After Hodeidah: The Houthi Threat to Shipping in the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait and Red SeaNovember 6, 2018 in Yemen
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.