The Battle for al-Hudaydah Captures Yemen’s Imploding Tragedy

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The conflict in question is where all the buttons are bunched up. Image from

(Note: using transliteration used in the Times and elsewhere, though not really for any good reason)

Yesterday, after weeks of frantic negotiations and an increasing sense of dread, the coalition of the exiled San’a government and the remnants of the GCC launched an assault on the Houthi-led port city of al-Hudaydah, a city of 600,000 caught in the vise of the world’s most catastrophic human rights tragedy.

There is little doubt that this will be a brutal slog. The coalition is led ostensibly by Tariq Saleh, nephew of the late ex-President and an erstwhile ally of the Houthis (as in: until December). That he is now leading a city-ruining assault against those with which he so recently broke bread is not surprising. It fits in the long history of Yemeni politics and war in the immediate context of this conflict, which started when the Houthis tried to overthrow his uncle.

Of course, few really think that Tariq is calling all the shots. While he has led several thousand of his fighters up the coast, it is the UAE that demanded the Houthi’s leave the city, an ultimatum which went whooshing by at midnight, followed by the sounds of heavy guns and bombing runs.

So why is this city so important? Al-Jazeera captures the contradictions.

The Hudaida port is crucial for the flow of food supplies into a country that is on the brink of famine.

But Riyadh and Abu Dhabi maintain that the port is being used to smuggle weapons.

Both can be true, and almost certainly are (certainly the first one is, and few doubt the latter). And that’s really the problem. The battle for the city could wreck even the meagerest supplies that are preventing famine, but famine and disease are hardly being prevented whatsoever already.  Hudaydah is the primary port in the north; under the Houthis it remains one of Yemen’s poorest and most hungry provinces.

Expelling the Houthis will be a catastrophe, but their occupation of the province (and most of Yemen) has been catastrophic. While we focus on the US involvement and our complicity in Saudi and Emirati war crimes, we ignore that the Houthis are brutal and vicious, running and increasing gangster/theocrat rule, with lawless violence being a hallmark.

Indeed, reports from trusted reporters seem to show that there is ambiguity in Hudaydah about the coming conflict.

This negotiated plan is what had been offered in the past, but the Houthis declined. At this point, there seem to be few good options for success. Writing in the NYTimes, Gregory Johnsen says that right now, the only real option is a half-measure de-escalation.

Mr. Griffiths (UN Special Envoy) has put together a framework for peace negotiations, which was leaked to the press last week. A key component of that framework is disarmament, which would require the Houthis to surrender all their weapons, including ballistic missiles and artillery, except for light arms. But in an environment of such profound distrust, where weapons are equated with power, no one side will voluntarily surrender them.

Instead, Mr. Griffiths should push for transitional arms control. Unlike disarmament, which is an all-or-nothing affair, transitional arms control is gradual and allows for the slow building of trust by getting the warring parties to step back from the brink while maintaining control of their weapons should they feel threatened.

In exchange for getting Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to stop airstrikes, the Houthis would commit to placing their weapons under lock and key. Under such a scenario, the Saudis and Emiratis would still have access to their planes and the Houthis would keep the keys to their weapons depot.

That’s pretty much where we’re at. A hated occupier is being slowly forced out in a humanitarian nightmare by the parties that are absolutely complicit in the broader humanitarian nightmare, led by a former ally of the first group. The only chance to get people to stop killing each other is to convince them they will still be able to kill each other at a moment’s notice if things don’t work out.

I say the Houthis are an occupier because they are: the soldiers they use are from northern cities with no connection real connection to Hudaydah, and in the context of Yemeni politics, that makes it an occupation. It doesn’t matter that they control San’a. They are not “foreign”, but certainly don’t belong. They came out of their province and ran roughshod over the local population, the same way that Saleh did to both Sadah and Southern Yemen.

This is Yemen at the moment. A swirl of shifting, uncertain allegiances, a whole swath of the country controlled by an increasingly blood-thirsty and malevolent/incompetent occupying army, and being fought by a coalition that has zero concern for the local population, and is essentially their own occupying force.

The battle is just starting. The war is grinding on with no end in site. The humanitarian crisis is already unimaginable and will get worse. And the question of what Yemen is, or what it should be, or what the sides are actually fighting for, will continue to be murky and unanswered even as the smoke wafts away from ruined cities and the dead are wailingly buried in the ground.