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Trump's unintended allies in Iran: the hardliners
Trump's unintended allies in Iran: the hardliners

Trump's unintended allies in Iran: the hardliners

Originally published in The Hill

If champagne were halal, the hard men of the Islamic Republic of Iran would still be raising glasses to toast President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. They had long scorned the agreement as a futile parley with perfidious Washington; now they can claim to be prescient.

But their festive mood stems mostly from self-interest: The U.S. president has arguably lifted their political and economic fortunes for years to come.

Since 2013, the more hardline forces of Iranian politics, known as the Principlists (for their professed deep belief in the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution), have lost every election: local, parliamentary and presidential.

Unlike their pragmatist rivals, who believe that the revolution should mellow and make its peace with the world, they have little to offer a population that is exhausted from crisis and economic hardship and seeks normalcy and repose.

In 2017, for the first time in years, the hardliners managed to transcend internal squabbles and field a single presidential candidate, the cleric Ebrahim Raisi. They threw everything they had at the pragmatist incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, to no avail. Rouhani won in a landslide that endorsed his vision of greater engagement abroad and cautious reform at home.

The deal’s promised economic dividends never fully materialized

The Principlists’ only chance at a comeback is for their pragmatist rivals to falter. Rouhani and his allies gambled, investing the whole of their political capital in the nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other world powers.

Iran’s full compliance notwithstanding, the deal’s promised economic dividends never fully materialized; the prospect of those benefits is now fading amid a massive exodus of multinational firms fearful of the reach of Washington’s sanctions.

Rouhani, advocating restraint, is negotiating with the Europeans to preserve as many of the deal’s dividends as possible. The hardliners gloatingly dub his overtures “beggars’ diplomacy." They argue that Europe has neither the will nor a way to stand up to the U.S. and is certain to cave as Washington ratchets up the coercion.

The Principlists mock Rouhani’s seemingly indefatigable hope in engagement with the West: from the Iran-Contra deal with the Reagan administration in the 1980s through the agreement to suspend uranium enrichment with the Europeans in the early 2000s and on to the 2015 nuclear deal.

In each case, they say, the West has betrayed Iran. That the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has enjoined his negotiators to “preserve Iran’s dignity” in the talks with Europe has increased the stakes and diminished their maneuvering space.

The U.S. sanctions will be felt widely in the run-up to Iran’s 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections.

The damage to the pragmatists’ standing comes at a fortunate time for the Principlists. Regardless of how much the nuclear deal’s other signatories resist Washington’s pressure, the U.S. sanctions will be felt widely in the run-up to Iran’s 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections.

The hardliners are sharpening their knives for the moment (inevitable, they believe) when the other signatories let the pragmatists down again.

In 2005, Rouhani (then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator) failed to get the Europeans to reciprocate Tehran’s voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, in part due to pressure applied by John Bolton — then at the State Department and now President Trump’s national security advisor.

That led to the downfall of the pragmatists and catapulted hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. This time around, the hardliners are openly promoting the idea of electing a revolutionary guards commander as the next president.

With the 78-year-old supreme leader’s succession looming, control of the Iranian revolution’s direction is up for grabs. Rouhani is tipped by some as a contender to take Khamenei’s place.

The hardline chairman of the assembly of experts, the body responsible for selecting the next supreme leader, accordingly lost no time after the U.S. withdrawal in casting doubt upon Rouhani’s political acumen.

He sent the president an open letter, demanding his apology for overlooking Khamenei’s guidelines in negotiating the nuclear deal, both rubbing salt in the fresh wound and hinting that Rouhani lacks what it takes to be supreme leader.

Of course, vested economic interests are at stake. During the previous sanctions regime (2006-2013), companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and the institutions controlled by the Principlists filled the vacuum left behind by multinationals.

[Washington] is breathing new life into those whom Rouhani has called the “merchants of sanctions.”

A new stratum of Iranian nouveau riche emerged, flaunting Porsches and Maseratis on the streets of Tehran and buying mansions in Toronto and elsewhere. They made their billions through circumvention of sanctions and embezzlement.

As Washington tries once more to stifle the Iranian economy, it is breathing new life into those whom Rouhani has called the “merchants of sanctions.”

Observing Iran’s aging leadership, ailing economy, depreciating currency and growing popular discontent, the Trump administration senses vulnerability.

