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Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle
Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South
Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South
Yemeni pro-government forces gather at the south of Hodeida airport, in Yemen's Hodeida province on 15 June, 2018. AFP

Yemen Conflict Alert: Last Chance to Prevent a Destructive Hodeida Battle

The fate of Hodeida hangs in the balance as UAE-backed Yemeni forces poise for what will be a prolonged and destructive battle to expel Huthi rebels. A real but fleeting opportunity exists to avert catastrophe through a UN-mediated solution that safeguards all sides’ interests.

The battle for Hodeida is reaching the point of no return. UAE-backed Yemeni forces are poised to begin operations to take this Red Sea port and city of 600,000 from Huthi rebels. This is the final, fragile moment in which it may still be possible for UN-led negotiations to prevent a destructive fight that is likely to exacerbate dire humanitarian conditions and further delay broader negotiations to end the war.

Both the Huthi rebels who control Hodeida and the Saudi-led coalition that is backing an assault to wrest it from them say they want to avoid a battle for the port and city centre, but their negotiating positions remain far apart. Hopes now lie with the newly appointed UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who is attempting to find a middle ground. Griffiths has a real but limited opportunity to succeed due to three converging dynamics. First, the Huthis, under military pressure, have for the first time expressed openness to UN management of Hodeida port, Yemen’s largest gateway for imports. Second, the UAE, which is leading the military push on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, would prefer to avoid urban combat that would almost certainly see its forces suffer considerable losses and prompt intense international scrutiny for aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation. And third, there is growing concern among international stakeholders, including the U.S., that a pitched battle for the port and city could have devastating humanitarian and longer-term political consequences.

The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise [...] The stakes are about as high as they could be.

Finding a solution means bridging the sides’ competing positions. The Saudis and Emiratis accuse the rebel movement of using the port to smuggle weapons into Yemen and diverting customs revenues to their war effort. They want the Huthis out entirely. For their part, the Huthis have offered to turn over management of the port to the UN and jointly manage security, but have said they will not fully withdraw from Hodeida. The Huthis and the coalition will both have to compromise. Their respective allies should vigorously press them to accept a negotiated settlement for the port and city as the best and only tolerable option.

The stakes are about as high as they could be. Successful UN mediation toward a mutually acceptable solution that safeguards all sides’ vital interests regarding Hodeida could be the basis for a settlement not only for the port, but also for the wider conflict between the Huthis and the coalition. Conversely, failure would not only seriously undermine prospects for such talks, but also – once fighting enters the city – render a consensual deal over the Huthis’ presence in the port and the question of how it will be managed largely impossible. Hodeida can either prove to be the beginning of the end to Yemen’s war or the start of a new, likely more destructive phase.

The Road to Hodeida

The UAE launched its campaign to seize Hodeida after growing increasingly frustrated with a nearly three-year-old stalemate in which front lines changed only marginally. In the Emiratis’ view, the Huthis – who seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, with the backing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – were becoming more and more entrenched in the country’s highlands, benefitting in particular from a burgeoning war economy. Emirati officials have long seen Hodeida’s capture as key to shaking up the status quo and forcing the Huthis into the kind of settlement the coalition desires: a withdrawal from Yemen’s cities; guarantees of cross-border security; handover of heavy weapons, especially the ballistic missiles the Huthis have been firing into Saudi Arabia; and cutting ties to Iran, which supports the Huthis, in exchange for participation in a unity government.

The plans for a Hodeida offensive have been gestating since at least 2016. They were bolstered by the December 2017 schism within the odd-couple alliance of the Huthis and Saleh. Street fighting in Sanaa ended with the Huthis killing Saleh, while his nephew and military avatar, Tareq Mohammed Saleh, escaped and promptly switched sides. Since May, the joint National Resistance Forces – the Tihami Resistance, led by tribal forces from the Red Sea coast; the Giants’ Brigade, led by Salafist-leaning southern resistance fighters; and Tareq Saleh’s Republican Guards – have made swift progress up the coast, aided by UAE air support. In June, they made major, rapid advances towards the port and city, and are now on its outskirts, intending to take Hodeida by defeating the Huthis outright or by forcing them to accept a deal that would allow them to evacuate eastward to Sanaa.

