As Peace Talks Fail, a Tragic Battle for Yemen's Hodeidah Port Looms

Published September 11th, 2018 - 12:09 GMT
© AFP 2018 / NABIL HASSAN
© AFP 2018 / NABIL HASSAN

By Eleanor Beevor

The Yemen conflict is widely described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But a week ago, there were hopes that the fighting was going to give way to peace talks between the internationally recognised Yemeni government, the intervening Saudi and UAE-led coalition, and the Houthi rebels.

UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths had plans to assemble the parties in Geneva to begin paving the way for negotiations. But now, those hopes have been dealt a serious blow, because the Houthi delegation failed to attend the conference. Though this is not definitively the end of a peace process, the setback could have horrific consequences, since now there is nothing barring a full-scale battle for the port of Hodeidah.

The port has been under Houthi control since late 2014. And for much of the past two years, the battle lines between Houthi forces and troops loyal to the existing Yemeni government have been static. Thousands died, but no victory was in sight.

The Saudi-led coalition, intent on beating back the Houthi rebels, recognised the strategic importance of Hodeidah. It is through this port - the only large port in northern Yemen - through which Yemen receives over 70% of its international imports, including food aid, medicine, fuel and other goods. And Yemen’s arid climate means that 90% of the country’s food is imported. Damage to the port’s infrastructure would make an already terrifying famine exponentially worse.

 

But when the Gulf coalition announced in June 2018 that it was starting an operation to retake Hodeidah, the only possible silver lining was that it might speed up prospects for peace. If the Houthis lost the port, it was thought, then their hold over northern Yemen would be broken, and they might see their chances on the negotiating table as better than on the battlefield.

However, the horrific consequences for civilians that such a battle would entail re-energised a peace effort. UN Envoy Martin Griffiths announced talks in Geneva on September 6th, and international pressure meant that the Gulf coalition held off from a full-scale military offensive on the port.

However, the Geneva talks ran into trouble the moment they began, since the Houthi delegation did not turn up. There were early signs that this set of talks was not going to go very far. Victoria Sauer, a Non-Resident Researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies told Al Bawaba:

“The warring parties in Yemen seem to lack sufficient willingness to talk to each other and work towards peace. This was evident when both the Yemeni government and the Houthis chose mainly low-ranking officials to represent them in the Geneva consultations. The failure of these consultations, and the escalation of hostilities in Hudaydah, can thus be seen as further manifestations of this lack of commitment to the peace process.”

On the third and final day of the intended talks, Griffiths released a statement saying that he had nevertheless had constructive discussions with the Yemeni Government delegation. He emphasised that these were not “peace talks” yet, but rather were laying the groundwork for eventual negotiations. And he said that the government had considered several “confidence building” measures such as prisoner releases with which to lay the groundwork for talks with the Houthis.

He also said that the Houthi delegation would like to have come to the talks, but “…we didn't make conditions sufficiently correct to get them here”. Nevertheless, he said, he would be meeting the delegation in the next few days, and would continue to press for peace.

A displaced family that fled from violence in Hodeidah to Abs District (Norwegian Refugee Council)

It was later reported that the Houthis declined to attend because they did not get the guarantees they wanted for their delegation’s passage. They wanted to evacuate some of their wounded members to Oman or Europe in the process of travelling, and they wanted guarantees that they would not have to stop and have their plane inspected by the Gulf coalition in Djibouti. They also wanted a guarantee that they would be able to safely return to Sana’a.

 

The developments in Geneva have unsurprisingly cast doubt on the willingness for peace by all sides of the conflict. But Griffiths was right when he said that these kinds of jibes and setbacks are common in negotiations, and should not be seen as derailing influences in themselves. Will Picard, the Executive Director of the Yemen Peace Project, told Al Bawaba:

It appears that the Houthi delegation made certain unreasonable demands at the eleventh hour, which spoiled the arrangements to bring them to Geneva. This is hardly surprising, and was probably deliberate. However, I don't think we can draw conclusions about the Houthis' engagement with the peace process from this ill-conceived maneuver alone.

It's important to remember that the goal of the Geneva proceedings was never direct negotiations between the warring parties. Mr. Griffiths' goal has been to hold "consultations" with the Houthis and the government in order to establish a framework for negotiations, and he is proceeding with this effort in Muscat and Sana’a. The Houthis, the government, and the coalition have each disrupted the peace process several times since 2015, and will likely continue to provoke and probe each other. I think that's to be expected, even after a peace deal is signed.”

 

 

The good news is that those efforts to build confidence and to set out pre-conditions for peace talks will continue. But the bad news is that now there is little or nothing to hold back an offensive on Hodeidah. And for the people of Hodeidah, this is very bad news indeed. 400,000 people are trapped in Hodeidah.

Over 120,000 have left since the assault was announced in June, but many who did leave have since returned. Those who fled Hodeidah for Sana’a found the capital ruined, and the cost of living unbearably expensive. And so having nowhere else to go, they returned to their homes to try and survive the coming onslaught. 

Desparate people are fleeing Hodeidah with all the supplies that they can carry. Unfortunately, the supplies can rarely last people more than a few days or weeks. (Norwegian Refugee Council)

Now, a disparate collection of ground forces are fighting their way into Hodeidah, and are preparing attacks on the airport and on the Sana’a highway. And the Gulf coalition are beginning their strikes. 

Eighty four people have been killed since the talks dried up on Sunday, by both ground and air forces. And fears that the fighting will show no mercy to civilians are rising. Suze Van Meegen, a Protection and Advocacy Officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council who is based in Yemen told Al Bawaba: 

The situation in Hodeidah now feels more fragile than at any other point through the course of the war. In June, the coalition announced its intention to launch a military offensive on the city, allowing a small window for civilians to flee and humanitarian organisations to prepare a response. The situation in Hodeidah is now far less clear: positive rhetoric about the coalition’s commitment to a political process stands in stark contrast to the military campaign we see ramping up along Yemen’s west coast.

Civilians have reported strikes on two farms, a shop, a flour mill and a house in different parts of Hodeidah over the last couple of days alone. Heavy clashes continue south of Hodeidah city and have been pushing down through the north as well, where people report both that both airstrikes and naval artillery have been hitting residential areas. Meanwhile, landmines laid to prevent an advance on the city have killed at least six civilians in recent days and threaten to sustain the impact of the war far beyond any single offensive.”

The Houthis are going to be facing intense fighting on the ground, and from the air. So far, they have responded to the possibility of more fighting with defiance. "Our choice is steadfastness and resistance to aggression on all fronts," said their leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi after the Geneva talks ended.

It is extremely unlikely that the Houthis will be holding onto Hodeidah once the battle is finished. But whether there is anything left of the port to hold onto after the fight is a much more worrying question. And analysts are skeptical that the battle for the port city will lend the peace process any help. 

 

 

Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, a Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and an expert on Yemen at the University of Oxford told Al Bawaba:

Experience shows that military escalation in Yemen does not tend to increase the prospects for negotiation. The best hope still lies with the UN Envoy, possibly assisted by Oman, shuttling between the two main warring sides to convince them to suspend hostilities and suspicions long enough at least to allow consultations to begin in earnest.”

Meanwhile, it seems that the utter disregard for civilian life that has characterized this war is set to continue. The Houthis’ opponents will in all likelihood win the battle. But it will be a shameful and hollow victory for whoever wins the war.


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