Although it is easy to describe the fight in Yemen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia or a sectarian fight involving Sunnis and Shia, it’s not quite that simple. “It’s a very complicated war with a lot of different sides and a lot of alliances that form and disintegrate and then re-form in different iterations over time,” Gregory D. Johnsen, a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation who is an expert on Yemen, told me.
The fight for Hodeidah is reflective of the larger battle over Yemen that began in September 2014 when the Houthis took control of parts of Sanaa, the capital. Less than six months later, the rebels dissolved Parliament and seized the country, forcing President Abd Rabbu-Mansour Hadi to flee. Soon, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their Arab allies stepped in to back Hadi’s government, with Iran supporting the Houthis, its Shia brethren. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi’s predecessor who was ousted in 2012 amid the Arab Spring protests, and his supporters, also entered the conflict on the side of the Houthis. The resulting fighting claimed the lives of at least 10,000 people, displaced some 3 million others, and destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure. The UN says the violence has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
By 2016, the conflict was at an apparent stalemate. The Houthis and their allies proved more formidable than either the Saudis or the Emiratis anticipated. Iran, whose involvement in Yemen is not as explicit as it is in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, is content to keep the Saudi-led coalition mired in a seemingly endless conflict. Yemen’s conflict was allowed to fester until last December, when Saleh and his fighters broke with the Houthis and allied with the Saudis. In the ensuing fighting, the Houthis killed Saleh. The UAE calculated that the loss of Saleh’s fighters had weakened the Houthis, and expected the fight for Hodeidah to be relatively easy. But that may be wishful thinking. An International Crisis Group report said the most likely outcome in Hodeidah was “prolonged and destructive fighting … followed by a period of maximalist demands from all sides” along with a worsening humanitarian crisis. An assault on the city could imperil the lives of more than 250,000 people, according to the UN. Some aid groups withdrew their staff from the city ahead of the attack.
On top of all this, the Emiratis support secessionist fighters who seek to restore the pre-1990 division of Yemen. Former president Hadi, meanwhile, has fallen out of favor with the UAE, and now backs the Islah party, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The U.S. position on the actions of the Saudi-led coalition has evolved. Just last week, it appeared as if the U.S. was warning the UAE not to attack the city. But on Monday, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, said in a statement that he had “spoken with Emirati leaders and made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.” But the Trump administration is likely aware of the growing congressional opposition to the Emirati-led assault on the port, and is likely to support the action of its ally without endorsing it explicitly. “The U.S. has not given a green light for this, but a flashing yellow light,” Joost Hiltermann, the program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told me. The U.S. is saying, “‘You’re on your own. We understand you considerations. We think militarily this is very difficult to pull off. We continue to support you in the way we’ve been with intelligence sharing and inflight refueling. But that’s it. Just make sure you take care of the humanitarian fallout—and go back to the political negotiations.’”