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In Yemen It Is A Battle For Hodeidah

In Yemen It Is A Battle For Hodeidah

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More than 10,000 Yemenis, mostly civilians, have been killed in the war and more than three million others displaced, according to UN reports. Moreover, the conflict has left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population in need of humanitarian aid. At least eight million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and one million are infected with cholera. 17.8 million People are food insecure and 8.4 million people do not know how they will obtain their next meal. This describes Yemen of present times.

Sumera B Reshi

Today Yemen is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe and a casserole of local and foreign interests.  Since 2014, Yemen has been devastated beyond imagination rather what political pundits call it a ‘forgotten war’. Yemen has been engaged in an internal fighting since the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, who helped overthrow internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, seized most of the Yemeni Northern provinces in September 2014 including the capital Sanaa.

Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries and has the potential to burst beyond the nation’s borders and further destabilize an already troubled region. It also allows the likes of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to thrive. Yemen is not an uprising against corrupt and despotic ruler nor is the conflict a friction between the government and the rebels. Yemen is what experts believe in many ways a regional equivalent of the ‘Cold War’, which pitted the US against the Soviet Union in a tense military standoff for many years. Nonetheless, this time the fighters aren’t the US and erstwhile USSR, rather Iran and Saudi Arabia which are deviously fighting a variety of ‘proxy wars’ around the region.

The conflict in Syria is apparent while in Yemen Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supplying ballistic missiles fired at Saudi territory by the Shia Houthi rebel movement – an incident which heightened the war of words between the two countries. Given the situations in Yemen, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been launching airstrikes against Houthis in support of Hadi since March 2015.

More than 10,000 Yemenis, mostly civilians, have been killed in the war and more than three million others displaced, according to UN reports. Moreover, the conflict has left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population in need of humanitarian aid. At least eight million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and one million are infected with cholera. 17.8 million People are food insecure and 8.4 million people do not know how they will obtain their next meal. This describes Yemen of present times.

There are experts who strongly believe that two religious thoughts dominate the map of the Middle East. These two religious thoughts are Sunni and Shiite. Sunni block look towards Saudi Arabia for the guidance and Shiites support Iran. Saudi Arabia which is the birthplace of Islam sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world while as Iran is trying hard to replace Saudi Arabia and declare itself the de facto leader of the Muslim by gaining control of the entire Middle East. Despite Saudi’s influence, its hegemony was challenged in 1979 by the Islamic revolution in Iran which created a new type of state in the region – a kind of theocracy – that experts believe had an explicit goal of exporting this model beyond its own borders.

Therefore, Yemen conflict is not only meant to maintain the regional dominance rather there is something beyond Sunni – Shiite divide. The conflict is to control Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah as it has a strategic importance and is Yemen’s main gateway for humanitarian aid, a militant gateway where Houthis smuggle in weapons, as well as a major passage to the capital of Sanaa. The port is also considered the major gateway to the Yemeni strategic islands on the red sea – excluding Socotra – like the Hanish Islands, among which Jabal Zuqar is the largest.

This port is considered the second biggest in the country after Aden port, which is under the control of the legitimate government and where most of the humanitarian aid and imports like food and oil come through it. As per analysts, the control over its port also means the control over economic incomes from customs and tariffs on exported and imported goods.  Further, the Hodeidah city is also considered a hub for business and industrial activities with a population of 2.3 million people, the second most populated city after Taiz. It is imperative to mention that Yemen lies beside the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers, which pass near Yemen’s shores while heading from the Middle East through the Suez Canal to Europe.

Hodeidah is the only major port controlled by the Houthis and has long been a conduit for illicit arms transfers from the Iranians. It also provides the Houthis with as much as $40 million worth of revenue each month in order to perpetuate its fight against the Western- and Arab-backed government. It is also the channel for as much as three-quarters of the humanitarian aid that millions of Yemenis rely on.

Moreover, the Houthi takeover in Yemen proves that Iran is implementing a bold strategy to control the vital sea lane from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. At least 3.8 million barrels of oil /day pass through the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the southern gate of the Red Sea. Also, this channel is the closest point between the two landmasses of central Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and its northeast edge is in Yemeni territory.

