The Saudi-led coalition confirmed the capture of the Hodeidah airport in southeastern Yemen on June 20. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have held the strategic port city since the beginning of the war in 2015 and have since been using the non-operational airport as a military base.
The Saudi alliance now has its sights set on the city’s port, which is the main lifeline to the country. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now promising to launch a quick offensive to seize the city’s main seaport in order to avoid civilian targets and minimize casualties. However, Saudi Arabia and its allies have not prioritized human rights in the past and are unlikely to do so in this offensive either. Riyadh’s frustration with the war may grow since its objective of minimizing Iranian influence in Yemen has been unsuccessful and, if anything, has increased it.
Coalition forces began their offensive to recapture the city on June 13 and entered the airport compound a few days later on June 19. During that time, they allegedly conducted over 40 airstrikes on the airport, according Houthi media outlets. The Houthis, however, continue to deny that the Sunni alliance has complete control of the airport. Hodeidah is home the country’s main seaport through which passes three-quarters of the country’s aid and food shipments.
Humanitarian organizations have cautioned that some 8.4 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine and 22 million are dependent on humanitarian aid. Thus, blocking the flow of goods from the port would be catastrophic for the population. The U.N. has already called the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Thousands of residents from Hodeidah are fleeing their homes and heading south to escape fallout from the looming attack.
The Norwegian Refugee Council added that the hostilities have already affected local water supplies. A resident tole Reuters in an interview, “Water has been cut off to many of the areas near the Corniche area because the Houthis have dug trenches and closed water pipes.” Aid organizations also fear a cholera epidemic if the water supply is further contaminated. The outbreak of cholera in the region began in October 2016 and has continued to spread at unprecedented levels according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Sunni Arab coalition now has its sights set on capturing the port of Hodeidah. It has long accused Iran of smuggling weapons to the Houthis through the port, though both the Houthis and Iran reject the accusation. The coalition believes that taking control the port will stem the military and logistical supplies to the rebels and ultimately force them to surrender. While the coalition has promised to make its offensive quick and avoid civilian targets as much as possible, the coalition to date does not have a good track record of protecting humanitarian targets. Coalition forces have bombed schools, hospitals, homes and weddings and funerals. For example, in April, a coalition airstrike struck a wedding party in the north of the country, killing 20 people. Only the week before, another 20 civilians were killed by an airstrike on a commuter bus in western Yemen. According to the Yemen Data Project, around one third of the coalition’s airstrikes have hit non-military targets, killing more than 10,000 Yemenis over the last three years and displacing another three million people.
In response to international accusations of war crimes, Saudi officials have blamed the Houthis for hiding amidst the civilian population and using civilians as human shields. Riyadh has also pointed out that it is the largest donor of humanitarian aid in Yemen. Indeed, in April, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pledged $2 billion in aid to Yemen during a U.N. conference in Geneva. It seems somewhat ironic, however, that the coalition views its aid to Yemen as solace for the attacks that it has perpetrated.
The trouble began in 2012 when Arab uprising protests forced the resignation of longstanding Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was allied with the Shiite Houthis. His successor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, severed ties with the Houthis and isolated the group when he came to power. The Houthis eventually forced his resignation in January 2015 following popular protests over dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions in the country. The Houthis, along with Saleh’s supporters, subsequently captured the presidential palace and placed a Revolutionary Committee in power. Hadi later fled to Saudi Arabia shortly before Riyadh intervened in the war in late March to back the Hadi regime.
At its roots, the conflict is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh intervened on behalf of the Sunni Hadi regime in an effort to stem Iran’s influence in the region. It has long viewed Iran and the spread of Shi’ism as a major threat to both Saudi Arabia and stability in the region. Furthermore, it perceives a number of its neighbors to be threatened by Iranian Shi’ism, including Lebanon, Iraq and now Yemen. The irony is that, in its efforts to minimize Iran’s influence, Saudi Arabia has actually had the opposite effect. Iran provided minimal support to the Houthis prior the war, but its influence has grown drastically throughout it.