The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war.

The Emiratis believe they can win Hodeida as effectively as they did Aden in mid-2015 and Mukalla, a port in the east that had become an al-Qaeda stronghold, in April 2016. In both cases, they provided military support to forces recruited from the local population. In Hodeida, too, they are counting on what they refer to as local resistance inside the city to set up internal checkpoints and neighbourhood security when Abu Dhabi gives the signal for these groups to activate. 

The coalition has been careful to communicate its plans to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access while warning that the Huthis will likely use the civilian population as human shields. The truth is that both the Huthis and the coalition have displayed a blatant disregard for the protection of civilians throughout the war. Aid agencies remain deeply concerned that fighting at the port could prevent access to the country’s most important source of food, fuel and humanitarian supplies, while an assault on the city could endanger the lives of the city’s estimated 600,000 residents. The UN worries that the fighting could make the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even worse and tip some of the 8.4 million-plus Yemenis on the brink of starvation into famine. If, as seems likely, the Hodeida campaign is harder fought and longer lasting than the UAE anticipates, it is difficult to see how humanitarian access will be improved, while the lives of more than half a million will unquestionably be deeply affected.

The UN Security Council met to discuss Yemen twice in June as the operation began but has failed to stake out a unified position beyond broad language on civilian protection. For its part, the U.S., while at first cautioning the UAE against the wisdom of undertaking an assault on Hodeida, citing the uncertain military outcome and probable humanitarian cost, appears to have eased pressure on the coalition. UAE officials believe that the U.S. does not object to an assault on the port and city, although they add that their American counterparts have warned them they will be responsible for the outcome.  

On 20 June, a week after launching “Operation Golden Victory”, the UAE-backed forces announced that they were in full control of the sprawling airport complex that sits on Hodeida city’s southern edge. Although the Huthis dispute the claim, and sporadic fighting continues, the coalition has clearly gained the upper hand in the week-long struggle for this strategically important facility. Fighting has now reached residential areas on the city’s southern edges. The UAE is poised to move toward the port in the next phase of combat.

A Possible – and Necessary – Compromise

Most military analysts following the campaign say the Huthis have little chance of holding the port and city if the UAE-backed campaign proceeds. The Huthis appear to realise this as well. While they have maintained their bellicose rhetoric, they have also indicated a new willingness to hand control of the port to the UN and discuss at least a partial withdrawal from the city – ideas they had dismissed out of hand as recently as a year ago. In a televised 20 June speech, Abdelmalek al-Huthi, the rebels’ leader, said for the first time that the Huthis were willing to cede control of the port.

This is important, but falls short of the public position of coalition leaders who, capitalising on their military momentum, are calling for a complete Huthi withdrawal and handover of the port and the city to the National Resistance Forces, while offering the Huthis safe passage to Sanaa. Yet this demand could prove to be flexible. Diplomats and coalition officials apprised of ongoing backroom negotiations claim coalition leaders have hinted they might accept a compromise in order to avoid a prolonged fight for the port and city whose humanitarian impact almost certainly would be devastating.

They would have good reason to do so: given clear warnings over the likely consequences of a military offensive, any worsening of the humanitarian situation would prompt intense international criticism and condemnation of the UAE and its allies at a time when they already are under heavy public scrutiny. As an immediate step, Griffiths should therefore publicise the fact that both protagonists have told him a deal is possible and shown newfound flexibility; this would limit the risk that either side claims the other is unwilling to compromise and uses that as an excuse to block negotiations.

Time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it.

The outlines of a potential compromise that would respect both sides’ core interests are clear. The Huthis would agree to a short, firm timetable to withdraw from the port and relinquish any role in managing it. They would hand over management of the port to the UN, with current civilian staff running the port on a day-to-day basis. UN member states would lead a de-mining operation in the port and waters surrounding it to ensure it is safe for operations in conjunction with the coalition. Optimally, the UN, supported by the government of Yemen and UN member states, would implement technical upgrades to boost port capacity. 

