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The Houthis have the world’s attention — and they won’t give it up

Until last week, the damage wrought by the campaign of attacks Yemen’s Houthis have been waging against shipping in the Red Sea has been mostly measured in dollars and cents. Cargo ships have made long, expensive detours around the Cape of Good Hope; a Tesla factory in Germany halted production thanks to a shortage of parts; Egypt’s cash-strapped government is struggling with the loss of Suez Canal transit fees as ships avoid the Red Sea.

But the crisis took a serious and deadly turn over the past week. Last Saturday, for the first time, the Houthis sank a ship. The tanker Rubymar was struck by a Houthi missile on February 18, and finally sank after weeks of taking on water. In the process of sinking, the Rubymar’s anchor likely damaged three key underwater telecommunications cables in the Red Sea, according to US officials. Meanwhile, the Rubymar’s cargo of 21,000 metric tons of fertilizer threatens to cause an environmental disaster.

Then on Wednesday, three sailors were killed in a missile strike on the container ship True Confidence, some 50 miles off the Yemeni coast. They were the first reported fatalities caused by the Houthi attacks.

The Houthis’ Red Sea campaign is already the most disruptive, consequential, and attention-grabbing of the actions taken by the so-called “Axis of Resistance” of Iranian-backed proxy groups since the war in Gaza began in October. The Houthis have continued their attacks even as other Iran-backed groups have appeared to pull back, wary of a direct military confrontation with the United States. Several rounds of US-led airstrikes have also failed to deter the group.

So what do they really want? And what would make them stop?

The Houthis’ stated goal for their campaign is to disrupt trade linked to Israel and its backers, in solidarity with the people of Gaza. (Notably, though, many of the ships targeted have had few if any links to Israel and the actual Israeli economy has seen relatively little impact. Two of the sailors killed on the True Confidence hailed from the Philippines; one was from Vietnam.)

A spokesman for the group, Mohammed Abdulsalam, told Reuters in February that “there will be no halt to any operations that help Palestinian people except when the Israeli aggression on Gaza and the siege stop.”

A ceasefire in Gaza seems possible in the coming weeks, if not the coming days, but it is far from clear whether that will mean an end to the crisis in the Red Sea as well. For what it’s worth, the Houthis attacked a US warship during the last temporary ceasefire in late November. More fundamentally, a group that few outside the Middle East had given much thought to until a few months ago has, through these attacks, achieved a global profile and shown it can strike at the very heart of global capitalism while resisting the most powerful militaries in the world. Is it really just going to give that up?

As one Yemeni analyst, Mohammed al-Basha of the private consultancy Navanti, put it to Vox, “That’s the million-dollar question.”

The stern of a cargo ship sinking vertically into the water.
The cargo ship Rubymar sinking after it was targeted by Yemen’s Houthi forces in the Red Sea, on March 7, 2024.
 Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images

Opportunity in chaos

As Basha sees it, the strikes in the Red Sea allow the Houthis to “disrupt economic activity, extract political concessions, and bolster their standing as defenders of Palestinians and Yemenis. These motivations would likely persist regardless of ceasefires elsewhere.”

Houthis are no doubt also enjoying the global publicity they have gained, which included a specific mention in President Biden’s State of the Union address on Thursday night. “They’re feeding off of all the media attention. No one’s talking about Hezbollah right now,” said Basha, referring to the Lebanon-based militia that has long been Iran’s largest and most prominent proxy in the Middle East.

All of this would have been unimaginable 20 years ago when Houthi leaders were holed up in caves in the mountains of Northern Yemen, trying to survive under a blistering bombardment from Yemeni government forces. Those attacks would kill Hussein al-Houthi, the group’s founder, namesake, and brother of its current leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

The Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, are members of the minority Zaydi sect of Shia Islam and began as a rebel group fighting the government of longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the 1990s. Even after they regrouped following Hussein’s death and were able to take over the capital city, Sanaa, in 2014, most Western governments viewed them as a regional concern at best. This despite the fact that their official slogan — “Death to America/Death to Israel/Curse upon the Jews/Victory to Islam” — hinted at wider global ambitions.

