Are Yemeni Forces and the Saudi-UAE Coalition Ready to Protect Civilians in Port Assault?

Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have advanced to within 20 km (12.4 miles) outside of Hodeidah, a port city of 700,000 under control of Houthi rebels that is the entry point for 80 percent of aid shipments keeping millions of civilians alive in war-torn Yemen. The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that U.S. officials are considering a request from the UAE for military assistance to seize the port from the Houthis, a request the U.S. rejected last year because of its potential “catastrophic” effects.

A key consideration for any such operation, supported by the U.S. or not, should be whether the forces have prepared sufficiently so they can take all feasible measures to reduce civilian harm and ensure humanitarian access across Yemen, as they are obligated to do under international humanitarian law?

As clashes along Yemen’s western coast have intensified, about 100,000 people have been displaced in recent months, most of them from Hodeidah. Aid agencies predict that an additional 400,000 people could be displaced from Hodeidah as forces enter the city.

Such displacement will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The three-year war has killed more than 10,000 people, a figure that doesn’t include 2,300 who are estimated to have died from cholera. Further, the conflict has displaced more than 2 million, brought the country near starvation, and crippled Yemen’s infrastructure, including its healthcare system. Contacts on the ground have told us that landmines have been planted by the Houthis in the outskirts of the city and on the highway, which are deterring civilians from leaving Hodeidah. Planting landmines is a common tactic of the Houthis to slow advancing forces, but with deadly consequences for civilians trying to flee areas of fighting.

Disparate Forces

The offensive on Hodeidah is being carried out by disparate forces with different command-and-control structures rather than a unified command under the Yemeni government. That has serious implications for civilian protection, because of the difficulty of ensuring all fighters adhere to any standards that might be established.

The forces include the National Resistance, a group of fighters loyal to Yemen’s ex-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed in December; the Tihama Resistance, whose fighters are recruited from the Red Sea costal area and are loyal to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi; and the Giant Brigades, an elite unit backed by the UAE and formed of southern Yemeni fighters who are leading the offensive. Advancing ground forces are supported by air strikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.

Necessary planning to reduce civilian harm would require the coalition and the Yemeni government to ensure forces are trained to fight in populated areas, to avoid using weapons with wide area effect such artillery and multiple barrel rockets in such areas, and agreeing on precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm and property before operations begin in the city.

Such measures could include agreeing on rules of engagement, identifying civilian infrastructure to avoid hitting such structures, issuing effective warnings prior to entering Hodeidah so civilians have time to seek safety, and planning to facilitate safe passage for those who choose to flee. Any air strikes conducted by the coalition must be based on reliable information on civilian presence and their movement patterns to avoid hitting civilians, and on verified locations of electrical grids, water supplies and medical facilities to reduce harm to essential civilian services.

Alternatives for Aid Delivery

Comprehensive preparation to account for civilian protection also includes coordinating with humanitarian aid providers to offer food, shelter and medical assistance to those who remain in the city and to those who flee. If the port of Hodeidah closes due to the fighting, the coalition forces should equip the port of Aden to accommodate delivery of aid and explore all feasible land entry for the critical aid needed for the two-thirds of the Yemeni population that the United Nations says requires some kind of humanitarian or protection support. Are coalition forces ready for this possibility?

Protecting civilians extends beyond active fighting. Hodeidah, like other cities in Yemen where fighting has occurred, is likely to be mined by the Houthis. Coalition forces have a responsibility to plan and provide resources for demining so that civilians can return to their homes and resume their lives safely. Resuming civilian lives also means planning to rebuild homes and critical infrastructure that could be impacted during the fight. Are such plans in place?

At this time, there are more questions than answers about protection for civilians. The coalition has pledged that UAE forces won’t enter Hodeidah immediately, to allow time for the UN Secretary-General’s new special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to try to restart diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, the Journal reported.

The military advance on Hodeidah and the course of fighting will have massive implications, not only for the city and its residents, but for all of Yemen, given the port’s strategic importance for delivery of humanitarian aid. Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary-General Jan Egeland told The Guardian it would “destroy the lifeline to millions.”

Yemeni civilians have suffered much over the past three years. Should coalition forces and the Yemeni government proceed with plans to capture Hodeidah, they must ensure that all necessary precautionary measures are taken to reduce the impact of the fighting on civilians and to mitigate the humanitarian impact before they enter Hodeidah. Any support by the US must be conditional on actual measurable steps by the coalition to prevent the widespread harm that is clearly foreseeable. Failure to do so would be catastrophic. 

About the Author(s)

Sahr Muhammedally

Director for MENA & South Asia at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) Follow her on Twitter (@Sahrmally).