While the Huthis might conceivably play a role in managing security within the city for an interim period, they would ultimately need to hand over security operations to local police forces and governance functions to local council members. This could be done in a gradual albeit clearly delineated process, overseen by a joint committee comprising military commanders from the Huthi camp, the coalition and the various Yemeni forces on the ground in Hodeida, and assisted by the UN and international experts. If successful, such a phased and coordinated withdrawal and handover to local, effectively neutral management could serve as a model for the rest of Huthi-held territory should talks over Hodeida succeed

In return, UAE-backed forces would maintain a military presence at Hodeida airport but refrain from sending their forces into the city and port. They also would pull back from the eastbound highway connecting Hodeida with Sanaa, through which Huthi forces could then withdraw to the highlands.

Room for such a compromise exists as long as the assault on the city has not begun. But time is running out. What is most needed now is strong international backing for Griffiths’ efforts to reach such a compromise, coupled with powerful international pressure on the two sides to accept it. To that end:

  • The Security Council should issue a presidential statement strongly backing a negotiated settlement on Hodeida under UN auspices as per Griffiths’ proposals, and forcefully remind the Huthis and coalition forces of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  • The U.S. should take the lead in calling for a deal that would prevent a battle for the city and port, and its fellow Security Council member states (notably the UK and France, which have supported the coalition politically and militarily) should rally behind this call. They should also make it clear that the “Pottery Barn” rule – if you break it, you own it – inevitably will apply to the UAE-led coalition in Hodeida.
     
  • UN member states that support or have open communication lines with the Huthis – Iran, Oman, Russia and the EU, for example – should ensure that the group is under constant pressure to agree to a compromise and abide by its commitments in the event of a deal. The Huthis have a long track record of using negotiations as an opportunity to reposition or legitimise their actions. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

For the past three years, it has been an international mantra that there is no military but only a political solution to Yemen’s war, even as that war has continued unabated. What happens in Hodeida in the coming days can either validate this principle and the international community’s commitment to it, by serving as a bridge to further negotiations, or undermine it if fighting escalates and prospects for peace further diminish. Hodeida offers an opportunity for the UN Security Council to demonstrate its ability to pursue negotiated solutions to conflicts at a time of growing doubt about its effectiveness and utility. It offers the warring sides a face-saving exit that protects their vital interests after years of recklessly jeopardising them. And it offers the Yemeni people a chance to avoid a devastating escalation and the persistence of endless, pointless bloodshed.

A reinforcement convoy of Yemen's Security Belt Force dominated by members of the the Southern Transitional Council (STC) heading to Abyan province, Yemen. AFP/Saleh Al-OBEIDI

Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South

Separatists have announced self-administration in southern Yemen, angering the internationally recognised government. The last thing the country needs is more fighting. Gulf powers and the UN should help implement a stalled 2019 agreement so that national ceasefire talks can go ahead.

On 25 April, the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-administration in areas of Yemen’s south that were part of an independent state prior to unification with the north in 1990. The declaration came on the heels of escalating tensions between the STC and the Yemeni government, nominal allies in the fight against Huthi rebels based in the northern highlands. It also came as the UN struggled to engineer a nationwide ceasefire and COVID-19 response plan. STC forces quickly took control of ministries, local government offices and the Central Bank building in Aden, the government’s temporary headquarters since the Huthis pushed it out of the capital Sanaa in 2015. The STC has not yet taken over day-to-day management of state institutions, but it has formed committees charged with doing so, and STC officials say they will soon start running southern affairs.

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

The STC may have hoped to shore up its waning popular support.

It is not yet clear if the STC’s announcement is indeed an attempt at establishing an autonomous state or a gamble aimed at improving the group’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In justifying their move, STC officials point to stalled implementation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement. This Saudi-brokered deal prevented a civil war within a civil war in the south after the secessionists drove Hadi loyalists out of Aden in August of last year. The agreement offered the STC a limited role in government and UN-led peace talks in exchange for a phased mutual withdrawal of forces from Aden and neighbouring Abyan governorate and a handover of heavy weapons by both sides to the Saudi-led coalition. The agreement also stipulates that the STC be integrated into the government’s military and security institutions. The secessionists say they have done everything asked of them, while Hadi has carried out military redeployments that benefit his side and delayed political reforms. The latter are supposed to include appointing new local security and government officials and forming a more inclusive government and negotiating team for UN-sponsored talks.

