (equipment and personnel) intervention which is the very cause of this crisis. One of the components of the YCHO is the promotion of completely unrealistic ‘alternative’ ports for the delivery of aid: Aden (hundreds of km south of the areas in greatest need where anti ‘northern’ sentiment is strong,  thus putting at risk trucks carrying supplies),  Salalah in Oman (more than 1000km from these areas, with dozens of checkpoints staffed by multiple official and official groups along the route, each taxing traffic) and Jizan in Saudi Arabia (much nearer to the main areas but across major fighting zones).

In anticipation of western public outrage at the foreseen humanitarian disaster awaiting Yemenis in Hodeida and beyond as a result of the offensive, coalition public relations strategy has focused on two points: first insisting that humanitarian aid will reach those in need better and faster once Hodeida is removed from Huthi control and, second, that the victory can be achieved quickly and without significant civilian casualties. Both these are highly optimistic versions are challenged by the humanitarian community: Huthi ‘taxation’ and ‘customs’ would simply be collected further inland, and most foresee a long and murderous street by street battle.

Swift victory?

Strengthened by feeble US and UK objections to the offensive, and its public relations campaign (promoted by the companies, media and individuals on their payroll), the coalition launched its UAE-led offensive on 12 June, with much fanfare and promises of a swift and decisive victory. 

Three weeks later, its forces have only achieved limited control of Hodeida’s airport, located south-east of the city and of little strategic importance, whereas the port is north-west of the city. Two temporary halts to the offensive were announced and partially implemented, supposedly to give the UN Special Envoy the opportunity to secure an agreement to avoid massive bloodshed. But it is equally possible that the coalition hoped to use his good offices to free their troops besieged in the airport area. In the first days of July, his  desperate attempts at shuttle diplomacy to prevent a full-scale assault on the city appear to be failing in the face of the intransigence of the internationally recognised regime, whose senior officials keep repeating the same uncompromising demands, which can only be interpreted as ‘surrender’ by the Huthi movement. But his shuttles between Sana’a and Aden continue.

There is little doubt that, objectively, the military position of the coalition is far more favourable this year than last, as the fighting units involved now include the experienced and skilled force under Tareq Saleh (composed of elite elements allied with the Huthis until last December and now renamed ‘Guards of the Republic.’), the UAE military, thousands of Sudanese troops, the local Tihami resistance which has been trained by the UAE in Eritrea and elsewhere for more than a year and, finally, those most seen on media, the southern Salafi ‘Amaliqa’ (Giants) brigades who, until recently, considered that the ‘liberation’ of parts of Yemen formerly included in the Yemen Arab Republic [1962-1990] was absolutely none of their concerns.

The UAE are also now equipped with their own amphibious landing craft, thus enabling them to bring troops directly from the sea. However, it is worth remembering that it took them months to liberate Aden in 2015, a city populated by active anti-Huthi people and even more months in 2017 to work their way up the southern part of the Tihama to take the small town and port of Mokha, which is still under attack from the Huthis. Initially enthusiastic about their successes in heading for Hodeida on open terrain, they boasted that the Huthis had only mined the territory during their retreat, allowing an easy advance. They appear to have forgotten that, in open terrain without mountains or any cover, it was only wise for the Huthi forces to withdraw and wait for their attackers to reach more favourable terrain from their point of view, thus avoiding being massacred by air strikes.

The Huthi movement is certainly weaker than it was this time last year. Killing former president Saleh last December was a major mistake, depriving them of Saleh loyalist forces which now fight them as part of the coalition. However, it is far from being defeated: it has developed significant military skills during the 6 wars it fought against the Saleh regime since 2004 and the three years of fighting in alliance with Saleh’s elite forces since 2015. Despite a few positive statements, significant compromise does not appear to be on its leadership’s agenda either.  So prospects for the population of Hodeida and elsewhere in the Tihama are grim. The forthcoming battle is likely to compete in death and destruction with the fight for Aleppo in Syria in 2016 and other urban conflicts which have caused immeasurable suffering and death for thousands of civilians. 

House to house fighting

Understanding Hodeida’s social and economic characteristics is essential to assessing the likely impact of a protracted period of house to house fighting.  The Tihama coast and Hodeida city have an extremely hot summer climate and for decades had the highest poverty ratios in the country. Both poverty and climate make the stocking of food almost impossible: basics like wheat, flour and sugar can’t be stored due to the humidity and heat. Most people don’t have refrigeration so must buy their supplies on a daily basis, as they can’t afford the private sector electricity which is the only available supply in some areas, while others have none.

Most housing is flimsily built and multi-storey buildings are likely to collapse on their inhabitants under shelling and air strikes. Few people have any income as prices have rocketed and thousands have become destitute, depending on occasional day labour and support from their relatives who can send assistance. Even with full awareness of the prospects, they do not have the means to prepare for this disaster which they know is coming.  

Spare Hodeida!

Of the city’s 600,000 people, many have escaped to less dangerous areas, but thousands, or rather hundreds of thousands more, have nowhere to go. In addition, with a halt to imports resulting from fighting, the millions depending on imports in the highlands further inland, are likely to starve as food no longer arrives, regardless of whether they can afford it or not. In its worst scenario, the UN estimates the assault on Hodeida could lead to the death of more than 250,000 or a quarter of a million people! After the spontaneous response of speechlessness, shock and disbelief at the inhumanity of the decision-makers responsible for this situation, with the prospect of such nightmares ahead, it is only reasonable to ask a few questions. 

First, why did the coalition launch its offensive to coincide with the long announced presentation of the new UN Special Envoy’s draft ‘peace plan’ and proposals for re-starting peace negotiations? Since his appointment earlier this year, Martin Griffiths stated explicitly and frequently that he would consult widely and make new proposals mid-June. Knowing this, was the offensive deliberately timed to scupper his initiative? His task has been instantly transformed from seeking long-term solutions to simply trying to prevent short-term catastrophe. Not only will it be all the more difficult for him to re-direct attention to long-term solutions, but the offensive itself is likely to encourage both sides in their determination to stick to their positions. In addition the war in Hodeida is likely to be a matter of many months, possibly longer.

Second, was the decision to carry out the offensive in the summer, when living conditions are the worst for the population, specifically intended to worsen civilian suffering?

Finally, given that the coalition has been operating in Yemen, since March 2015 at the request of president Hadi, why did he find it necessary to specifically endorse this initiative the day after it started? It is quite possible that those reading or hearing him won’t even notice that he made this statement in Aden where he returned from Riyadh, after a visit to Abu Dhabi and an apparent reconciliation with the UAE rulers, an event which may well be politically significant, given his absence of close to 18 months.

As usual I conclude by expressing hope that, unlikely as it may be, reason and compassion will prevail, the assault be cancelled, and Yemenis in Hodeida, the Tihama and the highlands will be spared the disasters which so many are predicting.

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October, 2017.


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