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News Analysis: Battle over key Yemen port crucial, yet tragic

Xinhua, April 27, 2017 Adjust font size:

The warring parties in Yemen are gearing up for a looming battle over the western city and port of Hodeida amidst growing fears any military escalation there will lead to catastrophic consequences.

The government and the Saudi-led coalition are pushing for this battle for several goals, the first of which is to prevent the Houthi-Saleh alliance from using the Hodeida port to smuggle weapons primarily from Iran.

The government and the coalition are also accusing the Houthi-Saleh alliance of using the port to threaten international navigation with direct attacks on ships and naval mines as well as seizing aid delivered through this port for civilians affected by the war. Lately, the Houthis attacked a Saudi frigate off Yemen with a boat which the coalition said had sailed from Hodeida.

Yaseen Al-Tamimi, a political writer and analyst, said Hodeida has a geopolitical significance and seizing it will affect the power of the Houthi-Saleh alliance and force it to make concessions for the sake of the peace process.

"In addition, the government and its backers are seeking to suffocate the alliance through taking its remaining lifeline of income, the Hodeida port," Al-Tamimi said.

Besides taking over all seaports and regions of natural resources, the Yemeni government with international and regional support has taken several steps including the relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa into Aden in an effort to cut all sources of income of the alliance.

Another goal of the government and the coalition for the Hodeida battle is to restrict the Houthi-Saleh influence to their region that was supposed to be established in accordance with the outcomes of the 2013 national dialogue conference, observers said.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance rejected the outcomes of the dialogue conference and seized power and the capital Sanaa in September 2014, triggering a civil war and later in early 2015 the Saudi-led military intervention.

Nabil Albukiri, a researcher in international strategies and political writer, said: "the government and the coalition are seeking to surround the Houthi-Saleh alliance from all directions to limit its influence to a region where it does not have a large public support for its political project."

"In the end that could trigger a popular uprising against the alliance in its region amid the ongoing war and blockade on the country," Albukiri added. "In other words, the fall of Hodeida will represent a huge military, political and economic loss to the Houthi-Saleh alliance."

In recent weeks, the government forces with direct support from the Saudi-led coalition intensified the battles against the Houthi-Saleh forces in the adjacent province of Taiz as a prelude for the Hodeida battle.

Taiz and Hodeida lie on the Red Sea, the first overlooks the strategic Bab El-Mandab Strait, one of the world's busiest waterways. They are the most densely populated cities in the country, with more than 2 million people living in Hodeida at the moment.

Observers argued that military escalation in Hodeida will not only deepen the dire humanitarian crisis but also will result in so many deaths of civilians as international organizations accuse all warring parties of indiscriminate attacks and flagrant violation of international laws.

Hassan Al-Warith, a political writer, said Hodeida has the last seaport run by the Houthi-Saleh alliance and that is why the alliance is mobilizing tribes and forces to defend it by all means.

"If war escalates in Hodeida, tens of thousands of civilians are expected to die. The battle will be very fierce and I don't think it would be won by any side," Al-Writh said.

"Two years of war have passed and it is still raging. No obvious military victory has been achieved by any side. We should admit this fact. I don't know what makes them believe the war in Hodeida will be different from a war of attrition and chaos they have been busy with in several regions for two years," he added.

The UN has urged the parties to the conflict to keep the Hodeida port functioning as it is a major lifeline for imports while warning military escalation in Hodeida will deepen the already dire humanitarian crisis in the country.

Yemen has the world's largest humanitarian crisis since 1945 with two thirds of the population, around 19 million, in need of humanitarian and protection assistance, the UN said. Hodeida has the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in Yemen.

"If the fighting worsens and cuts the lifeline through the port of Hodeida, the survival of millions of civilians is at risk," said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), in a press release.

Some observers expected that the United States will increase its support to the Saudi-led coalition during the Hodeida battle.

Adil Al-Shuja'a, a politics professor at Sanaa University, argued that the United States is committed to supporting the coalition in its Yemen war. "I expect direct U.S. engagement in the battle under Trump whose administration wants to send a clear message to Iran," Al-Shuja'a said.

"Moreover, U.S. projects in the region depends largely on funds from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, mostly from Saudi Arabia, a matter which increases the possibility of direct US engagement of the war in Yemen in the future," he added.

Abaad Studies and research Center, however, expected the United States will not be directly involved in the war in Yemen at a time when it is busy with local disagreements.

The United States has expressed concern over threats by Iran-backed militias to international navigation and its interests in the Red Sea. Enditem