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CrisisGroup.org: What Next After U.S. and UK Strikes on the Houthis?

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 21 January 2024

 
Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen's Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, December 5, 2023 REUTERS / Khaled Abdullah
Q&A / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

In response to repeated attacks by the Houthis on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the U.S. and UK launched airstrikes overnight 11-12 January against Houthi positions in Yemen. In this Q&A, Crisis Group looks at the implications.

What is happening in the Red Sea? 

Israel’s war in Gaza has spilled over into the Red Sea. Wielding control over substantial stretches of Yemen’s western coast, the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have used drones, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small boats to target merchant ships they allege are linked to Israel, however indirectly, and those protecting such vessels.

Beyond the coast of the port city of Hodeida, which is under their control, the Houthis have targeted the Red Sea from close to the Suez Canal in the north to near the Bab al-Mandab Strait in the south. The group also stated its intention to target ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This would include ships seeking to bypass the Red Sea via the Cape of Good Hope.  Among the significant Houthi attacks include one on 19 November, when the group took control of the Galaxy Leader, a merchant ship allegedly linked to an Israeli businessman, and took hostage its captain and crew. On 26 December, the Houthis using drone boats set off an explosion approximately one mile from a U.S. warship. On 9 January, they carried out a complex attack using a combination of drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to target U.S. warships in the vicinity of the Bab al-Mandab, claiming it was a demonstration of their ongoing support for Gaza and also retaliation for the U.S. sinking three Houthi boats at the end of 2023 that killed ten of their fighters. 

In mid-October, before targeting merchant shipping, the Houthis on several occasions launched drones and missiles at Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea coast. These attacks were either intercepted or failed to reach their intended targets. The frequency of these attacks decreased when the group shifted its focus to ships, viewing them as closer and more effective targets to make their point.

In response to the attacks, U.S., British and French deployed warships to the Red Sea, which succeeded in intercepting the majority of Houthi missiles. Overnight 11-12 January, the U.S. and UK carried out airstrikes on Houthi military sites in Yemen in response to the latter’s targeting of merchant ships and clashes with the patrolling navies, reportedly killing five Houthi fighters. The U.S. Central Command described these strikes as defensive measures, claiming their objective was to diminish the Houthi capacity for continued attacks on U.S. and other vessels, military as well as commercial. The Houthis condemned them as a flagrant attack and threatened retaliation, heightening concerns about an escalation of violence in this vital waterway.

What motivated the Houthis to conduct these attacks?

The Houthis started attacking Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea in response to Israel’s war in Gaza. In its statements the group has said it will cease these attacks if Israel starts allowing an unspecified volume of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, and will halt attacks on Israel itself once Israel stops its assault on Gaza. 

In doing so, the Houthis acted in concert with other members of the so-called resistance axis – an Iran-led grouping of non-state armed actors opposed to Israel and the U.S. that also comprises Hizbollah in Lebanon, Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. In a speech on 10 October, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi stated that axis members were coordinating their military activities. While there is no evidence that the Houthis have acted on direct Iranian orders, some degree of coordination is likely: the presence of an Iranian intelligence vessel in the Red Sea may suggest Iranian assistance in Houthi targeting decisions.

The Houthis may additionally have been motivated by the fact that in aligning themselves with the Palestinian cause they started to gain unprecedented popularity in Yemen and abroad

The Houthis may additionally have been motivated by the fact that in aligning themselves with the Palestinian cause they started to gain unprecedented popularity in Yemen and abroad amid a broader surge in solidarity with the Palestinians across Arab and Islamic societies. Their Red Sea campaign thus turned into an opportunity to prove that they would be prepared to make concrete their foundational slogan of 2002 – “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam”. Inaction in the face of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza could have jeopardised the credibility of their claim. In comparison to others within the resistance axis, the Houthis have demonstrated a much greater appetite for risk and have taken this opportunity to demonstrate their strategic value.

In Yemen, too, the Houthis’ have burnished their credentials, given widespread sympathy among Yemenis for the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, and despite being one party in a long-running civil war. In the wake of the first attacks on ships in the Red Sea, the Houthis’ numbers grew through recruitment campaigns in which they showcased their support for the Palestinian cause. The Gaza war moreover provided the Houthis with an opportunity to deflect mounting public pressure over their governance practices in the areas under their control, and enabled them to quell opposition to their rule by arresting opponents in those areas on charges of collusion with Israel and the U.S.

How have Western powers responded to these attacks?

