A major military push by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and allied Yemeni forces against the Iranian-aligned Houthi militia group in the port city of Hudaida is showing no signs of slowing down as the offensive to take the vital gateway enters its second week.
Dubbed Operation Golden Victory, the push marks the biggest military effort for the Saudi-led forces in three years, which began pounding Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthi group took over the capital, Sanaa, and tried to exert their influence in other parts of the country.
According to Yemeni military sources, the death toll so far is up to 216 fighters, including 33 Houthis and 19 soldiers killed in Tuesday’s fighting. No civilian casualties have yet been confirmed.
The fierce clashes also risk escalating the dire humanitarian crisis in the country, where out of a population of 28 million people, eight million are at risk of starvation, and 22 million depend on aid.
Hudaida, home to an estimated 600,000 people, has been under the control of the Houthis since 2014, along with other western-coast ports and much of northern Yemen.
The city’s seaport was responsible for delivering 70 percent of Yemen’s imports – mostly humanitarian aid, food and fuel – pre-2015. Yet the Saudis say that the Houthis, who reportedly generate $30m to $40m a month in revenue from the port, are using it to smuggle in weapons from Iran.
The Saudis and Emiratis want the port to be handed back to Yemen’s government, led by exiled leader Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, or to be placed under UN supervision.
Joost Hiltermann, the MENA programme director for the International Crisis Group, said that the UAE has been taking the lead on the operation.
“[The offensive] comes from a [point of] frustration for the UAE over the stalemated situation, and a desire to push the Houthis into a position in which they would have to make greater compromises,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the battle of Hudaida has been “a long time coming”.
“Ultimately, the coalition views the Houthis’ control of Hudaida as unacceptable, whether in war or peace,” Baron told Al Jazeera.
“They don’t want them to have access to the port and this is a way of creating facts on the ground, so to speak – in addition to a means of taking the revenue generated by the port out of the Houthis’ hands.”
Further to the south, some 14km away, lies the airport, which has been the main battle arena in the first days of the operation.
On Tuesday, residents of the city said that Saudi-led troops had taken over the main runway and were fighting for the control of passenger terminals, as well as the flight control tower. According to a Yemeni military source, large parts of the airport were under their control and fierce fighting was continuing.
The UAE’s official news agency WAM reported the presence of its forces at the airport.
“With the participation and support of the Emirati armed forces, the joint Yemeni resistance (army) entered Hudaida airport,” WAM said in a post on Twitter.
Baron said that the battle, if successful, would also force the Houthis to the negotiating table.
“The coalition assesses that the loss of Hudaida would weaken the Houthis to the point that they’ll be more likely to engage in future talks in good faith,” he said.
A day after the coalition offensive was launched on June 13, Hadi, the exiled president, returned from Saudi Arabia to Aden, his government’s temporary capital since 2015, for the first time in more than a year.
“Our imminent victory in Hudaida will be the … gateway to retrieving our kidnapped capital and exerting the influence of the government over every inch of the country,” he said.
Loss of the governorate’s port and airport would deliver a massive blow to the Houthis, who will see their supply lines cut and their coffers significantly reduced – thus limiting their war efforts.
Coalition control over the two strategic points would, in turn, reinforce their own vital supply lines, which would tip the balance of the so-far deadlocked war in their favour – in what Baron explained would constitute a “major shift in momentum” that could amount to a spillover effect, especially if stabilisation efforts are successful.
“Capturing Hudaida would also mean gaining a new potential staging point for future efforts, likely leading to the Houthis’ complete loss of control of the coast of Hudaida,” he said.
Several human rights organisations have warned of what Amnesty International called “the devastating impact for hundreds of thousands of civilians – not just in the city but throughout Yemen” that the offensive could wreak.
“With an estimated 600,000 people living in and around Hudaida, all sides to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to ensure that the civilian population is protected,” Amnesty said last week.
Racha Mouawieh, Amnesty’s Yemen researcher, told Al Jazeera that millions of lives are at risk.
“The closing of Hudaida port would prevent life-saving supplies from reaching civilians in desperate need,” she said.
“It would put millions of lives are at risk in what was already being described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Hudaida has been the scene for smaller battles on the ground and from the sky in recent months, as hostilities between pro-government forces and Houthi fighters played out.
An Amnesty researcher who visited civilians who had fled Hudaida to the city of Aden last May said that they had described facing mortar attacks, air strikes, landmines and other dangers.
“This is just a glimpse of what is to come as the fighting edges closer to residential areas,” Mouawieh said.
The United Nations said that since the beginning of June, 26,000 people or 5,200 families, have fled the fighting and sought safety within their own districts or other areas in Hudaida governorate.
The number is expected to rise, UN general-secretary spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“People are on the edge regarding the potential of urban warfare in the city itself,” Baron said. “While those with the means may aim to flee to avoid the fighting, many if not most of those left in Hudaida lack the finances to do so.”
Manal Qaed, an independent journalist and resident of Hudaida told Al Jazeera that civilians are worried and are unsure of what is going to happen.
“The sound of the warplanes above never ceases, night and day,” she said.
Joost Hiltermann warned that if the ground battles crept to the city, the level of ruin would be immeasurable.
“Urban warfare is utterly destructive, and if there is street-to-street fighting in Hudaida city, the impact on civilians will likely be devastating, physically and psychologically,” he said.
But life under Houthi control has not been smooth sailing for the governorate’s residents either.
“Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty International has documented how Houthi and allied forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained critics, opponent, journalist and human rights defenders,” Mouawieh said.
“Aid workers have also reported how excessive and arbitrary bureaucratic procedures have led to restrictions on the movement of humanitarian staff and aid.”
“The Houthis’ heavy hand has seen internal oppression and crackdowns mix with the ongoing threat of coalition air strikes,” Baron agreed.
The surrounding countryside holds some of Yemen’s most impoverished areas which humanitarian groups have warned about for years, he added.
According to Mouawieh, all parties must respect the rules of war in order to ensure that the flow of essential goods will not be hindered.
“The UN Security Council must step up and impose targeted sanctions on the individuals responsible for these violations,” she said.
The UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths concluded a three-day visit to Yemen by calling on the Houthis to hand over the Hudaida port either to Hadi’s government or to the UN.
The Houthis refused. According to Hussein al-Bukhaiti, a pro-Houthi journalist, the group were incensed that Griffiths did not hold Saudi Arabia accountable to the role it has played in the conflict.
As for the next step, Bukhaiti said that there must be a “compromise from all sides”.
“The ones suffering are the Yemeni people,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from Sanaa.
“To solve what is happening in Yemen, the Houthis have to sit with the Saudis and other parties under the supervision of the UN.”