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West won’t stop Houthi attacks unless it works with Yemeni authorities, say experts

 Diplomatic editor

Western efforts to stop Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea will fail unless the US and its allies build stronger intelligence and military relations with the UN-recognised government in Yemen, politicians and experts are warning.

Yemen’s ambassador to the UK has warned the Houthis have to be confronted and driven away from Red Sea ports such as Hodeidah. Similar calls were made by members of the Yemeni government coalition when they visited London last month.

At present, American and British diplomats are reluctant to draw the Aden-based government closer into its Red Sea operations, fearing this could reignite a civil war that has been on effective hold since April 2022.

They worry as well that an outline peace plan agreed last October between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia could be cast aside if they start strengthening the UN-recognised government.

But they also acknowledge there is little sign US-UK strikes on Houthi positions along the coastline have had a full deterrent effect, and other options have to be kept on the table.

That assessment was underlined at the weekend when a multiple Houthi drone strike on western ships early on Saturday morning forced US, French, UK and Danish ships to become involved in a complex and largely successful operation to shoot down more than 35 Houthi drones and missiles. Four were aimed at the already stricken bulk carrier True Confidence, which was being escorted by the French frigate Alsace after being hit on Wednesday, killing three sailors. British and Danish ships both shot down drones in their vicinity.

The Italian destroyer Caio Duilio coordinated the four ships working as the EU protection force.

Since 19 October, the Yemeni movement has launched 403 missiles or drones against 61 ships. As many as 15 missiles have struck targets. The three most serious incidents have been the sinking of the Rubymar, the capture of Galaxy Leader and its crew, and the serious damage inflicted on True Confidence.

The Houthis, keen users of social media, also screened on Sunday a video of a mock Yemeni attack in the Negev desert in southern Israel, in which buildings displaying US, UK and Israeli flags were attacked. The US has admitted in congressional hearings that its intelligence about Houthi activity is limited.

Maj Gen Aidarous al-Zubaidi, vice-chair of the Aden-based Yemen government executive – the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) – on Sunday again called for western help in building its naval forces.

Yemen’s ambassador to London, Dr Yassin Saeed Noman Ahmed, said an opportunity existed to seize back control of the strategic port of Hodeidah from Houthi control. “We are facing a group that cannot live without war, and it is not surprising that it obstructs all peace efforts by insisting on plunging the country into a catastrophe of destruction.”

He claimed there was a new opportunity to take back Hodeidah – adding that peace would not be achieved without its liberation, and leaving it in Houthi hands would only prolong the war.

Different branches of the badly divided Aden-based government were in London last month, arguing the western position had been too reactive, and lacked an overall vision for how Yemen could fit into a new Middle East.

Tareq Saleh, a senior figure in the PLC, told a Chatham House seminar: “It is not possible that the Houthis got this many weapons in reaction to what is happening in Gaza. This has been pre-planned for years. The quantity of missiles and drones they have never came from our stocks. They have the markings and colour of the Iranians. The Iranians and the Houthis have been trying to hijack the Palestinian file from the Arab world.”

He said the crisis would not end with resolution in Gaza, since Iranians wanted to control the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea. The Houthis say they are attacking Israeli-linked shipping in solidarity with Palestinians.

Tehran has denied any involvement in supplying weapons.

Baraa Shiban, an associate fellow at the defence thinktank Rusi, said: “Western governments do not have a basket of good options, but they need to work more with the UN recognised Yemeni government – the anti-Houthi bloc – more so it has the edge and leverage to prevent the coastline being controlled by the Houthis. The channels of communication between the Yemen government and western governments is surprisingly limited.

“You do not need to ignite the whole civil war again but you need to give them enough help to give them the advantage, and right now that is not what is happening.

“The UN backed forces on the west coast right now are sitting ducks waiting to be attacked by the Houthis. The Houthis are making the case to the public that they need to take control of the entire coast down the Babal-Mandab strait because they need to be able to hit shipping more accurately.”

Ta’izz governorate, which includes part of the west coast, is divided between Houthi and government control.

Shiban said: “This is going to be difficult. The Houthis finally have leverage over the international community and they are not going to give that up easily.”

The Aden-based government is in a quandary in that the Palestinian cause is popular in Yemen, and many see the Houthis as at least standing up to Israel in a way that other Gulf leaders have avoided. One expert claimed the Houthi actions in the Red Sea may have helped it to recruit tens of thousands of new fighters.

The Aden government is fighting back by claiming the Houthis actions including the sinking of the Rubymar will bring famine and a marine environmental disaster that will damage fishers’ lives for generations. The information minister, Moammar al-Eryani, said the disaster would lead to the proliferation of algae, forming a cover over the surface of the water and blocking light from it, leading to the death of coral reefs and marine animals.

In the absence of greater cooperation with the anti-Houthi bloc inside Yemen or any troops on the ground, western forces have limited other options apart from hoping more attacks on Yemen missile launch sites will finally degrade the Houthis’ effectiveness, or that upon a ceasefire in Gaza the Houthis will stick to their promise to end the attacks and there will be a revival of the peace process. But that requires diplomats treating the Houthis after the past four months as credible partners for peace.

The US has not ruled out targeted assassinations of key Houthi leaders, while US senators want the US to sink an Iranian ship, Beshad, that for months has been cited as a spy ship in US intelligence reports.

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