European Pressphoto Agency
Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led military coalition began an assault on the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah early Wednesday. The battle is part of a broader face-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels there, and could be a turning point in Yemen’s more than three-year-old war. Aid groups have warned that it could disrupt shipping and result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Why is Hodeidah important?
The city boasts the largest port on Yemen’s western coast, and is the only major port controlled by the Houthi rebels. Since the rebels overtook the capital, San’a, in 2014 and expanded their territorial control, it has been an economic lifeline for them. It is also the main gateway for humanitarian aid and commercial shipments into Yemen, handling around three-quarters of that traffic. That is a big deal in a country that imports some 80% of its food, and the United Nations has warned that the battle could have dire consequences for civilians.
Why is it an important objective for the American-backed military coalition?
The coalition of mostly Arab states, which Saudi Arabia leads, reasons that the Houthis won’t engage in serious political talks to end the war until they’re on the back foot. The coalition countries wager that taking away Hodeidah will accomplish that. Ultimately, they want the Houthis removed from power and replaced by the Saudi-backed government that was in power before the war.
What’s at stake for the Houthis?
Losing Hodeidah would leave the Houthis more economically and military isolated than ever. They currently control San’a, most of northern Yemen, and swaths of the Yemeni interior stretching southward from the capital. The rebels have sent thousands of fighters to defend the port as the offensive neared, underlining how eager they are to keep it. It isn’t clear, however, that the Houthis will immediately give in to political talks if they lose the port: they would still hold far more Yemeni territory—and far more political power—than they did before the war.
How is Iran involved?
Saudi Arabia and Iran are vying for power and influence across the Middle East, in a rivalry with racial and sectarian overtones. Saudi Arabia and its allies are Arab and majority-Sunni Muslim, while Iran is majority-Persian and Shiite Muslim. Iran backs the Houthis, who are adherents of a branch of Shiite Islam. A panel of United Nations experts found this year that some of the ballistic missiles the Houthis have fired at Saudi Arabia originated in Iran. Stopping the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthis through Hodeidah is one of the Saudi-led coalition’s objectives in the battle for the port. Iran denies arming the Houthis.
What is the U.S. role?
The Trump administration sees the war in Yemen as a chance to push back on Iran’s influence across the Middle East. But the U.S. has restricted its support because of concerns about the high number of civilian casualties.
The U.S. military provides the Saudi-led coalition with in-flight refueling, as well as intelligence to help select airstrike targets and avoid civilian damage. In the Hodeidah operation, the U.S. is helping put together a list of targets off-limits for strikes. Perhaps most significantly, the coalition is using American-made precision missiles in the campaign, although these sales have come under increased scrutiny in Congress in recent months because of the large number of civilian deaths they have caused.