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The US’ Red Sea strategy has failed to deter the Houthis

More than three months have elapsed since the United States launched its naval task force Operation Prosperity Guardian, accompanied by American and British airstrikes in January, that aimed to deter Yemen’s Houthis from attacking Red Sea trade.

Despite these efforts, the Houthis have not relented on their drone and missile attacks on a broad spectrum of international shipping cargoes, as well as US-led naval forces themselves.

Ultimately, the ongoing standoff raises questions over future security in the region and Yemen, as well as the potential for it to enhance Iran’s influence, given its support for the Houthis.

Yet it also cast doubts on whether the US can continue policing this vital shipping route, through which 10-15 per cent of global trade and 30 per cent of the world’s hydrocarbons have traditionally passed.

“Beyond assembling a naval coalition of various Western allies to protect shipping, and conducting airstrikes to degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities, the Biden administration appears to lack a solid plan on how to address the crisis”
Unsustainable Western policy
Beyond assembling a naval coalition of various Western allies to protect shipping, while conducting airstrikes to degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities, Joe Biden’s administration appears to lack a solid plan on how to address the crisis.

As Yemeni analyst Baraa Shiban wrote, the US-led response and airstrikes “do not showcase a sustainable Western policy towards Yemen, but instead represent a confused military strategy that’s unlikely to produce results”.

Indeed, following nearly eight years of brutal war in Yemen, which has killed upwards of 377,000 people through direct and indirect causes, the Houthis have expanded their territory and styled themselves as official representatives in the country.

That’s despite the country still being split between the Houthis, the internationally recognised government, and UAE-backed southern forces.

Stagnated UN-led peace measures since a ceasefire in April 2022 have also enabled the Houthis to fill the vacuum left by a devastated Yemeni state. These international diplomatic initiatives have been further neglected amid the focus on wider regional tensions.

The faction has continued brutally imposing its rule through measures such as unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, public flogging, punishments like crucifixion, and smuggling of humanitarian aid.

However, the Houthis’ position looks set to grow stronger.

While the initial airstrikes were believed to have dented Houthi capabilities, US officials have admitted that locating many Houthi weaponry storage targets has proved challenging, showcasing a black hole in their intelligence.

Indeed, throughout Yemen’s war, the Houthis have demonstrated their versatility and abilities to withstand the damage of Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, with its military assets scattered across mountainous and urban areas.

The Belize-flagged, British-registered cargo ship Rubymar was struck by Houthis missiles in February.
US and UK warships have come under attack from ballistic missiles and suicide drones, following airstrikes, forcing them to conduct interceptions.

And with the British Royal Navy ships lacking the missile capabilities to hit Houthi targets, it’s meant that the Royal Air Force has had to operate from its Cyprus base, Akrotiri, to support American airstrikes, while its navy can merely intercept Houthi drones.

“It is very difficult to conceive of a strategy that could compel the Houthis to stop their attacks”, Thomas Juneau, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, told The New Arab.

“They likely make the calculus that sustaining limited damage from US strikes is well worth the cost.”

“Throughout Yemen’s war, the Houthis have demonstrated their versatility and abilities to withstand the damage of Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, with their military assets scattered across mountainous and urban areas”
Leveraging public opinion
Arguably, the stand-off has been somewhat of a net win for the Houthis. Although they have lost at least 34 fighters as of March, it’s made them widely popular in Yemen, as well as elsewhere regionally.

“The Houthis are leveraging the Western military operations against them to bolster their popularity among pro-Palestinian Arab publics,” wrote Afrah Nasser, adding that the US’ renewed terrorist designation on the Houthis will do little to weaken the faction and will only see aid to impoverished Yemenis decrease.

As for Gaza, the Houthis have presented their moves as solidarity with the Palestinians and a form of ‘sanctions’ on Israel amid its war on the besieged enclave.

To an extent, this has put pressure on Israel. On 20 March, Israel’s Eilat port management said it would lay off around 50 per cent of its staff after the Red Sea port’s commercial activities had dropped by around 85 per cent.

 

Should a ceasefire eventually come, the Houthis may claim that as a “victory” for having put pressure on Israel and its Western backers, as a means of gaining further public support in Yemen.

However, the repercussions have grown wider, significantly impacting international trade. Cargo traffic through the southern Red Sea has decreased by approximately 70 percent since early December, while container shipping has seen a decline of about 90 percent, and the transit of gas tankers has nearly ceased altogether.

The Houthis assured both China and Russia that their own cargo would be safe, largely due to their alliances with Iran. However, there have been multiple ‘misfires’ resulting in hits on commercial vessels from both countries. Some cargo destined to and from those countries has also been forced to reroute.

 

Deepening Iranian influence
With an uncertain future over the Red Sea’s stability, the Houthis have advanced their own weapons capabilities.

In March, the faction claimed to have procured hypersonic missiles that are capable of “reaching speeds of up to Mach 8 [i.e. eight times the speed of sound] and runs on solid fuel”.

Due to their extreme speed, such missiles can be challenging to intercept. Also within its arsenal are shore-to-sea Tankil Missiles, Quds Z-0 cruise missiles, and Iranian-made Toofan missiles.

The now-advanced capabilities of the Houthis highlighted ongoing support from Iran, something that the UN, as well as US and Western intelligence agencies, have repeatedly reported. Tehran’s sustained backing also enables the replenishment of the Houthis’ supplies, including those destroyed in airstrikes.

“It is very difficult to conceive of a strategy that could compel the Houthis to stop their attacks. They likely make the calculus that sustaining limited damage from US strikes is well worth the cost”
Nabil Al-Bukiri, a Yemeni researcher based in Istanbul, told The New Arab that airstrikes and deterrence are not the answer.

“If there is no real international support for the legitimate Yemeni government to overthrow the Houthis and restore the country and constitutional legitimacy, then there is no doubt the Houthi group will represent a permanent threat for international interests in the Red Sea and elsewhere,” he said.

Nabil added that the Houthis’ actions serve to enhance “Iran’s interests” both in the Gulf and the Red Sea, following the strengthening of ties between the two.

Given Israel’s bombing of Iran’s consulate in Syria on 1 April, which killed several employees and an Iranian commander, Iran has promised retaliation, which may entail low-level operations. Encouraging the Houthis to conduct further Red Sea attacks may be a part of that.

Without any wider actions to support Yemeni and regional stability, the threats that the Houthis pose won’t disappear anytime soon.

“It is plausible that they would stop their attacks if or when there is a cease-fire on Gaza. But this would only be temporary,” said Thomas Juneau.

“There can be no doubt that they would not hesitate to threaten shipping in the Red Sea again to extract concessions or simply put pressure on Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States in the future.”

Ultimately, the rise of the Houthis has posed a fresh challenge towards Western efforts to protect international shipping lines. It also highlights the flaws in the US’ strategy of simply pursuing deterrence and imposing its influence through force, all while overlooking and neglecting Yemen’s stability.

International actors could simultaneously strive for an end to the war on Gaza but also relaunch comprehensive diplomatic efforts in Yemen to restrengthen its internationally recognised government.

Neighbouring Arab Gulf states that have sat on the sidelines in this standoff, including Saudi Arabia and Oman, would almost certainly prefer that approach, especially given their own concerns over instability in Yemen.

Yet with these actions seemingly a distant prospect, an uncertain period over the Red Sea’s future certainly looms.

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