Analysts claim that the strategic importance of controlling this passage is equal to controlling the Suez Canal since both are part of the same thoroughfare.  Approximately 10 per cent of global seaborne oil supplies passes through the gates of the Red Sea. Roughly 20,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb each year—an average of 55 per day. About 15 per cent of global maritime trade travels through the Red Sea. Undoubtedly Yemen conflict has developed into another of the Middle East’s brutal proxy wars, with most Western governments backing the Saudi coalition, and Iran backing and supplying the Houthis.

Iran’s Red Sea Strategy

The Houthis’ annexation of Yemen was not just a grassroots revolution the Middle East experts assert. It was a part of a deliberate and calculated Iranian strategy to conquer the Red Sea. If Iran maintains control Yemen, it can close or open the plug on Middle East oil bound for Europe. The Red Sea came into limelight in the 1930s, when oil began to flow from the Persian Gulf to Europe and the US. Since then, oil became a paramount commodity driving economic growth and military preparedness around the world. Thus, ensuring stability in the Red Sea and its two gates – Suez Canal and the Bab el Mandeb Strait – become critical to global trade and economic activity – and for maintaining the peace of the world.

“One of the primary duties of the international community is to act as an alert guardian to ensure that the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is available to all navigation and at all times”, Yemeni Col. Hussain al Yadoomi wrote for the USA War College in 1991.

Michael Segall wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on 4 Nov, 2014, “If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region, giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean. Arab commentators in the Gulf have warned in recent years about this Iranian push.”

Despite all this, the US is apparently allowing Iran free course in an effort to win it over in nuclear negotiations. Many commentators recognize what this takeover in Yemen reveals about Iran’s overarching strategy in the Middle East.

In an interview with Fox News, Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said, “Now, it’s true that the Houthis are against al Qaeda, but the real issue is that the Houthis are a client of, supported by, and in some ways advised by Iran. And as you saw on the map, the Saudis are looking at the Iranians in the north, the Iranian allies—which is essentially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on one side and Yemen now—to the south and west under Iranian dominance, and they are scared to death. That’s why this is a double attack on us. It’s the loss of an ally against al Qaeda, and it’s a huge geopolitical gain for Iran, extending its influence over Arab states.”

It seems that the Iranian-backed Houthis will eventually lose control of the port, it is important to ponder over two things. Firstly, Iran will not easily give up its southern Red Sea strategy. Iran is committed to being a powerful player in the southern Red Sea. Its support for the Houthis in western Yemen is not just to be a thorn in the side of the Saudis, as many analysts believe. Rather, it has become the gatekeeper of the southern entry point to the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, and it wants to remain so.

Yemen conflict

Additionally, Iran wants control of this strategic gateway, be it through the Houthis in Yemen or by dominating nations on the other side of the strait. Thus, Iran will become more heavily involved in Eritrea and Ethiopia and in case Houthis lose control of the port, Iran may see the need to guarantee its position in the southern Red Sea by increasing its influence along the coastline on the other side of the Bab el-Mandeb—Eritrea and, by extension, Ethiopia.

As per Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield “any thought among the Saudi-Emirati coalition that it can quickly take the port and successfully end the war is wrong-headed.”

Before the current crisis in Yemen, the country was already on the chaotic path. Yemen is 90 per cent dependent on imports for its food and it’s already running out of water in critical cities.

Besides religious supremacy and regional power wrestle, the conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011.

There are, however, external forces at play. Saudi Arabia has been emboldened by support from the Trump administration while Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal threat, is in a sense ‘backing’ the Saudi effort to contain Iran,  uprisings across the Arab world caused political instability throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, further heightening mutual suspicions.

Critic’s claims that Iran’s intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region, and achieve control of a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. The strategic rivalry is heating up because Iran is in many ways winning the regional struggle.

In Syria, Iranian with support from Russia for President Bashar al-Assad has largely channel rebel group groups backed by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence and the militaristic adventurism of the kingdom’s young and impulsive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the country’s de facto ruler – is exacerbating regional tensions. Thus, Yemen is a playground where dominant regional players are flaunting their muscle to power control of the strategic port city. None is fighting to rescue Yemen of chaos rather this is a great game plan to demonstrate the power balance.

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