Saudi-led coalition forces are preparing an all-out assault on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah in Yemen, in a move that could cut humanitarian lifelines, displace as many as 200,000 people and tip the balance in the three-year civil war in favour of anti-Houthi forces.
After a rapid advance along the coast, anti-Houthi forces are now eight miles from Hodeidah, which was captured by the Iran-backed rebels in 2015.
“First, we will cut off supply lines, especially between [the rebel-held capital] Sana’a and Hodeidah. Then we will place Hodeidah under siege and bring them down, perhaps without a fight,” said a spokesman for the so-called National Resistance forces on Wednesday.
Western countries in the past have successfully dissuaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from bombing the port, saying its destruction would lead to widespread death and famine. About 80% of Yemen’s humanitarian and commercial aid runs through Hodeidah.
But an emboldened Saudi-led coalition has been making faster-than-expected progress towards the gates of the city over the past two months, largely ignoring western pleas that peace cannot be restored to Yemen though military means. The fighting has already displaced 100,000 people, and aid agencies predict another 200,000 will be displaced if fighting breaks out in the centre of Hodeidah.
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, who is due to publish a peace proposal, said a battle over Hodeidah would “take peace off the table”.
The National Resistance force is loyal to allies of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was assassinated in Sana’a by his former Houthi allies in December. The force is commanded by Tareq Saleh, a nephew of the former president.
A second, more regional force known as the Tihamah Popular Resistance (TPR) is also making inroads to the south of Hodeidah. It is made up of locals from the area loyal to Yemen’s exiled president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Control of the port would give the Saudi-led coalition control of the supply of humanitarian aid in Yemen. It would also cast doubt on Iran’s willingness to discuss the future of the war-torn country – including any commitments to provide humanitarian aid.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Seyed Abbas Araqchi, said this week that Tehran was ready to hold talks on Yemen with Europe, but only on humanitarian issues. It was the first time that Iran had publicly indicated it was willing to hold negotiations with the west over a regional conflict it is accused of being involved in.
Iran has previously resisted the idea of holding talks with the west over its actions in various regional countries, particularly its involvement in Syria and alleged support for the Houthis – as well as its controversial ballistic missile tests. Under pressure from Donald Trump, who has pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, Europe has pressed Iran to open up.
“On humanitarian grounds and because of dire situations faced by the people of Yemen, we have entered talks with four European countries – France, the UK, Germany and Italy,” Araqchi said this week during an interview on national television.
Araqchi’s statement demonstrated a concession from Tehran. Saudi Arabia, which has led a US-backed military intervention in Yemen since March 2015 aimed at countering Houthi advances, accuses Tehran of militarily supporting the rebels. Iran has vehemently denied this.
In November 2017 the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) admitted Tehran was aiding Houthis, but claimed it was solely in an advisory capacity. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force – the external arm of the IRGC – said in a speech in 2015 that “we are witnessing the signs of the export of the [Islamic] revolution throughout the region from Bahrain to Iraq, to Syria to Yemen and north Africa.”