The STC may also have hoped to shore up its waning popular support. Although the Riyadh Agreement left the STC in effective control of Aden, the government continued to run state institutions and hold purse strings, a situation the STC says played to the government’s advantage by tying its own hands. Since January, STC officials assert, the government has halted salary payments in Aden and allowed public services to wither. Hadi officials acknowledge the holdup in paying salaries – which in the case of most STC security and military forces were anyway paid by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) until the end of 2019 – but attribute it to cash flow problems. They claim that the deterioration of services derives from tensions among the STC, the government and Aden-based Saudi forces. After a devastating spate of flash floods exacerbated electricity and water shortages in April, residents directed their anger at the government and STC in equal measure. Because salaries are going unpaid, some STC leaders worry that their fighters will defect to the government, if it can pay them, or to new Saudi-overseen military units, which receive wages directly from Riyadh.

Developments elsewhere in Yemen also played a role. Government forces in the north have been tied down in heavy fighting with Huthi rebels in Marib since January, limiting their ability to launch or counter a major offensive in the south. STC leaders were also angered in April by their continued exclusion from formal UN negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire and the restart of national political talks. Perceiving a choice between, on the one hand, inaction that would undermine their local popularity and position and, on the other, taking steps that could incur the wrath of regional powers and foreign diplomats who they feel are distracted or ignoring their pleas for inclusion, STC officials say they opted for the latter. At least this way, they say, they have taken matters into their own hands.

What Next?

Predictably, the government condemned the STC announcement as yet another coup attempt, saying the secessionists “blew up” the Riyadh Agreement. They say the STC has refused to honour its obligations under the accord and is instead spoiling the process in hopes of gaining a seat at peace talks without making meaningful concessions on the ground. The government says this bad behaviour on the STC’s part should not be rewarded. It demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed, who was prevented from entering Aden earlier in April, to return and lead the government from the city. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been more circumspect. They rejected the STC’s announcement, calling upon the government and secessionists to return to the Riyadh Agreement.

The government demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed to return and lead the government from the city.

It is unclear what each side plans on doing next. Hadi-aligned military leaders in the south have made inflammatory statements in recent months about wanting to forcibly wrest control of Aden from the STC. They could see the STC’s announcement as a pretext for launching an offensive. The STC says it is prepared for a fight, and that it could win new territory in a replay of the hostilities of August 2019. Riyadh will want to avoid more infighting within the anti-Huthi camp and still hopes to see the agreement fulfilled. But both the STC and the government increasingly mistrust Riyadh and doubt the kingdom’s ability to follow through on overseeing implementation. As a result, the Saudis may be unable to get the parties to return to negotiations without help from other regional or international powers.

The actor best placed to make a difference in the south is the UAE. Abu Dhabi has a close relationship with the STC, whose president, Aydrous al-Zubaidi, is based in the UAE. The Emiratis withdrew from southern Yemen in mid-2019 and Saudi Arabia has since run coalition operations in Aden. But the UAE still has leverage. Absent outside support, which the STC would most likely seek from Abu Dhabi, an autonomous region is unlikely to survive for long. Emirati officials therefore should be able to help convince Zubaidi to return to the negotiating table. Given its dislike of the Hadi government, which it sees as being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Dhabi will need some encouragement to do so, most likely from Washington.

The Huthis have taken pleasure in this latest episode in the STC-Hadi power struggle, which has done a great deal over the past three years to undermine the government’s credibility. Tensions in the south have divided the anti-Huthi bloc and diverted the government’s attention from battles with the Huthis in Marib and al-Bayda governorates in the north. If the STC and the government enter into another violent showdown, it would weaken military efforts against the Huthis in Marib and elsewhere.

