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Yemen war enters dangerous new phase

The Saudi-led coalition has embarked on a high-risk strategy to force the Houthis to the negotiating table

Since the start of the Yemen conflict in 2015 it has been called a war that neither side can win. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and other allies, control the skies and outstrip the Houthis in terms of military might in general. But hundreds of aerial attacks have failed to dislodge the rebels either from the capital, Sanaa, or the Red Sea Port of Hodeidah.

Western diplomats in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spent months trying to dissuade the Arab allies from attacking Hodeidah. In part, this is because the port is the entry point for nearly three-quarters of all the humanitarian aid sent to Yemen. The UN's emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said at a press briefing this week that 7m Yemenis rely on food and other assistance, "so Hodeidah is absolutely central to the preserving of life. If for any period Hodeidah were not to operate effectively, the consequences in humanitarian terms would be catastrophic."

The other concern that diplomats have raised with the Saudi and UAE authorities relates to the safety of civilians in Hodeidah itself. While the current assault is likely to see the Arab allies take control of the outskirts, capturing the centre of Hodeidah could be a much more difficult and dangerous operation. Street-to-street battles, of the kind seen in Mosul, could last weeks and would inevitably lead to civilian casualties.

Despite the diplomatic pleas, the Saudi and UAE leaders have decided that they've no option but to throw everything into a Hodeidah offensive in the hope that it forces the Houthis to the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia points to the fact that the Houthis, with Iranian support, are continuing to launch ballistic missiles into the kingdom. This is proof, the Riyadh authorities say, that the Houthis aren't interested in a negotiated settlement.

Two key questions remain: will the Houthis put up strong resistance in Hodeidah, no matter what the humanitarian cost? And will Iran remain silent and inactive if the Houthis face defeat? It's too soon to know the answers. But there's no disputing the fact that the Yemen war has entered a new and very dangerous phase.

Nor is there any doubt, in the absence of a quick and decisive end to the assault, that Hodeidah port will stop receiving the humanitarian aid that's keeping millions of Yemenis alive.

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