What it neglects is that existential angst also empowers the system’s security brigades, who have developed a formidable capacity for repression of a population that has scant appetite for chaos and violence.

Overestimating the yearning of the latter for change while underestimating the determination of the former to “reign in hell rather than serve in heaven” would be a grave mistake.

In 1980, Washington winked at Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in the hope of nipping the revolutionary order in the bud. The brutal eight-year war ended up solidifying the Islamic Republic, instead of subduing it.

Now, as the Iranian revolution nears its 40th anniversary, a cavalier steward of American power is likely to help enthrone Iran’s most zealous elements, while condemning its moderates to the political wilderness. 

Ali Vaez directs the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.

Smoke rises from a World Food Programme warehouse a day after fire engulfed it in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Yemen on 1 April, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Yemen: Averting a Destructive Battle for Hodeida

More than three years into Yemen’s war, a bloody battle looms for the Huthi-held port city of Hodeida. International leaders should work for a UN-led negotiated settlement to stop the offensive and, if this fails, take steps to avoid deepening what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

What’s new? Three years into Yemen’s destructive war, a battle is shaping up for the Huthi-held port city of Hodeida, a lifeline for the bulk of Yemen’s population. Forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are advancing on the port and may soon seek to make a final push.

Why does it matter? A battle for Hodeida is likely to be prolonged and leave millions of Yemenis without food, fuel and other vital supplies. The fighting will discourage rather than enable a return to the negotiating table. Yemen will fall even deeper into what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

What should be done? The U.S. should not greenlight a Hodeida offensive, should press the UAE to halt the movement of men under its control, and convince the coalition, along with its Yemeni partners, to participate in UN-led negotiations over control of the port.

I. Overview

Yemen’s civil war has reached an inflection point. In late May, an array of irregular forces backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a breakthrough in their campaign along the country’s Red Sea coast, arriving within 10km of the port city of Hodeida, which, like most of north-western Yemen, is held by Huthi rebels. By mid-June it had become clear that the UAE intended to go ahead with the assault despite international pressure, including from the U.S., and despite having previously said it was willing to consider a UN-brokered deal for a handover of the port. This continues a clear trend in Yemen’s war: the warring factions are overconfident in their military prospects, almost always press for military advantage when there is an opportunity for negotiation, and are all too often starkly indifferent to the humanitarian impact of their actions and the plight of ordinary citizens.

It seems likely this trend will continue in Hodeida, and that the conflict will descend into a more devastating new phase. The most likely outcome of a battle for Hodeida is not a quick, clean victory for government forces followed by outright Huthi capitulation, as some hope, but prolonged and destructive fighting in Hodeida’s city, port and immediate environs, followed by a period of maximalist demands from all sides. Because the port is the principal lifeline for not just the Huthi-controlled highlands but also just under two thirds of Yemen’s population, the humanitarian crisis, already the worst in the world, will deepen.

Time to avert such a scenario is fast running out. Government officials and diplomats in the region report that the UAE has informed them the assault on Hodeida is imminent and has reportedly given humanitarian organisations until 12 June to pull staff out of the city. The U.S. government appears to have given the UAE a “yellow light” for the attack. But if Martin Griffiths, the UN’s recently appointed successor to Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed as envoy to Yemen, can mobilise international support and pressure for negotiations, he might yet broker a deal that prevents an outright battle for the port and city of Hodeida. This would have dual benefits: avoiding a bloody and costly fight, and creating momentum toward a broader agreement to end the fighting nationwide. The U.S. in particular should support such an initiative and make a determined last-minute diplomatic pitch to persuade the UAE to stop the advance of forces under its control.

Failing that, Yemen will slip further into humanitarian catastrophe. Policymakers need to work urgently and energetically to effect a course correction. But as the offensive looms, they also must accelerate preparations for the worst-case scenario: a bloody, destructive battle for the port and city. This means holding the UAE to its commitment to mitigate human suffering, pressing the Huthis to do the same, providing additional targeted humanitarian assistance, putting in place measures to keep open Hodeida and Saleef ports, and increasing aid and supplies channelled through ports in areas held by Saudi-UAE-led forces.

