Israel's devastating war in Gaza continues to risk escalating into a wider regional conflict. Until Israel agrees to a cease-fire, which the Biden administration is still not pressuring Israel to do, Gaza's ripple effects will keep spreading—from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen. The Houthis, who have effectively controlled northern and western Yemen since the country's civil war began in 2014, have responded to Israel's war in Gaza by attacking and harassing ships in the Red Sea, one of the world's most vital shipping lanes, en route to Egypt's Suez Canal. Approximately 30 percent of all global containers and about 12 percent of all world trade transit through the Suez Canal.
Since November, the Houthis—a militant group officially known as Ansar Allah that is backed by Iran—have carried out missile and drone attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea along Yemen's coast and hijacked a Japanese-operated ship linked to an Israeli businessman. The Houthis claim to be targeting ships that are either owned by Israelis or on their way to Israeli ports, although they have also targeted vessels that have nothing to do with Israel.
The Biden administration spent weeks vowing to respond to the Houthis, in order to protect the shipping lanes and defend against what it described as a major threat to U.S. interests and the global economy. On Dec. 18, the Pentagon announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian—a U.S.-led security initiative aimed at securing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. But the naval coalition, which is made up almost entirely of Western countries and which the majority of Arab states avoided formally joining, failed to deter the Houthis, who carried on with their attacks on commercial ships. As a result, many global shipping companies have rerouted vessels on longer journeys around Africa, to avoid the Red Sea, disrupting supply chains and driving up shipping costs and delays. The costs of insurance for shipments through the Red Sea have also soared.
Through these attacks, the Houthis have asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Until Israel agrees to a cease-fire, which the Biden administration is still not pressuring Israel to do, Gaza's ripple effects will keep spreading—from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen.
- Giorgio Cafiero
"The Houthi escalation has been carefully calibrated to create a veneer of proportionality," said Elisabeth Kendall, who teaches Arab studies at the University of Cambridge, in an interview with Democracy in Exile. "The threat began as verbal warning, then turned into the launching of missiles and drones that mostly fell short [of Israel], then it pivoted to Israeli-linked shipping, and now to all shipping heading towards Israel. This threat by increments is likely designed to gain maximum publicity, to test red lines and to complicate efforts at resolution."
When the United States and the United Kingdom launched military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen last week, it was the first time that the U.S. military had directly struck the Houthis since October 2016. Two days later, the U.S. military attacked Yemen again, targeting Houthi radar facilities. Then, this week, the U.S. struck Yemen for a third time, targeting Houthi ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon.
The Biden administration has now decided to re-list the Houthis as a "specially designated global terrorist" organization, which comes with sanctions like blocking access to the global financial system. It comes nearly three years after the State Department, during Biden's first days in office, revoked the Trump-era designation of the Houthis as a "foreign terrorist organization," which had severely restricted aid into Yemen and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Following the Biden administration's designation, the U.S. military reportedly launched a fourth round of airstrikes on Yemen.
Compared to the U.S. military's role in the first airstrikes, the U.K.'s was relatively small and mostly aimed at creating a perception of Washington having its close allies on board, which is important for Biden in terms of how he sells this military operation in Yemen to a wary American public during an election year. The involvement of four other countries lending non-operational support to those initial strikes—Australia, Bahrain, Canada and The Netherlands—also seemed designed to bolster this image of the U.S. leading a multilateral operation.
Washington's objective is to establish what it calls "deterrence" over the Houthis and prevent the militant group from continuing its attacks on shipping. But only hours after the initial strikes last week, the Houthis retaliated with missile attacks in the Gulf of Aden.
That only confirmed what practically every Yemen expert predicted: that these military strikes would fail to deter the Houthis. Houthi military infrastructure is spread out so much that a few dozen targeted bombings are unlikely to significantly degrade their ability to continue attacks in the Red Sea. As a militia in Yemen, the Houthis have also proven resilient—in domestic insurgencies going back to the mid-2000s, but most of all, in their war against the U.S.-backed and Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015. That intervention failed to remove the Houthis from power, and Saudi Arabia has spent the past year or more quietly negotiating for a peace deal that could leave the Houthis in control of much of Yemen.
Whether or not they aimed to provoke an American military response, the Houthis remain defiant and likely believe that all this has already paid off for them in boosting their profile and popularity in the region. The Houthis probably expect to gain more in other ways down the line, as they capitalize on the anger in Yemen and throughout the Arab world toward Israel, and by extension the U.S., over the war in Gaza.
Whether or not they aimed to provoke an American military response, the Houthis remain defiant and likely believe that all this has already paid off.
- Giorgio Cafiero
"I believe that there are two main objectives for the Houthis to undertake these operations in the Red Sea," said Gerald M. Feierstein, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama, in an interview with Democracy in Exile. "First, the Houthis see this as an opportunity to establish themselves as a key player in Iran's 'axis of resistance.' Moreover, Yemenis have been very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause over many years, and [the Houthis'] actions taken allegedly in support of Palestinians in Gaza will enhance their support in Yemen, even among those Yemenis who are not in support of their movement domestically."
Kendall shares this assessment. For the Houthis, she said, "framing themselves as the defenders of suffering Palestinians invigorates their exhausted support base and likely wins them broader support beyond their base."
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs who focuses on the Middle East, said that Houthi motivations for attacking global shipping fit into two main categories. First, on the domestic level, the Houthis can "gain domestically and try to consolidate their position by mobilizing opposition to Israel's war in Gaza," Juneau told Democracy in Exile. Second, the Houthis seek to solidify their position as an "indispensable" power in the Middle East. "They have won the war in Yemen, or at least have reached the stage where no one actor can challenge them domestically," he said. "Their ambition now reaches beyond Yemen's borders."
Given that the Houthis have vowed to continue their attacks on ships in the Red Sea until Israel agrees to a cease-fire, the U.S. might soon find itself bogged down in a protracted military campaign in Yemen, even as the Biden administration admits that airstrikes alone against the Houthis will not stop them. "We did not say, when we launched our attacks, they're going to end once and for all, [that] the Houthis will be fully deterred," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the World Economic Forum at Davos this week—which seemed to contradict Biden's stated justifications for the strikes in the first place, that they would "deter and degrade Houthi capacity to conduct future attacks."
The Biden administration's militarized response to Houthi provocations in the Red Sea plays right into their hands. American airstrikes provide the Houthis with a valuable propaganda opportunity to shore up their standing, alongside Hezbollah and Hamas, in what they see as a "resistance bloc" backed by Iran. At a time when anti-American sentiments are sky-high in the Middle East, in large part because of Biden's "iron-clad" support for Israel's war on Gaza, the Houthis stand to gain greater support and credibility in the Arab world if they are seen as standing up to America and Israel in defense of Palestinians.
All the while, the underlying drivers of this growing regional unrest are being downplayed or simply ignored in Washington. "Israel's all-out war against Gaza, coupled with settler violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem, are what's endangering the entire region," said Nabeel Khoury, a retired American diplomat who served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, in an interview with Democracy in Exile. "The sooner this violence is stopped, the safer all will be," he added. "The Biden administration is not currently giving this the priority it deserves."