AL-KHOKHA, Yemen—The United Arab Emirates paints its battle for the Yemen port city of Hodeidah as pivotal to forcing Houthi rebels to negotiate an end to the three-year war. It is also the biggest test yet of the U.A.E.’s growing military reputation.
But the U.A.E. has now suspended the advance after confronting land mines, drones, snipers and humanitarian challenges, prolonging a drawn-out campaign in a broad contest for regional domination that pits the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim Arab nations against Shiite-dominated Iran.
The U.A.E., working on the ground with Emirati-trained Yemeni brigades, wants the port out of Houthi hands as soon as possible, saying it generates up to $40 million a month for the Houthi government that rules over the Yemeni capital, San’a.
The brigades are regrouping amid political talks aimed at averting what aid groups warn would be a catastrophe if food and medical supplies can’t move through the port.
For the battle-hardened thousands of Yemeni forces advancing from the south, however, land mines—many of them encased in fiberglass and painted to look like rocks—have been the most difficult problem.
“Land mines are destroying our tanks and vehicles,” said Brig. Gen. Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Laji, the commander of the third brigade of the Giant Brigades, one of the coalition-aligned Yemeni forces fighting in Hodeidah.
Frequent Houthi attacks along the windswept, largely barren coastal road to Hodeidah, passing through al-Khokha, where the U.A.E. maintains a forward base, have presented another challenge.
Iran, Gulf Arab officials allege, has long used Hodeidah’s port to ship weapons to the Houthis. They accuse Iran of nurturing the group as a proxy akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon or Shiite militias in Iraq that Tehran supports monetarily and militarily. United Nations experts have determined that some of the ballistic missiles that the Houthis use to harass Saudi Arabia originated in Iran.
Iran denies arming the Houthis. There are no Iranian military personnel known to be in Yemen, as there are in Syria.
Some Western officials said they suspect Tehran’s military assistance to the Houthis is intended to draw Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. into a costly conflict.
The U.A.E. is one of the smallest nations in the region but one with the biggest military ambitions. With an active-duty military of just 63,000, the U.A.E. has rapidly expanded its footprint across the Arabian Peninsula and eastern Africa. It has a string of bases in Somalia and Eritrea and along the Yemen coast. In 2016, Emirati-backed forces defeated al Qaeda in the southern Yemen city of Al Mukalla.
While Saudi Arabia is leading the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, the U.A.E. is managing the Hodeidah battle. The U.A.E. sees Hodeidah as a potential milestone that will shift the momentum of a protracted conflict; it is also a test of the country’s ability to train, equip and deploy local forces to achieve its military goals.
Hodeidah “is the largest combat operation the U.A.E. has ever coordinated anywhere in the world,”
a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied the U.A.E.’s military development closely. “This is the sort of thing people thought only the Americans can do.”
After more than three years of fighting, the coalition and its Yemeni allies have gained territory but nothing close to full victory. More than 10,000 people have died in fighting, according to the U.N. More than three million have fled their homes, including over 120,000 as a result of the Hodeidah battle, the U.N. says; over 22 million—about four out of five people in Yemen—are in need of aid.
The Hodeidah port serves as the gateway for about three-quarters of Yemen’s aid and almost all of its commercial food shipments. U.A.E. officials said a slow advance gives Hodeidah’s 400,000 inhabitants the best chance of survival, with a step-by-step operation that allows the city’s port to stay open and receive aid, with pauses to allow for diplomatic efforts toward a peaceful Houthi withdrawal.
Aid groups have pleaded with the coalition not to assault the city, and the U.S. has given only tepid support to its ally’s plan, in large part because of the danger to human life.
The coalition hopes its staged conduct of the operation will alleviate some of those concerns, while allowing more time for peace talks conducted by the U.N.’s Yemen envoy,
The U.A.E. has 50,000 metric tons of food aid ready to be brought into the city, the U.A.E.’s foreign ministry told the U.N. last month. The Emiratis are arranging minesweepers, cranes and other equipment to repair the port after its capture.
That goal has been delayed, however, as the Houthi fighters have been able to scatter to avoid airstrikes and their snipers have hidden in Yemeni farmland to attack coalition forces.
They have also deployed drones to spy on and attack coalition-aligned forces. While the Yemeni forces were able to shoot down some drones, others succeed in dropping explosives that led to casualties and damaged equipment.
“We have been fighting them for a long time,” said Gen. Abdel Rahman, the U.A.E.-allied Yemeni military commander. “But this is the first time they’ve used such weapons.”
Gen. Abdel Rahman also said that as his forces reached the outskirts of Hodeidah, Houthi fighters positioned themselves in civilian areas and put military vehicles within the grounds of hospitals and in residential areas.
Loai al-Shami, a Houthi spokesman, said the coalition was the side putting civilians in danger by trying to take over the airport and seaport of the city. “When they failed to capture them and inflicted heavy casualties, they alleged that they slowed it down because of civilians,” he said.
Coalition forces captured the airport last month, but Houthi-run media have since shown Houthi forces again in control of parts of the facility.
A coalition spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment about the situation at the airport.
Mr. Shami said the Houthis had slowed the coalition’s advance by cutting its supply routes and surprising coalition forces with drone and rocket attacks.
Video distributed by Houthi media this month showed drones carrying out surveillance and dropping bomblets on positions on the Red Sea coast. One of the drones appeared to be a scaled-down variant of an Iranian drone that coalition forces have intercepted in the past.
—Saleh al-Batati in Aden, Yemen, contributed to this article.
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