II. A Three-Year War, Stalemated

Shortly after Yemen’s Huthi rebels seized Sanaa with the assistance of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in September 2014, their combined forces tried to bring all of Yemen under their control. In October 2014, the Huthi-Saleh alliance secured Hodeida, Yemen’s biggest port, facing little to no resistance. Hodeida was the entry point for more than 70 per cent of the country’s food and fuel imports; trade there generated more than 40 per cent of its customs income before the war. The allies also moved south along the Red Sea coast, taking control of the smaller port of Mokha.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see the Huthis, who receive support from Iran, as the Yemeni equivalent of Hizbollah. Angered by the Huthi takeover and worried about the group’s access to Yemen’s stock of ballistic missiles, the Saudis announced a coalition (in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have played the biggest roles) that entered the conflict in March 2015, launching a huge campaign of aerial bombardments. This assault was initially able to cut off maritime access to Hodeida and nearby Saleef, which coalition leaders argued at the time were being used by the Huthis to smuggle weapons into Yemen. Under pressure to allow humanitarian aid into Yemen, the coalition eased access restrictions somewhat, particularly after the establishment of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM). This is a UN-run offshore inspections system developed to allay coalition concerns and ease commercial traffic. It operates in coordination with the coalition-run Evacuation and Humanitarian Operations Committee (EHOC).

During the war’s first two years, Hodeida was not a military target, although coalition airstrikes badly damaged two cranes at the port in August 2016. Saudi Arabia focussed on supporting tribal, military and other forces loosely structured around Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, to the east of Sanaa. For its part, the UAE, whose leadership reviles Islah as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, limited its operations to the south and east of Yemen. There it worked with secessionist and Salafist forces first to push out the Huthi-Saleh alliance and then to roll back al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in cooperation with the U.S.

Yet Huthi-Saleh control of Hodeida remained a source of frustration for the coalition, which claims that weapons, including missile components, continue to find their way into the country through the port. (A UN panel of experts has said it does not believe Hodeida to be a weapons transit point.[fn]In a January 2018 report to the UN Security Council’s 2140 committee, which oversees the sanctions regime in Yemen initiated by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in April 2015, the panel said it was “unlikely” that weapons were being trafficked via Hodeida. “Possible for non-explosive weapons in component form concealed in cargo”, the panel noted, “but land routes are a better option, as interdiction risks are lower”. See letter from the Panel of Experts on Yemen mandated by Security Council Resolution 2342 (2017) addressed to the President of the Security Council, 26 January 2018, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2018/68.Hide Footnote ) Repeated Huthi-Saleh attacks on Red Sea maritime traffic, including on a UAE navy high-speed “Swift” trimaran in October 2016, and mounting evidence that the Huthi-Saleh alliance was benefitting economically from control of the port, led the UAE in late 2016 to begin discussing options for a military takeover.

Western policymakers, including senior officials in the Barack Obama administration, pressed the UAE and other coalition members not to attempt an amphibious assault on the city, citing the risks associated with such an operation. In early 2017, UAE-backed forces launched Operation Golden Spear, an overland campaign to seize Hodeida by pushing north along the Red Sea coast from their base in south Yemen. Islah-affiliated forces supported by Saudi Arabia and barracked in the north-western port town of Midi were said to be planning a simultaneous southbound campaign in order to surround Hodeida in a pincer move. UAE-backed forces seized Mokha in February 2017, but thereafter progress along the coast was slow.

III. An Assault on Hodeida to Break the Stalemate

A turning point might have come in December 2017 when the Huthi-Saleh alliance broke down after months of visible strain. During fighting in Sanaa, the Huthis killed Saleh along with several other senior members of his General People’s Congress Party (GPC). Saleh’s nephew and military avatar, Tareq Mohammed Saleh, fled to the UAE-controlled port of Aden. Tareq has since undergone a rapid transformation, from prominent commander in the Huthi-Saleh alliance’s war against the coalition into the public face of that very coalition’s Red Sea coast campaign, renamed Red Thunder earlier this year. Leading the so-called Republican Guards, he has based himself in Mokha; his fighters (understood to be remnants of the Saleh-era elite Republican Guard and new recruits from northern Yemen) are now reputedly among the best trained and equipped of all the coalition-backed forces in Yemen.

