The Yemeni port city of Hodeidah remains the focus of intense clashes between Houthi fighters and forces belonging to the Saudi-UAE led coalition. As the battle for control of the city and its port increasingly intensifies, it is worth considering the implications on shipping, particularly in the aftermath of the battle for Hodeidah.
Hodeidah is a vital gateway for some 80 percent of the country’s food imports, humanitarian aid, fuel and other commercial goods. The port is also a critical financial and military asset for Houthi rebels; it provides the Houthis with millions of dollars a month through the taxation of ships and goods and plays an important role in their military anti-shipping capabilities. Vessels using the port are forced to allow the use of their maritime radar to assist in the targeting of other military and commercial vessels in the waters off the coast of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition seeks to restore control of Yemen, including this vital port, to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his Western-backed government.
A Limit to Coalition Patience?
Despite Hodeidah’s importance efforts to recapture the city and its port had been put on pause. The anti-Houthi coalition has been unable to persuade Western powers that the UAE-led ‘Operation Golden Victory’ can take the city without massive destruction to the port or the exacerbation of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation. As a result, although these forces succeeded in reaching the city’s outskirts and securing control of its airport they are now forced to engaged in a difficult battle for the villages and roads to the east in an effort to cut rebel supply-lines and establish a siege. However, in the face of stalled progress and mounting casualties it is possible that the UAE and its allies may perhaps seek to use their overwhelming advantage in numbers and firepower to storm the city and bring the battle to an end. The Houthi have an estimated 2,000 defenders while coalition forces include approximately 25,000 Yemeni troops and 1,500 UAE troops backed by artillery and airpower. A further factor that may encourage such an attempt would be the possibility that coalition forces could be aided by a civilian uprising, as the defending Houthi force is seen as ‘foreign’ because its fighters are not local to the city or the surrounding region.
Hodeidah May Fall, but the Threat to Shipping Will Persist
Whether Hodeidah falls to coalition forces after a street-by-street campaign of urban warfare – the Houthi excel at using well-supplied individual or small groups of fighters to hold positions against superior forces – or through negotiation its loss is unlikely to bring the war in Yemen to an end. Further, the city lies well outside of the rebel movements traditional strongholds in the provinces of Amran and Saada and any loss in port revenue will likely be made up for by taxing goods, including humanitarian aid and supplies, when they enter territory under their control. Should control of the city change hands this could result in an increased risk to both military and commercial vessels in the waters of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
Next Target: the Highly Strategic Coastal Region between Hodeidah and Midi
The loss of Hodeidah and its port may hamper the ability of the rebels to strike at civilian and military vessels operating off the coast of Yemen but will be insufficient to eliminate this threat. After the battle approximately 200km of Yemen’s coastline between the city and the northern port city of Midi will still remain under the control of Houthi forces. Access to civilian maritime radar will also likely continue so long as the Houthi maintain control over the port of Salif located approximately 60km north of Hodeidah. The strategic value of this coastal territory can also be understood due its use by Iran to smuggle boatloads of weapons and related illicit technology which, in addition to supporting their conventional forces, also allow them to maintain their strategic ballistic missile capabilities. Should coalition forces succeed in capturing Hodeidah it is can be anticipated that securing control over this region will become an immediate key military objective.
A Matter of ‘Use it or Lose It’ for Houthi anti-Ship Capabilities
A military offensive targeting the coastal region between Hodeidah and Midi would not only force Houthi leaders to plan for its defence but also face the strategic question of when, or even if, to use their remaining anti-ship capabilities against military and/or commercial vessels. While some of these weapons are dependent on direct access to the ocean. Examples of these include naval mines, water-borne improvised explosive devises (WBIEDS; aka ‘drone boats’),’low profile speed boats equipped with heavy-machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Rebel forces also possess HSY-2 “Silkworm”/ P21 “Styx”, C-801 “Sardine” and C-802 “Saccade” anti-ship cruise missiles as well as weaponized drones such as the “Qasef-1” / “Abadil”. While the loss of this territory – and access to civilian vessels in the port of Salif – could be compensated by the continued activity of the Iranian “mothership” Saviz, which has been accused of using its own onboard maritime radar to participate in previous attacks on military and commercial vessels, the further Houthi forces are forced from the coast will diminish their ability to effectively use these assets against maritime targets.
