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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Regaining Hodeidah could end Yemen war

Air strikes follow numerous opportunities to negotiate – all of them spurned by the Houthis

Supporters of Houthi rebels shout slogans in Sana'a, Yemen. Yahya Arhab / EPA
Supporters of Houthi rebels shout slogans in Sana'a, Yemen. Yahya Arhab / EPA

Since they overthrew Yemen’s internationally-recognised government in Sanaa in 2014 and spread their reign of terror across parts of the country, the Houthis have been afforded numerous opportunities to negotiate. In Kuwait in 2016, they failed to give peace a chance.

Instead, they have frustrated attempts, entrenching themselves in the vital port city of Hodeidah and planting up to a million landmines. Last week in Geneva, their attempts at sabotage were painfully clear. As UN special envoy Martin Griffiths and a Yemeni government delegation waited patiently to discuss confidence-building measures and a potential settlement, the Houthis did not even turn up.

Mr Griffiths insisted the peace process was underway; but put simply, if the Houthis had been interested in a settlement, they would have boarded a plane to Switzerland. As Rena Al Ghanem, a member of the Yemeni delegation, pointed out: “They are not serious.”

Hodeidah is the key to ending Yemen’s three-year war. It was the coalition’s offensive there in June that precipitated Geneva by escalating the urgency and need to seek a peaceful solution, which brought everyone but the perpetrators to the table. The Saudi-led coalition’s push to reclaim Hodeidah – through which 90 per cent of Yemen’s imported food passes – was designed not to exacerbate the war but to bring it to a swift end.

On Wednesday, airstrikes resumed following a two-month ceasefire, with the public support of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Their purpose, as Mr Pompeo said, was to send a clear message to the Iran-backed Houthis: it is time to come to the table and help foster a resolution.

The coalition is adamant that only a political solution can bring Yemen’s bloody conflict to an end and, as Mr Pompeo said, has exhibited demonstrable actions to reduce the risk to civilians. For a resolution to arise, there must be a change in the Houthi calculus. That begins with Hodeidah, where the rebels have a stranglehold over the crucial port.

As Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, noted on Wednesday: “The liberation of Hodeidah is what is needed to bring [the Houthis] to their senses and constructively engage in the political process.” Indeed, while the coalition held off on its Hodeidah assault for two months at the behest of Mr Griffiths, the Houthis have offered nothing by way of reciprocity.

Mr Griffiths will soon hold meetings in Riyadh, Muscat and Sanaa to try to convince the Houthis to engage seriously in peace talks. However, as long as they retain their vice-like grip over Yemen’s most important port, he has very little chance of success. That is why the coalition’s resumption of the Hodeidah offensive on Wednesday is so important – because capturing Hodeidah could mark the beginning of the end of the Yemen’s tragedy. It cannot come soon enough for the country’s desperate population.

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