Since the beginning of 2018 the pace of the coalition’s progress along the Red Sea coast has increased. In late May, units affiliated with Saleh, along with the local Tihama Resistance, southern secessionists and the Giants Brigade led by loyalists of the coalition-backed and internationally recognised president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, announced major advances. (Together, these forces are branded the National Resistance Forces.) They had pushed up to Hodeida governorate’s al-Durayhimi district, which borders Hodeida port and city, raising assumptions that the battle for Hodeida would soon begin.

The UAE-backed forces are almost all Yemenis with limited or no experience fighting in an urban environment.

But Red Thunder then came to a near standstill. UAE and Saudi officials told Western counterparts and UN officials that they had paused the operation to give Griffiths a chance to broker a deal for Hodeida. Reports from the battlefield, however, suggested that after a burst of movement, coalition-backed forces had become bogged down. The UAE-backed forces are almost all Yemenis with limited or no experience fighting in an urban environment. If the coastal advance has stopped, it is largely because these irregular forces have gone as far as they can, blasting their way up a flat road with the help of UAE drones, Apache helicopters and fighter bombers. Taking a city is different. A similar group of forces took months to consolidate control over Mokha, which is comparatively tiny. Hodeida and its environs have a population of around 600,000, according to the UN. Fierce fighting continues in al-Durayhimi and other strategically important areas along the Red Sea coast.

IV. Obstacles to a Quick Coalition Victory in Hodeida

While regional media outlets have long presented an assault on Hodeida as both imminent and inevitable, the UAE-backed forces have needed time to position effectively to seize the city. There are two roads leading from Mokha to Hodeida, one along the coast, the other tracking inland mountain ranges. Most military observers believe that, if they are to take Hodeida port and city, UAE-backed forces will need to either control both the coastal and inland roads, or isolate and cut off Huthi positions and supply lines along them, including the main eastbound highway linking Hodeida with Sanaa.

UAE-backed forces have made considerable progress along the coastal road. Unable to hold positions on flat terrain under a sustained ground and air assault, the Huthis fell back to the city, using landmines to slow their enemies’ pursuit before mounting a stiff defence of al-Durayhimi. The coalition is now attempting to push both north to Hodeida airport, on the outskirts of the city, and north east, towards the Sanaa-Hodeida highway.

Progress along the mountain road has been slower. UAE-backed forces have yet to enter Zabid, a town of around 50,000 people sitting on the inland road, or al-Jarraahi, a smaller town to its south. Strategically valuable, Zabid is also a town of considerable religious and cultural significance to Muslims and Yemenis, and in particular to the Huthis (who are Zaydis, a Shiite sect largely unique to Yemen that is often conflated with but is significantly different from the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon).[fn]Zaydism is seen as being closest to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and is sometimes described as the “the Shiites’ Sunna”.Hide Footnote It is the site of the world’s fifth-oldest mosque and a large Sufi community, and it was Yemen’s capital under the Zaydi-led Imamate. The Huthis are said to be embedded in both the town and nearby mountains. Between Zabid and Hodeida is Bayt al-Faqih, a historic Yemeni market town, which the Huthis also reportedly plan to defend.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi official, Beirut, May 2018; Yemeni journalist and analyst with deep Hodeida knowledge, New York and Yemen, May 2018, via messaging app; several political and military analysts, May 2018.Hide Footnote The Huthis could use these positions to mount a rear-guard action and cut off coalition supply lines when fighting for Hodeida begins, although this would likely be achieved at considerable cost.

An additional stumbling block is the challenge the UAE has faced in coordinating among the various Yemeni forces it is working with on the ground. The Tihama Resistance has led most frontline fighting along with southern separatist groups, supported by the Giants Brigade and the Republican Guards. These groups are not a coherent unit, and tensions among them have been evident, as each claims battlefield successes and downplays the role of its supposed allies. Moreover, the coastal campaign’s unexpectedly rapid initial advance has strained supply lines. Further preparations will be needed to launch a full-scale assault on Hodeida and ensure the different forces are well supplied. A UAE Special Forces-led amphibious assault on the port – of the kind first discussed in late 2016 and opposed by the U.S. at the time – may still be among considered policy options.  

The Huthis are entrenched in Hodeida and believe that holding on to the city for as long as possible is a symbolic, if not strategic, necessity.

