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Coalition's failure to secure Mocha coastline indicates limits of planned offensive on Yemen's Hodeidah

Published: 4/14/2017

Pro-government forces backed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have been concentrating north and south of Hodeidah province in anticipation of a planned two-pronged ground offensive on the Houthi-held Red Sea port, the second phase of Operation Golden Spear, which started on 6 January.



IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • Houthi resistance in Mocha district is preventing coalition-backed local forces from exploiting their military gains along the southern Red Sea coastline.
  • Capturing the major port city of Hodeidah will be a challenging task. A Hodeidah offensive will cause substantial civilian casualties, severe and widespread damage to property and infrastructure, and exacerbate the already severe risk of famine across north Yemen.
  • Without US combat support, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are unlikely to commit sufficient ground combat forces to reinforce fragmented local forces in a successful offensive on Hodeidah. Consequently, Operation Golden Spear is likely to prove a slow and indecisive operation, unlikely to alter the balance of the conflict.

Risks

Civil war

Sectors or assets

Defence and security forces; Property; Aviation; Marine

On 5 April, Yemeni media reported that pro-government forces had started to concentrate two recently United Arab Emirates-trained armoured brigades in Midi near the border with Saudi Arabia, about 140 km north of Hodeidah, and in Al-Khoukha district, approximately 150 km south of the port city. If true, these forces will have to advance through extensive areas still controlled by Houthi-aligned insurgent forces on the northern and southern approaches to Hodeidah before attempting to capture it. On 5 April, a senior official in the Hadi government stated that the military was ready to launch the offensive on the port town, but was waiting for the command to attack.

Children gather to receive food at a helping center in Sanaa on 13 April 2017.

PA: 30918607

An advance on Hodeidah would mark the second phase of Operation Golden Spear, which started on 6 January from the coastal Dhubab district, about 20 km south of Mocha port. Golden Spear's stated objective was to capture Mocha port, secure Yemen's southern coastline, destroy all insurgent military positions there, and ultimately take control of the major port city of Hodeidah and cut off Houthi-aligned forces' access to the Red Sea. The coalition-backed military build-up in Midi will support the new 'northern front' opened by the Saudi-led coalition in late February in Hajjah province, which, with the exception of Midi port, is still under the full control of the Houthis and military forces allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Coalition-backed advances here have been particularly slow and heavily contested; some progress was reported on 6 April, when the Yemeni army's Second Brigade claimed the capture of Midi hospital and an occupied government office in the city's northern outskirts.

The brigade deployed in Al-Khoukha, trained by UAE military advisers in the coalition military base of Assab, Eritrea, and which has been given the honorific title "Sons of Mocha", will join Yemeni loyalist forces attempting to secure the Mocha coastline and push northward towards Hodeidah. Coalition-backed forces announced the expulsion of Houthi- aligned forces from Mocha city on 10 February; they have since encountered heavy resistance in the city's eastern outskirts. Despite sustained support from coalition airstrikes and fire support from warships offshore, Houthis' heavy use of landmines, mortar fire, and strong resistance have prevented pro-government forces from making substantial headway. The current frontline is around Hasy Salim, approximately 120 km south of Hodeidah and around 30 km north of Mocha.

Implications of Hodeidah offensive

Ahead of the announcement of Operation Golden Spear,the need to secure Yemen's Red Sea coastline had become all the more urgent in response to recurring attacks against coalition and US warships off Yemen's southern Red Sea coastline by Houthi-aligned forces since late 2016 (see Yemen: 3 October 16: Missile attack on UAE vessel off Yemen indicates rebel capability to target shipping transiting Bab al-Mandeb and Yemen 21 February 2017: Use of unmanned craft by Houthi insurgents indicates increased risk to Coalition warships and shipping off Yemen). Moreover, the Sanaa rebel government benefits from revenues from customs on imported goods and value-added tax on commodities sold in markets under its control; its finances have already come under severe financial strain since the relocation of the Yemeni central bank to Aden in March. However, capturing Hodeidah's port would be unlikely to damage revenue sources benefiting individual military commanders/militia leaders loyal to Saleh and the Houthis and other non-state actors, including jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These include robbery, hijacking, extortion, and illegal taxation affecting cargo passing through militia checkpoints, residents, and traders, together with illegal trade in weapons, drugs, pharmaceuticals, and other goods in short supply because of ongoing conflict.

Hodeidah is also home to Yemen's most active port facilities and is currently the entry point for more than 70% of the country's current food, fuel, and humanitarian aid imports. Sustained disruption to Hodeidah port due to ground fighting would exacerbate the already severe risk of famine in Hodeidah, Taiz, Lahij, Al-Bayda, and Mahweet provinces, and increase it sharply in their immediate surroundings. Moreover, Houthi- aligned forces have already reinforced their defensive positions south and north of Hodeidah, in anticipation of the much-heralded coalition push towards the city. The slow pace of Golden Spear and the stalemate in ground operations near Mocha illustrate the challenges associated with the Saudi-led coalition's reliance on fragmented and highly diverse local forces, only nominally loyal to President Hadi and the coalition. The frontlines in Taiz, Al-Dali and Al-Bayda in the south, Usaylan, Sirwah and Al-Hazm in the east, and Midi in the north have been static since early 2016. This has contributed to repeated calls by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for increased US military support, reportedly including the highly unlikely commitment of US ground combat forces, to pursue the Hodeidah offensive.

Outlook and implications

IHS Markit has previously assessed that Gulf states would be unlikely to commit their own ground forces to take major urban centres in north Yemen, such as Sanaa or Hodeidah, given their low tolerance for casualties, their limited ground combat experience, and the hostile operating environment. The humanitarian cost associated with a sustained offensive on Hodeidah, together with the limited prospect of effectively disrupting insurgent revenue sources more broadly, also makes US commitment to a major ground operation unlikely. In all cases, an offensive on Hodeidah would probably cause substantial civilian casualties, severe and widespread damage to property and infrastructure, and exacerbate the already severe risk of famine across north Yemen. Meanwhile, the coalition's continued reliance on local forces will probably mean that the announced offensive on Hodeidah is likely to translate into a slow and indecisive operation that is unlikely to alter the balance of the conflict.

Given the risks involved, IHS Markit assesses that a Saudi- or UAE-led advance on Hodeidah would only be likely in the event of prior agreement on the withdrawal of local armed factions in exchange for specific political and economic concessions. This is unlikely in the three-month outlook. After a UN-brokered ceasefire collapsed in November 2016, no effort to renew another cessation of hostilities or political negotiations has succeeded. On 27 March, the government of President Hadi also stated that it would not agree to any ceasefire with the Houthis until Hodeidah port was recaptured, an intransigent stance that is likely to result in prolongation of the current stalemate.

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