'Don't say Gaza': Why US strikes on Houthis miss the mark

'Don't say Gaza': Why US strikes against Yemen's Houthis miss the mark
6 min read

Magnus Fitz

01 February, 2024
For the US to achieve its objectives in the Red Sea, it must recognise that Israel's war on Gaza does, in fact, play a role, writes Magnus Fitz.
The Houthis have been clear that, by targeting commercial shipping, they want to force a ceasefire in Gaza. [Getty]

The eyes of the world - and Western Middle East analysts - have again set on the Houthis, after the Yemeni armed group started attacking and hijacking commercial ships in the Red Sea this past November, as response to Israel’s brutal war on Gaza.

From their positions in the Yemeni highland and on the Tehama coast, the Houthis have effectively enforced a naval blockade, forcing commercial vessels bound for Israel and Europe to detour around Africa and disrupting global trade.

Their unchallenged presence in the Red Sea was asking questions of the United States, who finally responded earlier this month by means of airstrikes and missiles on Houthi military installations.

The Houthi attacks on commercial vessels - and the recent American-British response - has sparked a debate about how best to contain the Houthis. Many have supported the airstrikes, arguing that the risk posed by the Houthis to global commerce warrants military measures. Others have argued, as one analyst recently did in Foreign Affairs, in favour of diplomacy.

Neither side is likely to be proven right. The Houthis have survived eight years of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, and are unlikely to be deterred sufficiently by US airstrikes.

At the same time, the Houthis have made their bread and butter exploiting negotiations and peace talks, setting maximalist demands, usually getting their concessions, before resuming military activities once they have regrouped and regained strength.

Today, the Houthis are amassing troops around Ma’rib, the oil-rich government stronghold. The group failed to capture Ma’rib back in 2021, and when they subsequently agreed to the first UN-brokered ceasefire shortly after, experts suggested that this was done in part to buy time before making a second assault. Now, despite a much-publicised peace deal, that assault appears increasingly imminent.

According to recent reports, military personnel from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah are also assisting the Houthis with identifying their targets. This could or could not be a sign of an increasing Iranian role in Yemen – either way, the United States and Britain might come to learn why Yemen, as Saudi Arabia did, has so often been referred to as a ‘quagmire,’ should they keep up their current approach.

But this is besides the point. By insisting on seeing the situation through this false dilemma, Western analysts of both camps are jumping through hurdles to avoid addressing the famous elephant in the room: Israel’s war on Gaza.

Because the Houthis have been nothing if not up-front about their ambitions in the Red Sea: by targeting commercial shipping, they want to force a ceasefire in Gaza.

Not surprisingly, Houthi actions in the Red Sea fit neatly into their broader ideology. As asserted by Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and leading expert on the Houthis, the group’s ambitions extend beyond Yemen, fancying themselves a transnational anti-imperialist movement.

This is not to say that the Houthis are doing this strictly out of solidarity to Palestinians. The Houthis run a brutally repressive regime from Sana’a, and do seem significantly less concerned with the human rights of Yemenis than those of Palestinians.

As many have pointed out, the Houthis have a lot to gain from appearing to fight for Gaza: they enjoy limited domestic support, and opposing Israel could prove a much-needed distraction. The US airstrikes are likely to reinforce their narrative of resistance against Western and American imperialism in the Middle East.

Regardless of the purity of their intentions, a calculus remains at the core of their actions: right now, they are able to extract public support by their actions in the Red Sea, at minimal risk.

They are able to do this, at least in part, because Israel’s relentless war has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians and counting, as per Gaza’s Health Ministry.

In other words: for the Houthis, the war on Gaza has made idealism cheap.

A lasting ceasefire could potentially alter this equation. While the Palestinian cause is massively popular in Yemen and the region, there is a limit to how long the Houthis would be able to extract support from targeting ships in the Red Sea if the war ceased in Gaza, particularly because the naval blockade also negatively impacts the people of Yemen.

With Gaza a heightened concern for the moment, Yemenis might be able to look past rising import costs in the short term, but are unlikely to remain this forgiving for long.

On January 17, the Biden Administration re-designated the Houthis a terrorist organisation. The measure is expected to have minimal impact on the Houthis, financial or otherwise. The re-designation is, as characterised by Ibrahim Jalal, Yemen analyst and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, “stillborn.” It does, however, risk exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis and a fragile peace process.

By own admission, both options available to the United States – bombs or diplomacy – are poor. In such a case, one might suggest that American analysts look inward, and apply pressure on their own government to cease its unreserved support to an Israeli regime that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has found could plausibly be committing genocide in Gaza.

A ceasefire in Gaza might not deter the Houthis completely, but could serve to raise the political and financial cost of their Red Sea operations. Not a bad place to start in the absence of other effective measures.

Farea Al-Muslimi, Yemen and Gulf analyst at Chatham House, argues that for the Houthis, successfully forcing a ceasefire in Gaza would be a ‘dream’ that could see them halt their attacks. It could prove to be a victory so significant that it alters their internal calculations.

A continuation of attacks, however, would not provide any further value, but could instead risk diminishing what they already gained in terms of public support. It could serve to increase the cost of Houthi idealism.

The international response to the war in Yemen has a poor track record: more often an obstacle than a helpful hand. In 2018, a UN-brokered ceasefire prevented government forces from reclaiming the city of Hudaydah from the Houthis. Today, that port town is central to Houthi projections of power in the Red Sea.

Before the US deliberates how to next involve itself in Yemen, it must first recognise how Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza fuels conflict in the Middle East.

For American interests in the region, its Israel policy remains a bonfire, the sparks of which will ignite new conflicts until it is put out.

Magnus Fitz is a researcher and program manager at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, an independent Yemeni think tank.

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