For their part, the Huthis are entrenched in Hodeida and believe that holding on to the city for as long as possible is a symbolic, if not strategic, necessity. They view the fight as an opportunity to harm both the Saudi-led coalition and its U.S. backers, who they believe will have to greenlight the operation before it goes ahead. In an interview in Beirut this May, a Huthi official promised that coalition-backed forces advancing into Hodeida would “step into hell and meet their demise”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Huthi spokesman, Beirut, May 2018. The phrase is derived from the Quran: “The lot of those who abandon their God will be hell’s sufferings and the most miserable of fates”.Hide Footnote The Huthis have been recruiting throughout the territories they control and moving large numbers of men into Hodeida and nearby towns. They have tried to prevent civilian officials, including the local police force, from leaving Hodeida, but it appears that a significant portion of the local population has fled.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni journalist and analyst with deep Hodeida knowledge, New York and Yemen, May 2018, via messaging app; senior humanitarian official, 2 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Part of the Huthis’ calculus may be that a UAE-backed assault on the city will provoke an international outcry, on the basis of both humanitarian impact and the large number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The Huthis may think that – if they fight long and hard enough – those costs will prompt the international community to broker a ceasefire or condemn the coalition publicly. The coalition, meanwhile, is likely to pin the blame for any human suffering on the Huthis.

The coalition has argued repeatedly that a Hodeida offensive can be mounted quickly and effectively, with the port functioning at a higher capacity than it currently does within weeks or even days of its liberation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with Western diplomats who have discussed the issue with coalition officials. See also, Alexandre Mello and Michael Knights, “The Hodeida campaign (part 2): Can Yemen recapture major ports from the Houthi rebels?”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 15 May 2018, for an outline of the coalition’s best-case scenario.Hide Footnote One option being touted by UAE officials in discussions with Western policymakers is for UAE-backed forces to seize the port only and isolate the city, without engaging in urban warfare, in order to reduce civilian casualties. But it is unclear such an approach would work, given the close proximity of the port to the city and the Huthis’ stated intention to engage the coalition in battle. Moreover, while the UAE military may be highly skilled, the bulk of the fighting is likely to be done by less well-trained Yemeni forces – unless the UAE plans on transporting a large contingent of its own military into Yemen, as has been rumoured.[fn]Crisis group interviews, Western diplomatic official, 2 June 2018; former Western defence official, 2 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Another potential obstacle is the absence until now of a U.S. green light for the assault. The UAE has asked the U.S. military to assist the campaign to ensure it will be as quick and clean as possible. President Donald Trump’s administration has debated its participation but appears intent on avoiding taking part in an offensive that it does not think the UAE and associated forces can bring off without considerable humanitarian cost on a relatively short timeline, even with U.S. support. On 11 June, the U.S. secretary of state released a statement suggesting something like a “yellow light” for the offensive:

I have spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports. We expect all parties to honor their commitments to work with the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen on this issue, support a political process to resolve this conflict, ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people, and map a stable political future for Yemen.[fn]U.S. Department of State, “Developments in Hudaydah”, press statement, 11 June 2018.Hide Footnote

As this report went to press the formal U.S. position on Hodeida remained the same: an attack on the port was a red line, but the military pressure created by Red Thunder should be used as leverage to deliver a settlement on the issue of the port. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have indicated to U.S. policymakers and to Crisis Group that such is their plan, arguing that the Huthis’ apparent willingness to cede control of the port, in a break from past refusals, is a sign that military pressure is working.

But the coalition has a track record of signalling a willingness to compromise before taking a more maximalist path, as do the Huthis. This would appear to have been the case with Hodeida: multiple Crisis Group contacts indicate that the UAE is planning to go ahead with the offensive.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, June 2018.Hide Footnote The irregular forces on the ground – who the UAE says are making their own battlefield decisions – may end up moving on the city in an attempt to drag the U.S. into the conflict on their side. The UAE has argued that it has little choice but to continue or sustain losses from Huthi attacks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UAE policymaker, June 2018.Hide Footnote If these forces move ahead, or if the U.S. publicly greenlights the offensive, the Huthis will feel justified in their rhetoric about a “U.S.” war on Yemen. If, moreover, the assault worsens the humanitarian crisis, as is likely, they will try to hold the U.S. to account in the court of public opinion.

