US bombs won't stop the Houthis. Yemenis will pay the price

US bombs won't stop the Houthis, but Yemenis will pay the price
7 min read

Arwa Mokdad

25 January, 2024
The West's willingness to use to military force pushes the region closer to the brink of war, all to avoid calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, writes Arwa Mokdad.
The US and UK have a long history of flexing their military might to try and get their way in the Middle East, writes Arwa Mokdad. [Getty]

For 111 days, Israel's unrelenting bombardment of Gaza with America’s blank cheque of support has pushed the Middle East closer to the precipice of regional chaos.

But rather than recognising this dangerous trajectory and working towards peace, the US is escalating tensions in the region on multiple fronts.

In response to Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, Ansar Allah— commonly referred to as the Houthis— implemented a blockade in the Red Sea, targeting ships to disrupt global trade.

From the beginning, Houthi demands and motivations have been clear: they will not allow any Israeli-linked ship to pass via the Bab el-Mandeb strait on Yemen’s southern coast unless there is a ceasefire in Gaza and humanitarian aid is fully allowed in.

These acts of economic sabotage have resulted in no deaths or serious injuries, and are intended to do only material damage. However, the joint US & UK military response has killed at least 15 Yemenis already.

Now, the solution to this threat to international shipping appears clear: call for a ceasefire. The majority of the world supports this, with 153 countries voting for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire at the UN. Even within the US, 61% of voters support the US calling for a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation in Gaza.

Still, the US and UK instead decided to once again resort to brute force and military power in the Middle East, launching strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen to deter the group's blockade in the Red Sea.

This only increased Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. In turn, the US re-designated the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, a move that threatens the flow of humanitarian aid amid an already dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

In Yemen, which has seen almost a decade of war, 80 percent of the population requires humanitarian assistance and one child dies every 10 minutes. To designate the Houthis a terrorist organisation is to exacerbate an already catastrophic situation. It amounts to collective punishment of the Yemeni people.

By choosing violence, political isolation, and humanitarian restrictions, the US has further radicalised the Houthis and punished everyday Yemenis while also derailing international shipping.

But there are no limits to what the US will do to enable Israel’s inhumane violence in Gaza and avoid calling for a ceasefire at all costs.

While the Houthis have gained politically by aligning themselves with Palestine, it is true that they are genuinely ideologically committed to Palestinian liberation.

Much analysis on Houthi actions in the Red Sea has focused on their own personal gains- regional legitimacy and domestic support- both crucial for a rebel group turned de-facto government of over 80 percent of the population.

However, the core of the issue is Palestine. The Houthis consider themselves the last defenders of Palestine. While the Houthis are often discussed as part of the Axis of Resistance, they are disappointed with both Hezbollah and Iran for not supporting Palestine enough.

For the Houthis, Palestine is worth any cost and they will not stop until there is a ceasefire. Even if they wanted to, it would be politically impossible for them to backtrack given pro-Palestinian sentiment in Yemen and the region.

Following Houthi actions in the Red Sea, they have recruited more soldiers, become media darlings in the Middle East, and won support from their own enemies. Even commanders who are fighting against the Houthis are complimenting them for the blockade.

While Western policy advisors tend to view politics via a rationalist-materialist lens, we have to consider identity and emotion when it comes to Palestine.

For 111 days, the people of the Middle East have been watching their brothers and sisters murdered live for the world to see. This is not politics, but a genocide of those they consider family. We must remember that while many Arab leaders have been bought and now have diplomatic relations with Israel, this sentiment does not extend to their citizens.

During my time in the Gulf, I was stunned by the level of Palestinian support. The Houthis not only understand this sentiment, but feel it themselves. As such, their actions in the Red Sea are deemed a moral obligation, not a political action.

Internationally, most countries seem to recognise this popular support for Palestine in the region and the risk of further conflict. Most are also clearly not interested in participating in US-led military operations in the Red Sea.

After over nine years of war, the Houthis are battle-hardened and there are no real targets anymore. As such, US actions are symbolic and threaten to prolong war and harm humanitarian aid with no real objective.

These airstrikes are part of a wider trend of inflammatory and dangerous US policy in the Middle East, with complete impunity. Rather than pursuing engagement and collaboration with local actors, the US often resorts to force, both economically via sanctions and militarily via strikes and at times even invasions.

These acts of violence have continued despite violating international norms, partly due to impunity in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And ultimately, these military campaigns always fail to secure US interests in the region and instead result in massive destruction and further radicalisation. Yet this cycle is being played out again in Yemen.

While the US continues to claim that they are not at war with Yemen, this is a difficult argument to maintain after eight rounds of airstrikes.

For Yemenis, this is war. Why? Because it's their land being bombed. Their lives lost. Their futures on hold. Over nine years of war with a wide array of foreign actors has left the country devastated. Now, the country is being bombed again, inspiring terror and disillusion.

These bombs are being dropped in Sana’a, a highly populated city. Videos circulating online show explosions near people’s homes. The Houthis are not being impacted by these bombs, but the average Yemeni now has a front row seat in their own bedroom to the demolition of their homeland.

When asked if military strikes in Yemen are working, Biden recently stated “no” but “Are they going to continue? Yes.” These ineffective strikes clearly will not deter the Houthis, but they threaten long-awaited UN peace efforts in the poorest country in the region.

A UN-negotiated truce has held over the past year and a half, bringing Yemenis a much needed break. Now, US and UK strikes may reignite internal warfare and halt on-going negotiations.

Peace in the Middle East will only come through a comprehensive resolution in Palestine. This entails diplomacy, cooperation, and compromise— not more airstrikes in a region fraught with violence.

Arwa Mokdad is a Peace Advocate at Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. She also works as a Yemen Analyst at the International Center for Dialogue Initiatives and is an MPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on local, regional, and international mediation in Yemen. 

Follow her on Twitter: @arwa_mokdad

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