Children pose for a photo outside their family’s hut at a shantytown near the port of Hudaida [Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters]
The week-long offensive by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and allied Yemeni military forces on the port city of Hudaida has so far yielded little result, but the fighting against the Iranian-aligned Houthi militia group shows no sign of slowing down.
Dubbed Operation Golden Victory, it is the biggest battle by the Saudi-led forces in three years, which began pounding Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthi group took over the capital Sanaa and tried to exert their influence in other parts of the country.
According to Yemeni military sources, the death toll so far is up to 216 fighters, including 33 Houthis and 19 soldiers killed in Tuesday’s battle. No civilian casualties have yet been confirmed.
The fighting also risks escalating the dire humanitarian crisis in the country, where out of a population of 28 million people, eight million are at risk of starvation, and 22 million depend on aid.
Why are the Saudis and Emiratis attacking Hudaida?
Hudaida, the country’s fourth largest city, has been under the control of the Houthis since 2014 along with much of northern Yemen and ports along the country’s western coast. The city has two main strategic points: the sea port and its airport.
The port is responsible for delivering 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, mostly humanitarian aid, food and fuel. Yet the Saudis say that the Houthis, who generate $30 million to $40 million a month in revenue from the port, are using it to smuggle in weapons from Iran.
The Saudis and Emiratis want the port to be handed back to Yemen’s government, led by exiled leader Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, or to be placed under UN supervision.
According to Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the battle of Hudaida has been “a long time coming.”
Ultimately, the coalition views the Houthis control of Hudaida as unacceptable, whether in war or peace,” Baron told Al Jazeera.
“They don’t want them to have access to the port and this is a way of creating facts on the ground, so to speak – in addition to a means of taking the revenue generated by the port out of the Houthis’ hands.”
Further to the south, some 14 kilometres away, lies the airport, which has been the site of fighting in recent days.
On Tuesday, residents of the city said that Saudi-led troops have taken over the main runway and are now fighting for the control of passenger terminals as well as the flight control tower. According to a Yemeni military source, large parts of the airport were under their control and fierce fighting was continuing.
The UAE’s official news agency WAM confirmed the presence of its forces at the airport.
“With the participation and support of the Emirati armed forces, the joint Yemeni resistance (army) entered Hudaida airport,” WAM said in a post on Twitter.
Baron said that the battle, if successful, would also force the Houthis to the negotiating table.
“The coalition assesses that the loss of Hudaida would weaken the Houthis to the point that they’ll be more likely to engage in future talks in good faith,” he said.
What would happen if Operation Golden Victory is successful?
A day after the coalition offensive was launched, exiled President Hadi returned from Saudi Arabia to Aden, his government’s temporary capital since 2015, for the first time in over a year.
“Our imminent victory in Hudaida will be the … gateway to retrieving our kidnapped capital and exerting the influence of the government over every inch of the country,” he said.
Loss of the governorate’s port and airport would deliver a massive blow to the Houthis, who will see their supply lines cut and their coffers significantly reduced – thus limiting their war efforts.
Coalition control over the two strategic points would in turn reinforce their own vital supply lines, which would tip the balance of the so far deadlocked war in their favour – in what Baron explained would constitute a “major shift in momentum” that could amount to a spillover effect, especially if stabilisation efforts are successful.
“Capturing Hudaida would also mean gaining a new potential staging point for future efforts, likely leading to the Houthis complete loss of control of the coast of Hudaida,” he said.
What does the latest offensive spell out for Hudaida’s residents?
Several human rights organisations have warned of what Amnesty International called “the devastating impact for hundreds of thousands of civilians – not just in the city but throughout Yemen” that the offensive could wreak.
“With an estimated 600,000 people living in and around Hudaida, all sides to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to ensure that the civilian population is protected,” Amnesty said last week.
Racha Mouawieh, Amnesty’s Yemen researcher, told Al Jazeera that millions of lives are at risk.
“The closing of Hudaida port would prevent life-saving supplies from reaching civilians in desperate need,” she said.
“It would put millions of lives are at risk in what was already being described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Hudaida has been the scene for smaller battles on the ground and from the sky in recent months, as hostilities between pro-government forces and Houthi fighters played out.
An Amnesty researcher that visited civilians who had fled Hudaida to the city of Aden last May said that they had described facing mortar attacks, air strikes, landmines and other dangers.
“This is just a glimpse of what is to come as the fighting edges closer to residential areas,” Mouawieh said.
Battle for Hudaida could make Yemen’s humanitarian crisis worse
The United Nations said that since the beginning of June, 26,000 people or 5,200 families, have fled the fighting and sought safety within their own districts or other areas in Hudaida governorate.
The number is expected to rise, UN general-secretary spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“People are on the edge regarding the potential of urban warfare in the city itself,” Baron said. “While those with the means may aim to flee to avoid the fighting, many if not most of those left in Hudaida lack the finances to do so.”
Additionally, life under the Houthis control hasn’t been smooth sailing for the governorate’s residents either.
“Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty International has documented how Houthi and allied forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained critics, opponent, journalist and human rights defenders,” Mouawieh said.
“Aid workers have also reported how excessive and arbitrary bureaucratic procedures have led to restrictions on the movement of humanitarian staff and aid.”
“The Houthis heavy hand has seen internal oppression and crackdowns mix with the ongoing threat of coalition air strikes,” Baron agreed.
The surrounding countryside holds some of Yemen’s most impoverished areas which humanitarian organizations have warned about for years, he added.
What is next for Hudaida?
According to Mouawieh, all parties must respect the rules of war in order to ensure that the flow of essential goods will not be hindered.
“The UN Security Council must step up and impose targeted sanctions on the individuals responsible for these violations,” she said.
The UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths concluded a three day visit to Yemen by calling on the Houthis to hand over the Hudaida port either to President Hadi’s government or to the UN.
The Houthis refused. According to Hussein al-Bukhaiti, pro-Houthi journalist, the group were incensed that Griffiths did not hold Saudi Arabia accountable to the role it has played in the conflict.
As for the next step, Bukhaiti said that there must be a “compromise from all sides.”
“The ones suffering are the Yemeni people,” he told Al Jazeera.
“To solve what is happening in Yemen, the Houthis have to sit with the Saudis and other parties under the supervision of the UN.”