Griffiths, who took over the role of UN envoy in March, has built some momentum around a “negotiation framework” to end the war. A battle for Hodeida would cost him both valuable time and credibility, particularly with the Huthis, who largely refused to speak to his predecessor.

V. The Risk of Even Greater Humanitarian Tragedy

A sustained battle for the port will likely shut off trade and humanitarian aid access for a sustained period. If coalition forces seize control of even part of the city, the Huthis likely will attack them from nearby towns and mountainous areas. Meanwhile, the battle might not stop at the city. Fighting could continue along the main Hodeida-Sanaa road, into the mountainous regions of Rayma and Haraz. This would impede traffic from the port unless an agreement on access is brokered. UN officials estimate that fighting for the city alone could displace hundreds of thousands of people and warn of a “catastrophic humanitarian impact”.[fn]“A military assault on Hodeidah will almost certainly have catastrophic humanitarian impact”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, 8 June 2018, available from https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/military-assault-hodeidah-will-almost-certainly-have-catastrophic-humanitarian-impact.Hide Footnote

Hodeida is the entry point for most basic goods into the north, accounting for around 37 per cent of Yemen’s fuel and 69 per cent of its food imports via ship in 2018 to date, serving the country’s main populated areas.[fn]Data provided to Crisis Group by a government organisation, based on UNVIM data and record-keeping at ports.Hide Footnote Along with Ibb and Taiz governorates – which the Huthis partially control – Yemen’s northern highlands are home to around 60 per cent of an overall estimated population of 27.4 million. The UN says Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is already the worst in the world; some 22.2 million people are in need of assistance.[fn]Yemen Humanitarian Bulletin, Issue 30, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, 28 January 2018, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Hum%20bulletin%20-%20Issue%2030_%20January2018_FINAL.pdf.Hide Footnote When the coalition prevented ships from entering Hodeida port for sixteen days in November 2017 following a Huthi missile attack on Riyadh, humanitarian organisations reported “skyrocketing” prices for food and price increases of up to 100 per cent for fuel.[fn]“Missiles and Food: Yemen’s man-made food security crisis”, Oxfam, December 2017.Hide Footnote

In the past, the coalition has regularly predicted that it would win its battles quickly and cleanly – before adjusting its estimates when reality sank in. At the start of the war in March 2015, for example, Saudi officials forecast that the war would last only a few weeks. The Hadi government and the coalition struggle to provide basic services and security in areas liberated from Huthi control such as Aden – the site of battles between Yemeni forces – further undermining the argument that they will be able to operate Hodeida more efficiently than at present.

The cost of the battle for Hodeida will largely accrue to the already impoverished civilian population.

The loss of the port would be a serious financial blow to the Huthis. But the rebels are unlikely to collapse as a result. The Huthis have been stockpiling food and fuel in preparation for the Hodeida offensive since late 2016. At present, improvised customs checkpoints in Amran, Dhammar and al-Beida governorates, which they established at the start of the war, are generating considerable revenues from overland trade – which, when combined, could amount to as much as those furnished by Hodeida. The coalition is aware that if the Huthis are pushed out of the city, they are likely to set up a similar operation to tax “imports” entering territory they hold from Hodeida and further inflate the cost of basic goods in order to make up for any revenue shortfall due to loss of the port. As has been the case since the beginning of the war, the cost of the battle for Hodeida will largely accrue to the already impoverished civilian population.

The coalition has also argued that the loss of Hodeida will force the Huthis to the negotiating table. The Huthis have signalled repeatedly since mid-to-late 2017 to both Griffiths and his predecessor Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed that they are willing to enter into a new round of talks. What the coalition appears to imply is that the Huthis need to be made to feel more pain in order to get them to adopt a more flexible posture at the negotiating table. Coalition officials have also said that once the port is under their control they would be more comfortable with cutting a deal with the rebels. But the Huthis’ top leadership has now been fighting for fourteen years – the war that broke out in 2015 is just the latest in a series that they have fought. It is not clear that they see their negotiating position as being as weak as the coalition does, even if they are willing to consider a compromise deal that effectively amounts to the handover of Hodeida – a move that would save them considerable blood and treasure.

Nor is it common in any conflict for peace talks to commence swiftly after a bloody battle for an important piece of territory. A new military imbalance could instead dissuade the weaker party from coming to the table and embolden the coalition and Hadi government to demand ever more ambitious – and unrealistic – concessions from the Huthis.