The Houthis fought a brutal decade-long war against Yemen’s internationally recognized government that was aided by an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia (and supported by the United States). Yemen has been in a state of uneasy truce since a UN-mediated ceasefire in 2022, which has not fully ended the underlying conflict but has brought some degree of relief from a war and a resulting humanitarian crisis that has killed more than 377,000 people.

The Saudis had been looking to extract themselves from what they had come to see as a fruitless quagmire in Yemen and had been involved in talks with the Houthis about making the ceasefire permanent, though that process has been on hold since October 7.

Gregory Johnsen, a veteran Yemen observer and non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the state of play in Yemen prior to the ceasefire is key to understanding their motivations now. The pause in hostilities allowed the Houthis to consolidate control of about a third of Yemen’s territory, home to around 70 percent of its population.

While undoubtedly an effective fighting force, the Houthis have been markedly less effective at governance. They were struggling to provide basic services to the civilian population in the areas they control and were failing to contain infighting from opposition groups. Never exactly liberal pluralists, their rule was becoming increasingly repressive, including targeted assassinations, an extensive surveillance state, and Taliban-like restrictions on women’s rights.

The war in Gaza, therefore, couldn’t have come at a better time.

“War is good for them,” Johnsen said. “The Palestinian cause … is incredibly popular all over Yemen. Just by doing what they’re doing, the Houthis can take advantage of a rally-round-the-flag effect and expand their pool of potential recruits within Yemen.” According to one report from the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, the Houthis have attracted 16,000 recruits to their ranks since the war in Gaza began.

While the Houthis may temporarily halt or reduce their attacks after the fighting in Gaza stops, it seems very unlikely they will stop altogether. For one thing, the Houthis have left themselves quite a bit of wiggle room with their statements on the war. Many in the Middle East would argue that Israeli “aggression” on Gaza and a state of “siege” in the territory existed even before this current war.

“It’s easy to come up with an excuse to launch another missile,” Basha said.

As Johnsen sees it, while the Houthis may be sincere in their support for Palestine, they have also “utilized what’s happening in Gaza to advance their own goals.”

What are those goals exactly?

Ultimately, the Houthis would like to control all of Yemen, in particular the country’s southern coastline as well as valuable oil and gas deposits, which are currently mainly in areas still run by the internationally recognized government. They would also like to be recognized internationally as Yemen’s legitimate government. More ambitiously, Houthi propaganda has also discussed retaking regions across the border in Saudi Arabia with significant Zaydi populations or even retaking the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

That’s still far-fetched, but in their attacks on the Red Sea, the Houthis have discovered that the mere fact of their location, adjacent to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, gives them the ability to sow an enormous amount of chaos with only relatively rudimentary missiles and drones.

“This ability to disrupt is what they are good at,” said Fatima Abo Alasrar, a Yemeni political analyst with the Middle East Institute. “The Houthis are basically seeking to gain bargaining power in negotiations with either Yemeni forces or Saudi Arabia or international stakeholders. Ultimately, they aim to use this leverage to secure favorable terms that would ensure their political survival and influence.”

What does that mean for Yemen’s uneasy ceasefire? Prior to the truce with the Saudi coalition going into effect, the Houthis had been trying to take some of the country’s most valuable energy deposits, as well as Marib, the last major city in Northern Yemen outside their control. In recent weeks, there have been some limited strikes by the Houthis and skirmishes in these areas.

Alasrar is concerned that “when the conflict [in the Red Sea] winds down, that would be a perfect opportunity for them to expand.”

A new star in the axis

One of the most striking things about the Houthis conduct in this war has been the much higher tolerance for risk they’ve shown than many of their Iran-backed militia counterparts — or even Iran itself.

Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria have mostly halted their attacks against US troops in recent weeks: Authorities in Tehran reportedly instructed them to stand down after an attack that killed three US troops in Jordan in January, a potentially dangerous escalation in the ongoing US-Iran shadow war. Hezbollah has continued to fire rockets at northern Israel, and another all-out war on Israel’s northern front is not out of the question, but that group has also appeared to be holding back to some extent, not wanting a repeat of the catastrophic 2006 Lebanon war.

All of which presents another question: How much control does Iran have over the Houthis? Some experts have described the Houthis as a “southern Hezbollah” in terms of their ability to project Iranian power across the region. But one difference is that while Hezbollah seeks to exert power over the Lebanese state, the Houthis seek to be the Yemeni state.

The Houthis have seemed a lot less cautious and a lot less concerned about drawing fire from the US military or anyone else. Unlike in the case of Hezbollah, which also acts as a political party within Lebanon and is somewhat sensitive to public opinion, “there is no domestic politics that can hold [the Houthis] accountable,” Alasrar says. “At the moment, they have absolute control [in the areas they control], and they answer to no one.”

The Houthis are often described as an Iranian proxy, and they undoubtedly rely on funding and weaponry from Iran, but at times they’ve also shown independence. (Iranian officials reportedly advised the Houthis against taking Sanaa in 2014. They were ignored.)

At this point, says Johnsen, “The Houthis are less a proxy of Iran than they are an ally of Iran.”

Just when we thought we were out of Yemen

There’s some dark irony to the fact that the Biden administration finds itself increasingly enmeshed in a conflict with the Houthis. Starting in 2015, under the Obama administration, US lent support to the Saudi-led coalition, but as the war dragged on, the number of casualties rose and human rights criticism of both sides grew. That support became increasingly controversial, including within the administration itself.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are among the Obama administration veterans who during the Trump administration signed a 2018 letter expressing regret for that support and calling for an end to the war. In February 2021, Biden announced a halt to the Saudi war effort — one of his first major foreign policy decisions, and one in keeping with his overall goal of reducing the US military footprint in the Middle East.

But now, Yemen appears to be sucking America’s foreign policy leaders back in.

When it comes to US policy in the Middle East, it’s almost a cliche at this point to say there are no good options, but sometimes there really are just no good options. The US-led naval forces in the Red Sea have been effective at shooting down many of the Houthis’ missiles and drones, but as the strikes on the Rubymar and the True Confidence showed, only a few need to get through to cause catastrophic damage.

The Houthis have also been bold enough to target US warships directly, and it does not seem out of the question that one of these strikes will eventually cause US military casualties. (Two Navy SEALS drowned during an attempt to board a ship suspected of carrying Iranian weapons to Yemen in January.)

The Biden administration has slapped sanctions on the Houthis and restored their Trump-era designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, but that won’t do much against a group that barely participates in the legitimate global economy to begin with.

Nor do regional partners seem eager to help. The Saudis are desperately trying to extract themselves from the war in Yemen, and despite the global economic costs to shipping, many Middle Eastern countries are wary about signing onto a military effort that will be seen as tacitly supporting Israel.

The US and British airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen have not effectively deterred them, which should not be surprising: A decade of Saudi and Emirati airstrikes didn’t deter them either. The rationale for these strikes appears to be based on “a mistaken analysis of how much pain the Houthis can endure,” said Johnsen. “They’ve been fighting for the past few decades, and they’ve endured quite a bit.”

While some analysts have called for the US to commit itself to an effort to defeat the Houthis, there’s little appetite in Washington to get more deeply involved in another Middle Eastern civil war.

Some critics of Biden’s support for Israel have suggested that rather than fighting the Houthis, the US should focus on pressuring Israel to stop its war in Gaza — the proximate cause of this crisis. But even if the US can pull this off, it may not make a difference in Yemen. The Houthis have the world’s attention, and they don’t appear likely to give it up any time soon.

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