Initially, the U.S. dispatched naval destroyers to the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping. On 20 December, it unveiled Operation Prosperity Guard, a U.S.-led multinational security initiative that includes the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. The Pentagon has indicated that more than 20 countries have agreed to participate in the initiative, although a number have declined to publicly confirm their involvement, or have denied their participation when asked about it. The move broadened the Combined Task Force, a multinational naval force set up in 2009 in response to piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia. As mentioned, members of the coalition succeeded in intercepting most of the Houthi attacks, on 31 December sank small Houthi boats killing ten Houthi fighters after the boats fired on U.S. Navy helicopters, and on 12 January the U.S. and UK carried out airstrike at Houthi military sites inside Yemen.

Even before the latest escalation, Washington and several Western nations had conveyed messages to the Houthis through Oman to urge de-escalation. In late October, the U.S. also asked Saudi Arabia to include shipping security in their ongoing political talks with the Houthis, but the Houthis rejected this, stating that their military activities in the Red Sea are linked to Gaza, not their conflict with Saudi Arabia. On 29 November, Washington imposed economic sanctions on individuals it claimed were part of a network facilitating funds to the Houthis. On 10 January, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Houthis immediately cease attacks on ships in the Red Sea, while implicitly endorsing the U.S.-led task force.

What has the impact been of these events in the Red Sea?

The military escalation in the Red Sea has come at an economic cost first of all. The Red Sea is a key shipping route connecting Asia and Europe. The surge in security concerns has driven up insurance costs for commercial vessels, and necessitated an increase in security personnel on board. Several shipping companies have opted to reroute their vessels around the southern tip of the African continent, the overall shipping costs rising due to the increased travel time. The once bustling Suez Canal has seen a reduction in traffic, further damaging Egypt’s already vulnerable economic situation, and Israel’s Eilat port ceased most commercial activities. Delays in deliveries in turn triggered disruptions across global supply chains. 

While maritime operations are not new to the Houthis, the latest series of attacks risks entrenching these as a major tactic, and U.S. officials privately express concern that the Houthis will seek to disrupt global shipping in the long term. Prior to the Gaza war, the group had targeted Saudi oil transport ships, in 2018, and seized an Emirati cargo ship, in January 2022. From their side, the U.S. and other countries’ military vessels present in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden conducted ongoing operations against smuggling smugglers and ships ferrying weapons and ammunition for the Houthis. 

Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea could also undermine efforts to bring Yemen’s wars to an end. Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have made progress in their long-running talks to reach a deal on Saudi military withdrawal from Yemen and the start of an intra-Yemeni political process. But a further escalation could force a delay or even a scuttling of the talks, especially if the Houthis are so empowered that they feel they can make new demands on their Saudi interlocutors. They could reject the UN-led peace process that would follow an agreement with Saudi Arabia, and discontinue any engagement with Yemeni factions, thus freezing the political track. They might also resume attacks on those groups they see as loyal or collaborating with the U.S. and other Western countries.

Both the Houthis and their adversaries along the Yemeni Red Sea coast could also seek to fortify their military presence, risking a resumption of fighting there. Finally, the tensions in the Red Sea could exacerbate the already deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen, especially following the World Food Programme’s (WFP) decision on 5 December to suspend aid in Houthi-controlled areas in northern Yemen. This, coupled with surging shipping costs, are making it harder for Yemenis to access basic food products.

What could bring the Houthis to cease their attacks?

A military response to Houthi attacks may have symbolic value for Western nations and may curb certain Houthi capabilities but will have limited overall impact. They could even make things worse. They may prompt the group to intensify its maritime attacks and broaden the scope of the vessels it is targeting. While Houthi capabilities are limited compared to those the U.S. can bring to bear, advancements in arms technology allow the Houthis to inflict significant economic harm, particularly through the use of unmanned weapons. 

The Saudi-led coalition that attacked the Houthis in Yemen in 2015 did not weaken the group but instead made them stronger. The Houthis’ current military attacks are likely to push many Yemenis to support them out of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, even if they otherwise oppose the group. 

The Houthis may not be overly concerned about being hit, or for the talks with Saudi Arabia to be delayed or even cancelled. Buoyed by popular support, they feel empowered to have their way at a bearable cost. This does not mean that the only path forward is through further escalation. The Houthis have made it very clear that their attacks are a response to Israel’s war in Gaza and not an independent initiative. If that war ends, and assuming the situation in the Red Sea has not spun out of control by that time, the Houthis may return to their previous posture, if they are serious about their pledges and also keen to be taken seriously as a key party to a future governing authority in Yemen. But short of an end to the Gaza war, and in the face of an ever-growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, tensions will continue to rise not only in the Red Sea but also in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as the Israeli-occupied territories. 

 

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