VI. A Way Out?

For much of Yemen’s war the parties driving the conflict have made poor choices, often based on overconfidence, wishful thinking and general indifference to the plight of ordinary Yemenis. Combined, the advance on Hodeida, the Huthis’ apparent willingness to compromise, the coalition’s self-assurance and Washington’s desire to avert a battle for the port city offer a rare moment of opportunity to break this cycle, especially if the recently appointed UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, continues to move quickly. (He visited Sanaa in early June and has toured the region’s capitals.)

Maximising chances of brokering a deal around Hodeida will require several elements. First, in devising a proposal to prevent a battle for Hodeida Griffiths will need to balance the Huthis’ desire for tangible benefits in return for concessions they make against the coalition’s demand for a quick and complete handover of the port. The conflict’s history is littered with failed attempts at establishing ceasefires and confidence-building measures.

Second, Griffiths will require the full backing of the international community, particularly the U.S. This support will need to go beyond current diplomatic efforts to dissuade the coalition from launching an offensive at this time. The U.S. should pressure Abu Dhabi to pull back its Yemeni allies from positions they do not hold fully and implement a genuine pause. Failure to do so – leaving the forces in contested areas – will simply mean that a battle for the port city becomes unavoidable. (The UAE may argue that it cannot compel the different Yemeni groups to do so, but much of their success along the Red Sea coast has been driven by UAE air support and armoured vehicles, and by UAE-run supply lines.)

Third, any deal for the port will necessitate buy-in from Yemeni forces operating on the ground, not just assurances from senior Huthi and coalition officials. Past experience shows that the coalition rarely has full command and control over its local allies – and that the banner of “government forces” oversells the coherence of the different armed groups at play. (At times, however, the coalition will use this argument to create plausible deniability for the actions of the forces it supports). In both Taiz and Aden, groups that are nominally working together on the coalition/government side have, at times, expended as much energy on fighting one another as on fighting the Huthis. Likewise, Huthi field commanders tend to operate largely independently of the group’s political leadership in Sanaa. The identities of the commanders in charge of the Giants Brigade, the Tihama Resistance and the Republican Guards are known; the same is true for the Huthis. The envoy’s team should establish a direct line of contact with each commander to deal with any flare-ups in real time.

Finally, Griffiths should avoid an overambitious plan for a complete handover of the port to a neutral third party within a short timeline, particularly given that at present no such party has volunteered to take on such a complex and risky role, and that both sides will remain primed for combat. Instead he should seek international support for a gradual process built around the following two steps:

  • The Hadi government and Huthi leadership should agree to place Hodeida and Saleef ports under the management of a Yemeni-led technocratic body that works with an international organisation such as UNVIM to ensure the steady flow of goods into Yemen and satisfies coalition concerns over arms trafficking into Yemen by coordinating with the Saudi-run EHOC.[fn]A security force tied to one side or the other would have little incentive to administer the city and port fairly. If UNVIM were asked to assume the task, it would be unable to comply without a peacekeeping or security force to accompany its inspectors and administrators. This, in turn, would require a change in UNVIM’s mandate via a new Security Council resolution. Crisis Group has repeatedly suggested the need for a new resolution. See, for example, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°54, Discord in Yemen’s North Could Be a Chance for Peace, 11 October 2017; and Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016.Hide Footnote This body would also oversee the management of revenues from port fees and customs payments. Ideally, the funds would accrue to the Central Bank of Yemen and be used to pay civil service salaries.
     
  • Both sides should agree to security arrangements that turn Hodeida and Saleef ports into neutral zones where rival Huthi and coalition-backed forces are not present. This arrangement will require both mediation and coordination among armed groups present on the ground, the Hadi government, the Huthis and coalition leaders, and should be accompanied by an agreement on how the port can be secured and policed jointly, by a unified Yemeni police force, by another neutral Yemeni body or, if possible, by a third party such as a UN peacekeeping force (although that possibility appears very small).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomats, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Such an approach would necessitate three separate but simultaneous negotiation tracks. A first track would involve the coalition, the U.S. and other international stakeholders, the Yemeni government and the Huthis. A second track would involve discussions between Yemeni technocrats over how to manage the port in as neutral and cooperative a manner as possible, including more intensive joint inspections and/or a third-party inspection and monitoring regime, along with a new joint revenue management mechanism. A third track, possibly the most crucial, would involve mediation among different commanders and security forces on the ground in Hodeida governorate to develop a security and deconfliction plan to which all forces would subscribe, and to which participants in the first negotiation track would also agree.

