Saudis threaten UN-brokered truce in strike near Yemeni port city

Leila Molana-Allen
Followers of the Houthi movement carry a mock drone during a rally on September 10 - REUTERS

The Saudi-led military coalition launched an air strike north of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah early on Friday morning, amidst heightened tensions following a weekend strike against Saudi oil installations.

The coalition said it had struck only “legitimate military targets,” and had succeeded in destroying four sites used to assemble maritime drones and sea mines by Houthi fighters.

“These sites are used to carry out attacks and terrorist operations that threaten shipping lines and international trade in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the southern Red Sea,” said coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki in a statement.

Houthi forces who control the area were quick to brand the strike a “dangerous escalation”, saying it violated a UN ceasefire agreement reached last year in Sweden. While the strike took place north of the city, it was within Hodeidah governate and as such violates the terms of the agreement.

“The coalition will bear the responsibility of this escalation which is also a test to the United Nations,” said Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam on Twitter.

But some argue this is only the latest in a series of violations on both sides.

“There has been so much escalation in and around the city, but often when the Houthis break ceasefires they are labelled skirmishes,” said Fatima Alsarar of the Middle East Institute.

“The focus has been so much on the Saudi-led coalition because it’s a partner to the United States and you expect them to behave responsibly, but the Houthis are expected to behave like a militia so the bar is so much lower.”

“There’s also pressure to see Hodeidah agreement work, and this is unfortunate because the UN always says the ceasefire has been successful otherwise. But people have died. This is just an effort to make the agreement look more successful than it has been.”

Hodeidah is a vital port city on the Red Sea, not only for humanitarian access but because it is used by the Houthis to smuggle in missile parts and small weapons from their backers in Iran. As a result, the city has been at the centre of conflict for the majority of the five-year war.

The Saudi-led coalition, which receives Western backing, have been engaged in Yemen's civil war since 2015 after Houthi forces, backed by Iran, ousted the internationally recognised government in the capital Sana'a in late 2014.

Some suspect Friday’s strikes were a retaliation for attacks on Saudi oil installations on Saturday, which were later claimed by the Houthi movement. But experts have ruled out Houthi responsibility, arguing forensic evidence shows the attacks came from Iran, the Houthis’ principal ally in the region.

“This attack seems symbolic and packaged for a domestic audience,” said Peter Salisbury, Senior Analyst at Crisis Group. “The Saudis likely felt the need to demonstrate their willingness to respond to Houthi cross-border attacks. They’ve struck this site before which raises questions about the utility of such a strike expect for show.”

“Yemen, in the eyes of some in the Riyadh and elsewhere, represents the low-hanging fruit in terms of demonstrating a willingness to retaliate against Iran,” he added.

The Houthis, for their part, are happy to be used as a scapegoat in Yemen for Iran in order to reach their ultimate objective, according to Ms Alasrar: “Iran thrives on creating confusion, it aims to deflect and say: look at the Houthis, look at the Saudis, we’re not doing anything. They’re sending a message to the US that they need to respect their authority while also denying involvement.”