Written by Shajahan Madampat
Three years after the Arab coalition militarily intervened in Yemen with the objective of restoring the legitimate government of the country overthrown by a sectarian militia, the conflict is still raging on. The latest and arguably the most decisive push for the restoration of some semblance of legitimate governance in Yemen is now made in and around the port city of Hodeida, where the Yemeni forces, supported by the Arab coalition, on June 13 began engaging in a pitched battle to oust the Iran-aligned Houthi militia. On July 1, the United Arab Emirates announced a halt to the operations to prepare the ground for the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffith’s efforts at a negotiated settlement. Since October 2014, the Houthis controlled the Hodeida port on the red sea coast, located less than 300 km away from the strategically significant maritime corridor of Bab Al Mandab and a key source of supplies to capital Sanaa.
The current military push for the capture of Hodeida is the most decisive moment in Yemen’s internecine conflict because the removal of the militia from the port will deprive them of their critical supply lines for weapons and other goods. The fall of Hodeida is expected to pave the way for an eventual political settlement and restoration of the internationally recognised government of the country.
There are many, including international humanitarian organisations, who question the wisdom of the military operations primarily because they fear the already fragile humanitarian situation in the country will further worsen, leading to a catastrophe. The concern is indeed valid and true, but only partially. The coalition’s counter to this concern – valid and credible by any yardstick – is as follows: Large parts of a sovereign country is under the rapacious control of an illegitimate force that is accountable neither to the citizenry nor to the international system. They have torn one of the world’s poorest countries asunder and scuttled all efforts – local, regional and international – at bringing peace ever since they launched their assault on the country’s government in September 2014.
There are strong justifications for the coalition’s actions in terms of international law and regional stability.
First, the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 unambiguously affirms the legality of the government of President Hadi, which formally invited the coalition to intervene militarily. It also calls on the Houthis to disarm, end the use of violence, withdraw their forces from all areas they seized, cease actions that are within the authority of the government and refrain from hostile actions against neighboring countries. The Houthis persisted in defiant violation of all these demands for the past three years with absolute impunity.
Second, the UN-led efforts at political settlement remain stalemated even after three years of tireless shuttle diplomacy.
Three, the humanitarian conditions in Houthi-controlled areas remain extremely volatile, whereas the areas freed of Houthi control have witnessed palpable improvement in living standards and civic infrastructure.
Four, Houthi ballistic missiles continue to fly in the direction of Saudi Arabia in utter disregard of international law. This ought to be a matter of concern in India, which has a large number of its nationals living in parts of the kingdom that are in the range of Houthi missiles.
Finally, given three years of failed efforts to resolve the deadlock, the only option available to the Yemeni government and the coalition is to go for the jugular: the Hodeida port without which the militia cannot sustain its depredations. The coalition has repeatedly stressed that their foremost priority is to achieve their objectives without causing any harm to civilian life and infrastructure. Moreover, they have also put in place an elaborate mechanism to ensure speedy and sufficient delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Hodeida. The coalition has kept their promise of avoiding civilian casualties and delivering aid to the maximum extent possible within a war zone during the past three weeks, despite these precautions having the potential to prolong the military operations. The coalition has also made it clear that the military option aims only to pressure the Houthis to come to the negotiating table and agree for a political settlement.
The mindless violence unleashed on millions of Yemenis and the horrendous humanitarian cost it has incurred would have been brought to an end long ago, but for the support the Houthis have received from Iran, whose sectarian agenda is an undeniable part of the mess that the Middle East today is. Hodeida’s port has been the main gateway through which Iranian heavy weapons and other supplies have flowed into the hands of the Houthis. The Houthis have also used their position to hold aid shipments hostage, allegedly diverting them either to the benefit of their own fighters or to the black market.
There are other serious consequences for the world, including India, if parts of the West Coast of Yemen continue to be under the control of a non-state force. The threat of piracy is one. The continuing threat to energy supplies to the world markets, including Asian markets, through Baab al Mandab and the possibility of rising oil prices must concern India seriously. The freedom of merchant and passenger navigation through Yemen’s Red Sea coast is critical to India’s national and energy security.
There is still a faint hope that the UN Special Envoy, who returned on Wednesday from Aden, will effect a breakthrough to the crisis. Should that fail to materialise, a military victory for the Arab coalition and the Yemeni forces in Hodeida is the only way to force the militias into a dialogical mode and an eventual political settlement agreeable to all.