From the ground, Yemen’s Red Sea coast often seems unexceptional. Few signs of life mark the desert landscape: outside the modest ports of Makha and Khawkha, sparse shrubbery and the simple thatch and concrete huts of poor fishermen and farmers dot the coastal road. However, the veil of placid normalcy that has settled on much of the area is deceiving. This strip of land has become one of the most contested on the planet and – owing to its strategic importance – may host the decisive battle of the Yemen war.
Until recently, it seemed that the conflict had entered a relative stalemate. In March 2015, when a Saudi-led military coalition launched its campaign to oust the Houthis – a Zaidi Shia-led rebel group that took control of Sanaa in September the previous year – and install the internationally recognised Yemeni government, many observers expected the war to be over in a matter of weeks. But after ousting the Houthis from the key cities of Marib and Aden in the first year of fighting, the coalition’s campaign slowed significantly, only making gains in rural areas. In the past year – particularly since the start of summer – the coalition has made major advances on the Red Sea coast. The campaign has been stop and start. Due to a mixture of challenging battlefield dynamics and international pressure, coalition forces have been forced to periodically suspend their operations to facilitate international diplomatic efforts. In the past week, the coalition achieved one of its key goals: breaching the perimeter of the port of Hudayda.
Hudayda is the primary gateway for humanitarian aid entering Yemen, the most important port city still under Houthi control, and one of the biggest prizes in the war
The forces involved in the battle for the city are diverse. The Emirati army contributes the bulk of coalition troops, closely coordinating its operations with Riyadh and benefiting from the support of Sudanese soldiers. In the past year, the coalition has built a series of military installations on the coast to assist with not just the fight for Hudayda but also stabilisation, demining, and humanitarian aid programmes. The coalition has served as a focal point for the array of forces – ranging from local tribesmen and Salafist fighters to military units under the command of former Houthi ally Tareq Saleh – that aim to remove the Houthis from the city.
Hudayda is the primary gateway for humanitarian aid entering Yemen, the most important port city still under Houthi control, and – as a consequence – one of the biggest prizes in the war. Home to roughly 600,000 increasingly impoverished and shell-shocked civilians, Hudayda is also the site of an incipient humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian organisations and Western diplomats who see the city as Yemen’s lifeline have long feared that a major battle there would disrupt the flow of aid to the entire country.
According to some Western diplomats, calls for a ceasefire from US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo precipitated the recent surge in fighting. This outbreak of violence has complicated UN-led diplomacy on Yemen, as seen in the postponement of peace talks in Stockholm initially scheduled for late November. Nonetheless, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent shuttle diplomacy may well have led to a breakthrough, while some diplomats still say that new peace talks will commence before the end of the year. Although the coalition’s supporters contend that forcing the Houthis out of Hudayda could prompt them to engage in peace talks, it remains unclear whether this is true. For their part, the Houthis have maintained a hard line, arguing that the recent escalation in fighting has destroyed their faith in the peace process.
Coalition-backed Yemeni fighters have come close to encircling the city, taking up positions to the southwest and casting their takeover of the city as inevitable. This is not to suggest that such a battle would be fast or even inevitable – contacts familiar with coalition thinking have cast recent moves as more about shoring up positions than taking over the city proper. Regardless, the Houthis have dug in, laying huge numbers of landmines as they withdraw to slow their adversaries.
As the fighting intensifies, it is crucial that the international community does everything it can to protect Yemeni civilians. To this end, Europe and its international partners should push to protect civilians and keep Hudayda port open, while condemning combatants’ violations of international humanitarian law. European countries’ efforts to protect Hudayda from further fighting are commendable and should continue. Nonetheless, they should plan for a possibility of an extended battle in the city – as well as stabilisation efforts that could follow a potential Houthi withdrawal or retreat – even while pushing for de-escalation across Hudayda governorate.
A desire to return to the political path is understandable. But, as the breakdown of peace talks in Geneva in recent months demonstrated, the run-up to the process is almost as important as the discussions themselves. As rising violence prompts the Houthis and their opponents to adopt increasingly harsh rhetoric, the international community’s hard work in establishing back-channels and confidence-building measures between the sides grows all the more important.
In light of the United States’ recent alignment with Europe’s long-standing position on the conflict, there is now an opportunity for initial steps on the long path to peace. However, without the buy-in of fighters on the ground, there is little hope for ending the war.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.