Although it cannot be discounted that an attempt may be made by rebels to repurpose their remaining anti-ship assets for use against land-based targets or even choose to destroy or abandon them in the face of advancing coalition forces there is a risk that a decision to ‘use it or lose it’.
Faced with a deteriorating strategic situation it is possible that the leadership of the Houthi movement would be able to obtain the support of the Iranian Government to resume targeting military and commercial vessels in either an attempt to bring about a halt to the advance of coalition forces or else engage in their own campaign of retaliation for losses suffered. However, any decision by policy-makers in Tehran to permit, or even order, is unlikely to be motivated solely by events on the ground in Yemen. Instead, this could represent an attempt to achieve a number of different objectives. These could range from the basic desire to force both sides to the negotiating table or, in what could be considered a worst-case scenario, employ a proxy to retaliate against what are seen as attacks against Iran’s own political, economic and military interests.
The nature of the threat to shipping that may emerge as a consequence of the battle for Hodeidah demands the attention of ship owners and operators of vessels flagged to countries participating in the anti-Houthi coalition. Likewise, in addition to the general risk of target misidentification other vessels transiting through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea should be equally vigilant. Such caution should especially apply to vessels flying under the flag of countries whose governments sell weapons to coalition forces or have recently participated in actions hostile towards Iranian interests.
10 January 2018: Overnight, the Houthi movement in Yemen threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane if the Saudi led coalition continues its push north toward the port of Hodeidah. Houthi Political Council Chief, Saleh al-Samad, the latter was quoted as saying, “If the aggressors keep pushing towards Hodeidah and if the political solution hits wall, there are some strategic choices that will be taken as a no return point, including blocking the international navigation in the Red Sea.” The report provided no specific details of how they would enact this threat. However, the Bab-al Mandab, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden is the most likely target.
Since January 2017, the Saudi coalition has been engaged in Operation Golden Spear, an offensive aimed at recapturing Yemen’s western coast from Houthi forces and denying them access to key Red Sea ports. Hodeidah port is the final maritime stronghold for the Houthi rebels, and is critical to both the rebel group and Yemeni government. Hodeidah port receives 80% of Yemen’s imports, including vital food and medical aid necessary to support civilians in what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
However, reports indicate the Houthis have relied on the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons to maintain their offensive against the Yemeni government. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted ground and air campaigns in the areas around the port, but have conducted comparatively few targets against the port itself, relenting to urgent warnings by allies and UN member states.
The UN has been working to bring the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels together for peace negotiations. However, on 4 December, the Houthis assassinated their former ally, Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, causing a shutdown of all negotiation attempts. Saleh, who had aligned with the Houthi rebels throughout the war, had formally broken ties with the group on 2 December, two days before his death. Saleh was believed to be a vital component of resolution to the years-long war; it was believed he could broker a deal between the rebels and the Yemeni government.
Following Saleh’s assassination, the Saudi Coalition closed all land, air and sea ports, resulting in a vacuum of critical food, gas, and medical supplies to the stricken country. Once again at the urging of the UN and allies, the Coalition reopened many ports, with a temporary reopening of Hodeidah port beginning on 20 December and lasting 30 days.
The warning from the Houthis came during a meeting with Deputy UN envoy to Yemen, Maeen Shureim, who travelled to meet with Houthi leaders and set the stage for another round of peace negotiations. On Monday, Houthi Chief al- Samad criticised UN efforts to resolve the war in Yemen. “We’ve come to a stage where we don’t care anymore about the role of the UN in solving the crisis in Yemen,” al-Samad was quoted as saying.
On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said “The Houthi who decimated crops and seeds, destroyed Yemen, betrayed his ally and partner, is now threatening the international navigation; we are facing a terrorist gang that the end of its existence in Yemen is nigh.”
Implications: Intentions and Capabilities:
The threat to block international navigation in the Red Sea is critical. Although the Red Sea contains chokeholds in the north and south, the Suez Canal, nearly 1700 miles away and heavily guarded by Egyptian security forces, is a logistically unlikely target. It is highly likely that the Houthis would intend to target the Bab al Mandab Strait.
