As missiles fly and bombardments are launched by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, experts say that requests for direct U.S. military involvement to take the vital port city of Hodeida could open a host of problems for U.S. concerns in the civil war-ravaged nation.
The Saudi-led coalition, which is backing Yemen's exiled government, launched a fierce assault Wednesday on Hodeida, the Associated Press reported.
It was the biggest offensive of the years-long war in the Arab world's poorest nation for the main entry point for food in a country already teetering on the brink of famine, according to AP.
The attack on the Red Sea port aimed to drive out Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who have held Hodeida since 2015, and break the civil war's long stalemate. But it could set off a prolonged street-by-street battle that inflicts heavy casualties.
At least a week before Wednesday’s assault, leaders asked for increased U.S. assistance. The existing support has been used, according to defense officials, to better distinguish targets to avoid collateral damage.
On Wednesday, a Pentagon spokesman reiterated that the U.S. has been supplying targeting information to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as refueling their warplanes, but was not involved in military operations at the port.
“We do not provide any additional support to the Saudi coalition’s military operations,” Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine Galloway told the Associated Press.
That would be a sharp departure from U.S. involvement in the conflict, which has until now remained focused on counterterrorism operations and limited moves to arms, logistics and intel support.
Maher Farrukh, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute who studies al-Qaida, said the request by the coalition is not new, but the timing coincides with their operational push to take the city before any official negotiations begin.
The port is crucial for many reasons. It is where the mass of humanitarian aid flows through to reach the people displaced by the war. That same factor also makes it a key point of entry for smuggled Iranian weapons being used against the coalition and launched into Saudi Arabia.
That direct support to take the city from the Houthis is being considered is a sign that the administration is telling Iran that it will get involved, if necessary, one expert said.
“It’s a signal to the Iranians,” said Phillip Smyth with the Washington Institute. “It’s not a signal to al-Qaida.”
But taking the city hasn’t been met with a lot of past international support, Farrukh said, for several reasons.
“I do know there’s a lot of concern on the U.S. and international side of the consequences of this on the humanitarian side of the operation,” Farrukh said.
Experts have called the civil war the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, as millions face a lack of access to clean water, starvation and a massive cholera outbreak involving more than 1 million people.
U.S. congressional leaders have been reluctant to support further involvement in the Yemen conflict. Members have declared current involvement as not allowed under legal authorities granted by the Authorized Use of Military Force resolution, which couches such force under fighting terrorist organizations.
There have been scant details indicating what, if any, U.S. direct military involvement would look like in an operation to take the Hodeida.
The U.S. military has supported the Saudi coalition through arms sales, intelligence sharing and logistics. It has focused separately on counterterrorism operations in areas of the nation that hold Al-Qaida and ISIS elements.
James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs with the Heritage Foundation, said that’s where the U.S. focus should remain.
“I’m not sure what they’re looking for, but I think it would be a mistake for the U.S. to get involved on the ground in Yemen,” Phillips said. “Drones, surveillance, logistical support are okay, but I don’t think U.S. should commit American troops on the ground in that kind of stalemated civil war.”
A focus on defeating al-Qaida could merit ground troops, he said.
But the Houthi fight has drained resources from the counterterrorism mission, both Phillips and Farrukh said.
Coalition resources that were being used to fight al-Qaida and ISIS groups in other parts of the country have been diverted to the Hodeida operations, experts said.
The city is a linchpin to ending the conflict, according to coalition claims, but experts don’t necessarily agree.
“The coalition has been pitching to the U.S. and the international community that this is a quick end to the war,” Farrukh said. “It’s not clear that is true, though.”
He pointed to key supply lines and routes that the coalition would have to take first and the fact that evidence shows many weapons for the Houthis are coming through other parts of the country.
Phillips and Farrukh noted that fighting to take the port could damage or destroy it, exacerbating the already dreadful humanitarian crisis.
And taking any city, with recent examples of retaking Mosul in Iraq and Marawi in the Philippines, can be more complicated that planners might envision.
“Yemen is a difficult place to fight, and these things always take longer than the plans suggest,” Phillips said.
Extreme damage to the port that worsens access to humanitarian aid would also “hand the Houthis and Iran a propaganda victory,” Phillips said.
And a lot of what is happening in Yemen has to do with Iranian support, experts said.
A heavier U.S. involvement, Smyth said, would counter Iranian influence. Simultaneously, that involvement could serve Iranian needs, which spins a narrative of America as a regional oppressor or occupier.
“From a political point of view, Iranians will spin any presence as occupation and ‘you need to resist it,’” Smyth said.