UAE and Saudi officials have told Crisis Group that they want a political settlement to end the war.

Such an arrangement will be difficult to put in place, face resistance from all would-be participants and, even if agreed, could collapse quickly. Timing will be particularly difficult. The Huthis will want to move as slowly as possible, while the coalition will demand rapid action. All parties will work to paint any agreement as a victory for their side and a defeat for their rivals, potentially goading their counterparts into the resumption of hostilities. Yet if it can be implemented successfully a deal for Hodeida could help build much-needed confidence that a broader agreement is possible to end the war.

The chances of success are slim. But the Huthis’ apparent willingness to engage in negotiations over the port, coupled with the coalition’s apparent willingness to engage in a mediation process – once the Hodeida question is settled – and the U.S.’s desire to see the war ended without further unnecessary bloodshed, together provide an opportunity that should not be missed. UAE and Saudi officials have told Crisis Group that they want a political settlement to end the war, and that they have “great confidence” in Griffiths.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, with senior UAE, Saudi, officials, June 2018.Hide Footnote If this is the case, rather than undermining him – and the prospects for relaunching a peace process in earnest this year – they should shelve the Hodeida campaign and provide him more time to negotiate a settlement for the port as a stepping stone for negotiations to end the war.

VII. Conclusion: If Mediation is Allowed to Fail

International political and humanitarian leaders should not be lulled into a false sense of security by military pauses or mediation attempts, even if these show initial signs of success. The warring sides’ patterns of behaviour are clear: the Huthis have a long track record of using negotiations to reposition militarily while the coalition regularly signals to diplomats that it is willing to discuss a political settlement before returning to a military path. Policymakers should start contingency planning for the worst.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Yemenis would be displaced as the hunger crisis worsens and large numbers of civilians are caught in the crossfire of a battle for Hodeida city. The fighting and the war over the narrative will only heighten rancour between the parties. Regardless of the battle’s outcome, the coalition, its Yemeni partners, and the Huthis are likely to return to maximalist positions once it is over, making ending the conflict an even more onerous task.

The Huthis have made increasing use of long-range ballistic missiles to target Saudi Arabia since mid-2017, and have threatened attacks on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the event of an assault on Hodeida. A battle for Hodeida may also see the Huthis attacking trade routes along the Yemeni coast. Saudi and Emirati leaders see these provocations as more than ample justification for continuation of the war.

The UN has been told to leave Hodeida by 12 June and other humanitarian organisations have also been advised to withdraw, limiting their ability to assess and deal with the humanitarian fallout in real time. UAE officials have told their foreign counterparts that they have plans in place to mitigate the battle’s humanitarian impact for the city. The international community must hold them to this commitment, and press the Huthis to do the same.

The confrontation around Hodeida could still offer an opportunity to break the cycle of conflict in Yemen.

The UN and other humanitarian organisations will need to maintain open lines of communication with the Huthis, the coalition and each other in order to provide as much targeted assistance as possible. Finally, measures should be put in place to protect Hodeida and Saleef ports, and to hold to account any party that willfully damages this vital infrastructure. The U.S. and other international stakeholders should work closely with the coalition and port authorities in Mukalla and Aden, and with transporters and the different local authorities across the country, to ensure that the import and transportation process running through these ports is as streamlined and efficient as possible.

Yemen is rarely afforded the time and resources its strategic position and depth of human suffering demand from policymakers. Much U.S. attention is currently focussed on talks with North Korea in Singapore. But resources – time, people, money – must be made available, and genuine pressure brought to bear on all parties to the conflict. The confrontation around Hodeida could still offer an opportunity to break the cycle of conflict in Yemen. Failure to seize it can only extend and deepen a humanitarian catastrophe, rendering Yemen enduringly unstable.

New York/Washington/Brussels, 11 June 2018

Appendix A: Map of Yemen

Map of Yemen Map No. 3847 Rev.3 United Nations. January 2004/KO February 2016