A view of Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida on November 7, 2017. Photo: AFP / Abdo Hyder

Yemen’s port of Hodeida, a lifeline for a nation on the edge of famine, is once again in the crosshairs of an Arab coalition set on shifting the Red Sea balance of power against Iran.

The key port is controlled by Iran’s allies, the Houthi rebels, who seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa and huge swathes of the coast in 2015.

Coalition leader Saudi Arabia, which backs Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, views the rebel-held port as a problematic Iranian outpost — an entry point for cash and arms that are building up a new militia on its doorstep modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Hodeida is also the main entry point for food, fuel and goods in an import-dependent country where UNICEF says more than 2 million children are suffering acute malnutrition. A protracted battle for the port, already debilitated after the coalition bombed its gantry cranes in 2015, could spark a nationwide famine.

A previous coalition offensive aimed at seizing the port this summer stalled amid fierce resistance. Key coalition member the United Arab Emirates said it was pausing the operation to allow for UN-led peace efforts. In the wake of a Houthi no-show at talks in Geneva this month, the coalition is again pressing for a military takeover.

Iranian connection

Saudi Arabia and its allies launched their military intervention in Yemen in 2015 with the aim of rolling back the Houthi rebels and restoring the government to power.

The coalition’s air war, the largest cause of documented civilian casualties according to the UN, has received key backing from Western powers, namely the US, the UK, and France.

According to those Western allies, a UN Panel of Experts report released to the Security Council in February — but not made public — confirmed Saudi Arabia’s concerns.

“We took note of the Panel’s findings that the remnants of the ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia on July 22 and November 4 were of Iranian origin, noting in the report that: ‘[m]any of the internal design features, external characteristics and the dimensions of the ER-SRBM remnants inspected by the Panel are consistent with the Iranian designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile,’” the allies said in a joint statement.

That report remains embargoed.

Iran has consistently denied providing arms to the Houthis and to date no such missiles have been intercepted at sea or at UN inspection centers in regional ports.

“There is no smoking gun,” a Middle East-based analyst told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

“When the Iranians are sending weapons into Yemen, they’re not sending a giant missile, they’re sending parts that make a missile go further,” he said.

The UN began inspecting ships bound for Yemen’s rebel-held ports in February, a mechanism aimed at easing Saudi concerns of arms smuggling in the wake of a November 2017 ballistic missile strike that targeted Riyadh airport. The Saudis in turn eased a total blockade on Hodeida and Saleef ports, but the ballistic missiles targeting the kingdom have not stopped.

“You’re dealing with a group of people — the Revolutionary Guards, Quds force, Lebanese Hezbollah — who are experts at covert procurement and smuggling. You’re dealing with a UN-backed arms embargo that does not inspect vessels smaller than 100 tons of cargo and it’s very easy to break up important weapons systems into smaller components,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“How many anti-shipping missiles can you fit into a small container ship? Even if only one out of every 10 is docked with an anti-shipping missile in it, it’s a lot,” he said.

The Houthis, experts say, would not be able to sustain such attacks on their own.

“They have longer range systems that go much further than any Yemeni missiles could go […] There’s been over half a dozen inspected and welded back together. The UN has certified these are identical to Iranian Qaim-1 missile systems,” said Knights.

“I’ve personally touched these things and run my finger over the stenciling. They have quality assurance stickers from 2015. It’s just one of a dozen things you could say is either extremely sloppy Iranian security or they’re just showing off.”

Saudi Arabia’s biggest concern is that the Shiite rebels on their southern border will develop military capabilities on par with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“Hezbollah, 10, 12,15 years ago, they were a reasonably limited guerrilla warfare army that could defend Lebanon against any further Israeli advances. Then they had surface-to-surface missiles, drones, ready to strike Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That’s what the Saudis don’t want.” Knights said.

Hodeida is not the only alleged entry point for arms, which analysts say also enter through smuggling channels in Yemen’s government-held territory. But as the country’s largest port, it is a key outlet for the Houthis.

Sea change

Should the coalition seize Hodeida it would “minimize” arms smuggling and revenues to the Houthis, according to Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Qadhi.

“It is the last window for [the Houthis] to look out to the world,” said al-Qadhi, who is currently reporting from the outskirts of Hodeida for Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia.

“If they lose Hodeida, they’re far from the international interest, from Bab al-Mandeb,” he said, referring to the key Red Sea choke point and oil shipping lane.

Oil tankers must pass through the Bab al-Mandab strait just south of Hodeida on their way to the Suez Canal, and they have already faced attack from the Houthis on this route, causing oil prices to spike.

“If the Iranians increase their influence on the Houthis […] they don’t just have their finger on the windpipe at the Strait of Hormuz, then they control Bad al-Mandeb and thus the Suez Canal,” said Knights.

“It is not only Hodeida but the entire coastline the coalition is seeking to control. They have already retaken the Red Sea port of Mocha. Hodeida is the next major target, and then they will try to take Saleef [port],” he added.

Journalist Al-Qadhi says that if the Houthis lose the coast they will be pushed toward Yemen’s mountainous areas further east, “which are not friendly to them.”

Analyst Knights says the coalition might take that as a win.

“They don’t want Houthis with direct control of ports, or airports […] If they can landlock the Houthis, and push them back to mountains, that strikes me as the end of first phase [of the war] and maybe there is no second phase,” Knights said.

A military takeover of Hodeida would create a “big shift” in the war, said the second analyst. “It also risks pushing Yemen into famine.”

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