Summary: Two full weeks into the attack, the more pessimistic scenarios are looking increasingly likely; President Hadi’s relations with the UAE improve after a meeting with MBZ; other important developments go unnoticed.
In our most recent posting on Yemen (17 May) we concentrated on the UAE and Saudi troop deployment on Socotra. Today we return to the main international conflict in northern and central Yemen between the Huthis and the Saudi-led coalition. Following two failed rounds of UN-brokered talks the assault on Hodeida is going ahead, as the Saudi-led coalition seeks to force the rebels to the bargaining table and so end the costly war. Yesterday President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi demanded that Huthi rebels make a “full withdrawal from the province of Hodeida, including the port”, sparking fears of a fresh humanitarian disaster in a country already suffering what the UN calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues. She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.
Assault on Hodeida
The Saudi-led coalition offensive to expel the Huthis from Hodeida started on 12 June. This time last year, a similar offensive was prevented by a combination of UN efforts, the widely publicised prospect of humanitarian catastrophe once the port was brought to a standstill and the lack of support from the coalition’s international partners, primarily the US and UK; in particular the US rejected requests for practical assistance in landing forces from the sea. The situation is different this year: despite innumerable predictions of humanitarian disaster by the UN and other international organisations, objections to the offensive from US and UK were muted, to say the least and the offensive has gone ahead.
Two full weeks into the attack, the more pessimistic scenarios are looking increasingly likely, namely a lengthy ground battle, possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and displaced, and further reduction of already insufficient basic supplies landing at the port. Summarising the first week of the offensive and possible scenarios for coming weeks Peter Salisbury pointed out that gaining control of the airport was the easy part. UAE restrictions on media access to the front raise questions about the extent of this victory. Meanwhile the humanitarian nightmare is getting closer by the day: ships are not docking, prices are rising, food is becoming scarcer and thousands of families are escaping Hodeida for Sana’a and other less dangerous havens.
Both the decision and the timing of the offensive raise fundamental questions about coalition and internationally recognised government motivations: first the new UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, announced months ago that he would present his new proposals for peace negotiations in mid-June. So was timing the offensive to coincide with the launching of his initiative deliberately intended to scupper it?
The offensive has benefited from at least two elements which were absent in 2017: the collapse of the Huthi-Saleh alliance with the killing of former president Saleh last December, weakened them militarily and simultaneously strengthened the coalition which gained the active participation of Saleh-allied elite forces regrouped around Tareq Saleh, his nephew. The other element is that the UAE have obtained their own landing craft enabling them to bring troops from the sea south of Hodeida; this raises the question of the capacity/reliability of their Yemeni allies [the southern Salafi Amaliqa, Tihama Resistance and Tareq’s Guards of the Republic]; are they inept? Do the UAE commanders not trust them?
In addition to determined resistance on the ground, the Huthis are using their usual counter-tactic of firing missiles on Saudi cities as well as persisting with their ground incursions in the Saudi governorates contiguous to their home area. The ultimate outcome of the battle for Hodeida is hardly in doubt though it is likely to last longer and be bloodier than the UAE expect. They consider it essential to break the stalemate prevailing roughly since late 2015 but comparing Hodeida to Aden or Mukalla would also be a mistake: it took more than 2 months to liberate Aden in 2015, a city where the Huthis were barely present, by comparison with Hodeida where they have not had to deal with any significant opposition. Their ‘decisive’ offensive on the Red Sea Coast started in early 2017 took many months to regain control over the small town and port of Mokha, and fighting there and further north has continued since. As the humanitarian disaster becomes more acute with a lasting battle, media outrage may force the UK and US to pressure their UAE ally to compromise.
Importantly, the (comparatively) massive attention given to the Hodeida offensive in recent weeks has obscured developments elsewhere, whose long-term significance may well be greater. First and foremost, the rift between President Hadi and the UAE appears to have been healed, temporarily at least, after a dramatic worsening of relations in early May. Then UAE troops landed on Socotra, challenging the authority of the Internationally Recognised Government during a visit by Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr. This marked the lowest point in an increasingly tense relationship between the UAE and the Hadi government, coming close to physical confrontation, and was only solved thanks to urgent Saudi mediation.
In early June, following his explicitly anti-UAE statements, Hadi’s Minister of the Interior met Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi preparing Hadi’s meeting with the effective ruler of the UAE a few days later. Although no official statement was issued, the success of this meeting soon became apparent: Hadi returned to Aden after an absence of close to 18 months, strengthening the view that he had been prevented from returning there by UAE authorities, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) reduced its rhetoric, while the southern Salafi amaliqa brigades have been fighting in the Tihama, ie in the ‘North;’ (only months ago, southern separatists insisted that liberating the north was not their problem), and STC Leader Aydaroos al Zubeidi visited the Tihama front and may even have met Tareq a week into the offensive on Hodeida. There is no further talk of changes in the composition of the Hadi government, as the STC demanded in January after their apparent military success in Aden, and observers may wonder about the future of Hadi’s Vice President, Ali Mohsen, who is not exactly appreciated in Abu Dhabi.
These events suggest fundamental strategic changes. The Hodeida offensive is primarily a UAE operation demonstrating that, contrary to many assumptions, UAE interests go well beyond the South and are focused on maritime power and control of as many important ports in the region as possible. Second, it may indicate that, overall, the UAE is taking the lead in the coalition and Saudi involvement is being downplayed. Third, the muting of the STC demonstrates, for the moment at least, a far more subservient relationship to the UAE than many previously assumed. Fourth, the ‘reconciliation’ with Hadi has the side effect of reducing STC and other separatist movements’ hold on the south, and foresees a possible easing of North-South tensions. It may thus be a step towards the continued existence of a united Yemen in some form or other post war. Of course, all this is speculation, and alliances may shift again in completely different directions, as they have done in the past, including these recent changes.
Meanwhile, writing as UNSE Griffiths is presenting his proposed peace plan to Hadi, meeting in Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital for the first time, hopes of a rapid peaceful solution are slim: neither of the two recognised opposing ‘sides’ appears willing to make meaningful concessions. The continuing offensive in Hodeida, which Griffiths was unable to halt despite desperate shuttle diplomacy, may well be an indicator of the prospects for his initiative. Hopefully secret discussions may be taking place and bring Yemenis closer to the end of the nightmare they have been suffering for now three and a quarter years.