The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war.

Some Yemeni observers believe that the conflict in the south is creating an opportunity for the Huthis to strike a deal with the STC that excludes the government. This eventuality would accelerate the country’s fragmentation. The rebels and secessionists view each other as lesser threats compared to other rivals and, in theory, such a deal could benefit both. Yet officially, each side says it will negotiate with the other only within a UN-led framework. The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war and reach an acceptable accommodation with the Huthis before the anti-Huthi front collapses under the weight of its internal differences. The Huthis, who are holding out on a nationwide ceasefire agreement in hopes of getting the Saudis to fully reopen their area’s sea and airports, are keenly aware of the kingdom’s predicament and are likely to double down on their demands.

A Modest Rather than Maximalist Approach

In many ways, the STC’s timing could not be worse for UN efforts to secure a nationwide ceasefire, initiate a national COVID-19 response plan and restart political talks. The government is all but certain to use the standoff in the south as an excuse to delay these efforts. The Saudis, a vital part of any agreement, will now be stretched even more thinly and will likely find it more difficult to find common ground with the emboldened Huthis.

Humanitarian aid efforts could also be affected. Ongoing fighting and disjointed COVID-19 responses by local authorities are already staunching the flow of basic goods and medicine throughout Yemen. Fighting in Aden would shut off Yemen’s second largest port and one of just two airports operating international commercial flights in and out of the country during the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni riyal’s value has already started to fall in light of uncertainties surrounding the impact of the STC’s Central Bank takeover. If the STC tries to run the bank, the government will likely freeze access to its dollar accounts and international payments systems.

A return to the status quo ante is a recipe for renewed violence.

Renewed STC-government fighting is the last thing Yemenis need. Yet a return to the status quo ante – a stalled Riyadh Agreement and gradual deterioration of economic conditions in Aden – is likewise a recipe for renewed violence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are right to urge the parties to return to politics. But this approach will only work if they reassess and amend the Riyadh Agreement to enable implementation, something neither side appears willing to do at present. As it stands, the agreement’s objectives, particularly integrating two opposing military forces, are too ambitious absent a nationwide political settlement.

Instead of taking a maximalist approach, the two sides could agree on minimum requirements for implementation: separation of forces and demilitarisation of key cities; formation of an inclusive government focused on basic security and service provision; and assembly of a more inclusive negotiating team for UN talks. Saudi Arabia will need to accept help in coaxing the two parties to carry out their obligations in good faith. At the very least, this task will require more involvement from the UAE and ideally oversight from the UN.

Beyond the Riyadh Agreement, the STC is right in saying that the UN’s national ceasefire initiative will not work without its cooperation. As Crisis Group has recommended in the past, UN officials are seeking to establish a UN-chaired national military body that would negotiate ceasefire arrangements. Yet the body supposedly would include only delegates from the government and the Huthis, with meetings attended by Saudi officials as well. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has discussed his ceasefire plan, which the STC publicly welcomed, with the group’s senior leadership, but his team is understandably cautious about their formal participation in military-to-military talks. The dilemma is clear: including the STC may prompt a multitude of other Yemeni combatants to want to be included as well, making the process unmanageable and delaying a much-needed ceasefire; not including the STC – or at least securing their clear buy-in – nearly guarantees ceasefire collapse.

Under an imperfect compromise, the UN – with help from the UK and U.S. – could push the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the STC and other important armed groups have a voice in military talks by adding representatives aligned with or even chosen by them to the government delegation in the military body. To make this solution more palatable to the government, which views the STC and similar forces as non-state actors and refuses to legitimise them, the additional delegates optimally would hold pre-war military rank.

Events in the south underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups in any overall settlement to end the conflict.

Events in the south are a stark reminder of Yemen’s fragmentation after five years of war. They underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups, like the STC, in any overall settlement to end the conflict. Regional and Western diplomats working on Yemen so far have largely avoided the south’s messy politics, and they may be tempted even now to leave the problem to the Saudis. But more of the same will not make the problem go away, and failure to engage will only make the war harder to end.