At just 20 miles across at its widest point, the strait is a chokepoint for maritime vessels entering or exiting the waterways. Under an international traffic separation scheme, northbound shipping uses a two-mile wide lane on the Arabian side of the strait, while southbound traffic uses a lane on the African side. The lanes are mainly for use by commercial vessels, but are largely ignored by smaller local ships or fishing boats. More than 60 commercial vessels transit the strait each day, alongside passenger cruise liners. Bab-al-Mandab is also one of the most important trade routes for oil tankers; between four and five million barrels of oil pass through the strait annually, mostly heading to Europe. Together, the area and vitality of this waterway combine to make the strait a valuable—and easy—target, potentially threatening hundreds of vessels.
The Houthis have displayed a means to conduct attacks in the Bab-al-Mandab waterway; in March 2017, a Yemeni coast guard vessel struck a naval mine in the vicinity of Mokha port, killing two soldiers and wounding eight. The attack was the first recorded instance of the use of naval mines since the war began. Security officials believed that the mine was planted by Houthi rebels, and reports circulated that the rebels may have placed naval mines around Mokha port to disrupt Coalition operations. Warnings were also issued that the Houthi rebels could deploy aquatic mines in the waters around Hodeidah port as they prepare to defend their control of the Hodeidah governorate.
The rebels have conducted other attacks near Bab-al-Mandab strait using means apart from naval mines. In October 2016, Houthi rebels claimed an attack which destroyed a UAE catamaran in the Strait. Later that month, LNG gas tanker Galicia Spirit was attacked by unknown assailants near Perim Island, approximately eight miles from the Yemeni Coast, in Bab al-Mandab Strait. In January 2017, Saudi warship Al-Madinah was attacked west of Hodeidah port, leaving two crew members dead. It was later determined that the attack had been conducted via a remotely controlled drone device, launched and controlled from Hodeidah port.
The coalition has been conducting searches aboard vessels entering Yemeni ports and reinforced security on land and at airports, however the Houthis do not show any signs of lacking the arsenal necessary to continue their insurgency in Yemen. The recapture of Mokha port from the Houthi rebels in February 2017 uncovered hidden caches of weapons; it is likely that Houthi rebels have additional stockpiles in other areas across Yemen, and are being supplemented through still unidentified smuggling routes.
In December, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that Iran may be defying a call to halt ballistic missile development, and may have been transferring these weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In November 2017, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia had Iranian markings, according to a US Air Force official in the Middle East.
It is believed that naval mines deployed by the Houthi rebels have made their way to Yemen through Iranian arms smuggling networks led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), using extensive maritime smuggling networks. In March 2017, it was found that at least three IRGC front companies were identified in arms smuggling to Yemen, likely using maritime commercial supply chains to deliver weaponry. As access to Yemen ports has been impeded, the companies may be using sea ports outside of Yemen to smuggle weapons, which are then transferred overland to their final destination. This evidence indicates that the Houthis have the capability to disrupt maritime traffic through the waterway, and could likely target Bab-al-Mandab Strait in an effort to protect their hold on Hodeidah port.
While unmanned drone boats may likely target coalition warships, aquatic mines do not distinguish, and can cause harm to any vessel in the vicinity. The guidance issued by UKMTO on 1 February 2017 remains in place. Masters are urged to:
- Increase vigilance
- Maintain the furthest possible distance from the Yemen coast
- Transit the Bab el Mandeb strait during daylight hours
- Use the western Traffic Separation Scheme wherever possible.
In addition, ships are urged to prevent misidentification, transmit AIS, and register and comply with BMP4 guidance.
If a master believes he is in or near a mined area note the following immediate action drills:
- Mount extra watches with binoculars and any other observation aids available
- Watch for foreign objects, flotsam and suspect craft in the vicinity
- Drill muster stations and abandon ship preparations
- High state of readiness maintained at all times
- Review cargo consignment for extra sensitivity or control measures
- Plot friendly warships in proximity for distress options and identify if military minesweepers are active or inbound
- Consider night operations, pilot meeting points, harbour entry/exit very carefully
If a mine strike is unavoidable then masters should issue distress signals on Channel 16 and attempt to strike bow-on to minimise casualties and ensure best chance of crew survival. Stern, glancing or flank strikes will enhance damage and accelerate any crisis.
If sea mines are confirmed in an area, then vessels must deviate from any route that would take them into the danger zone until verifiable clearance has completed.