A Slippery Slope? Strikes might spark wider warfare in the region, jeopardizing the delicate Saudi-Houthi cease-fire. In response to the group’s attacks on civilian and military ships in the Red Sea, the United States and the United Kingdom initiated military operations against Houthi targets in Yemen on January 12. Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands all joined in.
The US-led strikes constitute a substantial escalation and part of the rising regional repercussions of the Israel-Hamas conflict, which the US has aggressively sought to prevent from devolving into a regional war.
A Slippery Slope? U.S., U.K. Launch Strikes on Iran-Backed Houthis
On February 6, 2015, Houthi rebel forces gathered in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Iran has equipped the rebels with missiles and drones, endangering both Washington’s allies and Tehran’s adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Tyler Hicks/New York Times)
The Houthis’ attacks on ships, which began shortly after the commencement of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and are claimed to be in support of the Palestinians, have affected global commerce and supply networks.
The international reaction to the US-led strikes has ranged from criticism from Iran and NATO ally Turkey to appeals for moderation from Saudi Arabia and backing from other NATO allies including France and Germany.
Sarhang Hamasaeed of USIP examines the relevance of recent developments, as well as their broader consequences. What is the purpose of the strikes on the Houthis? And how would these strikes affect the fragile cease-fire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia?
The operations against the Houthis are in response to their attacks on ships in the Red Sea, particularly the barrage of drones and missiles launched on January 9. They plan to send a message to the Houthis that their military provocations will not go unchallenged.
President Joe Biden, who ordered the attacks, stated that he would “not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.” The strikes targeted radars, weapons stores, and launching systems in numerous Yemeni provinces, including the capital, Sana’a, the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, and the Houthi leadership’s residence in Saada.
Despite these strikes, the Houthis maintain the potential to attack the Red Sea and have already threatened reprisal. Further escalation might lead to Houthi strikes against US and allied interests, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of whom the Houthis have already targeted.
These developments would imperil Yemen’s hard-won successes, including a truce that decreased internal violence and cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, as well as an ongoing attempt by FSO Safer to prevent an environmental disaster.
Over a million barrels of oil have been extracted from the deteriorating oil supertanker, which was abandoned off Yemen’s Red Sea coast after the country descended into civil strife.
What type of backing does the Houthis receive from Iran? Is there a larger chance of a direct clash between the US and Iran?
Iran is a major sponsor and enabler of the Houthis. During the Yemen crisis, Iran supplied political, military, and other assistance, such as training, arms, and information. It is thought that Iranian intelligence, technology, and weapons helped the Houthis to launch their operations in the Red Sea.
Iran has found it cost-effective to support the Houthis. This support has evolved into a strategic relationship with substantial returns. The Houthis are not as valuable to Iran as Lebanese Hezbollah, thus it is unlikely that Iran will challenge the US or its allies to assist them.
However, the Houthis’ active engagement in assaulting Israel and ships in the Red Sea demonstrates the versatility of Iran’s investments and suggests that their value may have increased.
Iran deployed a cruiser to the Red Sea earlier this month as a show of might, but it is unclear whether it is willing to do more given that it continues to communicate that it is not seeking war. However, Iran-backed organizations in Iraq and Yemen have directly targeted US military assets.
In both countries, the United States has been patient, attempting to stop such attacks through diplomatic channels, and responding only as a last measure. Iran and its allies may have assumed that the US does not want a major response and that they can accept some pain — for example.
Retaliatory military action from the US — in exchange for the benefits they perceive from confrontation with a superpower, such as an increase in their profile and a deepening of their regional role.
People with anti-Iran attitudes in Iraq and Yemen hoped that the United States would target leaders of Iran-backed groups to demonstrate its sincerity, roll them back, and establish deterrence. This is a perilous area, with plenty of possibility for error and escalation.
What are the various possibilities for Houthi actions in the Red Sea, and how can the international community prepare for them?
The situation in Yemen and the Red Sea might escalate in many ways. The Houthis’ strikes against Red Sea targets are likely to grow in scope and complexity.
They may broaden their attacks to encompass military and civilian ships from other nations participating in Operation Prosperity Guardian, as well as all ships passing through the region. As a result of the Houthis’ strikes, maritime businesses are already avoiding the Red Sea, which increases cargo time and costs.
The Houthis are keeping an eye on Saudi Arabia and the UAE in case those two countries back action against them, at which point they may resume attacks.
The fragile truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which has been in place for more than a year, may break down, causing a huge defeat and reigniting combat with forces fighting under the banner of the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
Speaking at a USIP event in October, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking underlined Yemen’s progress toward ending the war and emphasized the importance of safeguarding those accomplishments, as Yemen cannot afford another war.
In terms of the international community’s response, increasing the coalition that supports Operation Prosperity Guardian is one approach to put more pressure on the Houthis.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution on January 10 denouncing the Houthi attacks and demanding that they cease is a crucial step toward developing a worldwide response, even though China and Russia abstained.
What lessons can the United States and its allies draw from Saudi Arabia’s conflict with the Houthis?
Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen aimed to stop Houthi attacks on its territories while also shifting the balance of power in Yemen through the deployment of military force.
A crucial learning from the Saudi intervention is that the deployment of force and extended fighting benefited the Houthis. It contributes to their narrative of standing up to an outside aggressor — now a global coalition led by a superpower rather than a regional one led by Saudi Arabia — while standing for what is right.
Another lesson is that in an attempt to restrain the Houthis, the Saudis blocked port access and prohibited aircraft from Houthi-controlled territory. Ordinary Yemenis suffered the most as a result, and public opinion of Saudi Arabia worsened.
The sooner the fighting in Gaza ends, the less excuse the Houthis have for attacking ships in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, the US and its partners face the tough task of avoiding getting sucked into the Yemeni conflict.