Yemen conflict hits key turning point

Yemen conflict hits key turning point
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The ongoing fight for control of Yemen’s critical port city of Hodeidah marks a potential turning point in the country’s grueling three-year conflict. The Saudi-led coalition has launched the beginning phase of an ambitious operation to ultimately wrest control of the city’s vital deep-water port, through which about 70 percent of the country’s humanitarian aid and 90 of percent of its commercial supplies flow. Thus far, most of the fighting has been centered near the city’s airport, with an Emirati-led ground force spearheading the offensive, augmented by a loose coalition of Yemeni fighters and backed by Saudi airstrikes.

United Nations observers are deeply concerned that as the fighting expands to the city’s port area, which is less than 10 miles away, it may damage the port’s infrastructure, causing a desperate humanitarian situation to get even worse. Already, the World Health Organization reports that 8.4 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, with more than one million reported cases of cholera and more than half of the country’s medical facilities and road network destroyed.

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By all accounts, this is likely to be a tough fight as the Houthis appear determined to maintain their grip on the city. The Houthis have controlled Hodeidah since 2014, and have reportedly used control of the port to extract tens of millions of dollars a year in taxes and bribes, and allegedly also as a hub for weapons imports from Iran. In all likelihood, the fight for Hodeidah is likely to play out over the next several weeks, with the odds favoring an eventual seizure of the city by the Saudi-led coalition. In a best case scenario, such a victory would be achieved sooner than expected and would avoid inflicting major damage on the port as well as the city’s already suffering population.

Alternatively, in a worst case scenario, the Houthis will decide to fight to the end, significantly increasing the likelihood that the port will be severely damaged and thousands of Hodeidah’s 500,000 plus residents driven from their homes. Under the latter scenario, both the Saudi coalition and the international community will need to be prepared to act quickly to stem the onset of an even worse humanitarian nightmare.

If the Saudi-coalition is able to eventually secure the city, however, a window may finally open for diplomatic negotiations to end the war, or at least significantly reduce the bloodshed. For even if the Saudi coalition captures Hodeidah, they are unlikely to be able to retake the country’s capital, Sanaa, anytime soon, or compel the Houthis to move their fighters back to northern Yemen. From the coalition’s perspective, this would be a good time to explore negotiations. Meanwhile, if the Houthis are ousted and finally cut off from Hodeidah’s resources, they may finally see the wisdom of negotiations aimed at cementing their long-term political and economic status.The Houthis only account for about 5 percent of Yemen’s population, so even they recognize that permanently governing the country was never really in the cards.

So, what could a new diplomatic initiative look like? Because the United States is seen as being too closely tied to the Saudi coalition, this effort would likely have to be led by the United Nations or possibly by a new Friends of Yemen Group. Regardless of who leads the talks, some of the proposals that could be discussed are already evident.

They include an immediate “freeze for freeze” agreement in which the Saudi coalition ceases its air campaign and the Houthis agree not to launch any missiles outside Yemen’s borders, the creation of local cease fire zones aimed at facilitating the delivery of critical humanitarian aid to remote parts of the country, and a serious discussion that moves past U.N. Resolution 2216, which the Houthis reject as being too one sided, of their future legislative representation and long-term access to central government resources. They also include a series of confidence building measures aimed at improving security along the Yemen-Saudi border and restricting the flow of advanced conventional weapons, especially from Iran, into the country. Finally, if the talks make serious progress, there could be the scheduling of a donor’s conference to generate international funding to help pay for reconstruction efforts.

In the past several years, the Yemen conflict has been largely overshadowed in the West by events in Syria and North Korea, even as the human carnage triggered by the conflict has steadily increased. However, a rare window of opportunity to achieve tangible diplomatic progress may present itself once the fighting in Hodeidah is over. If that opportunity arises, it is clearly in everyone’s interest to seize it and to push for a diplomatic resolution that may not meet each actor’s maximalist objectives, but is instead one that each party can accept.

For absent such an agreement, Yemen’s war will grind along for the foreseeable future, the humanitarian toll of the conflict will deepen, non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State will exploit the chaos to strengthen their capabilities, and the crisis will eventually spill beyond Yemen’s borders. That is a dark and ominous scenario that should worry us all, and one that needs to be avoided at all costs.

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.