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Yemen’s Houthis reject US incentives to stop Red Sea attacks, sources say

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have dismissed incentives proposed by the United States to curb their attacks in the Red Sea, Yemeni political sources told The National on Tuesday.

The heavily armed militia carried out at least four attacks on ships and US military targets in the strategic waters over the last seven days following a two-week lull.

Sources indicated that before the attacks resumed, the Iran-backed group was evaluating US “incentives,” which included lifting the blockade on the capital Sanaa and Hodeidah port on the western coast, as well as hastening peace talks, in exchange for the group ceasing its attacks.

“The Houthis have received many incentives since the start of operations in the Red Sea. But they are concluding that what’s being offered isn’t enough to stop,” said one of the Yemeni political sources.

“They are seeing these offers as blackmail in the humanitarian file because the issue of opening the airport or port or bringing in necessary needs is a right of the Yemenis and should not be used as a pressure card on Sanaa,” added the source.

A source close to the Houthis confirmed that “no understanding has been reached between the United States and the Ansar Allah movement [the Houthis] about stopping military operations by the Yemenis in the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden”.

Since the outbreak of Israel’s war in Gaza in October, the Yemeni rebels, who control Sanaa and territories in the north and west, launched dozens of attacks on international shipping in the strategic waters off Yemen.

The group claim to be carrying out the attacks in solidarity with Palestinians and their ally Hamas, demanding an end to Israel’s devastating war in Gaza.

Their attacks in the Red Sea have disrupted global shipping, forcing companies to reroute to longer and more expensive journeys around southern Africa.

This emergence as an unexpected threat to Israel and a strategic shipping route prompted retaliatory strikes by the US and Britain since February. Washington also designated the militia that has seized control of Yemen’s capital in late 2014 as a “terrorist group”.

US officials declined to comment on the incentives.

However, Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said last week that her administration encouraged “indirect and then direct discussions”.

 

A second Yemeni political source said that the Houthis “understand” that they are now “part of a joint [regional] operation room” and that their decisions are linked to other anti-Israel factions in the Middle East.

The source added that the Houthis sent messages to the US and the UK through mediators warning them of “severe retaliation” in the Red Sea and “inside Yemen” if their attacks against their forces continue.

The heavily armed militia has bolstered its fighting capabilities since the civil war started in the country in 2014, posing a serious threat to its neighbours.

Up until the end of 2018, the Houthis frequently used ballistic missiles they captured from army depots. But in the past five years, they have shifted to small, long-range, explosive unmanned aircraft that can evade radar detection.

The Houthis have now reportedly become self-sufficient in developing their weapons and they no longer require significant help from Iran.

 

Taxing a choke point
The 32km-wide Bab Al Mandeb at the neck of the southern Red Sea is a choke point used by the Houthis to launch their attacks on shipping.

According to leading analysts, the Houthi rebels could even plan to introduce a permit scheme that could raise finances for the group by allowing ships safe passage through the Red Sea for a charge.

They could use their leverage to “figure out a mechanism where for you to pass by the Red Sea via Bab Al Mandeb you have to apply for a permit or get a licence,” said Mohammed Albasha, a senior analyst with the Navanti Group, an international analytics company.

He said that the Houthis were already issuing permits to ships to ensure that they were not struck and “verified that it’s not a ship linked to the US, UK or Israel”.

“This permit mechanism is one way that they’re going to also benefit financially from this, like the Suez Canal is benefiting money.”

Shipping companies have been urged not to pay the Yemen extremists’ license to get vessels through the Bab Al Mandeb as it would legitimise the rebels. Companies would also very probably face prosecution from US authorities.

Before the Houthi attacks on shipping began following the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel, Egypt earned $9.4 billion from charging ships to transit the Suez Canal last year.

Last month, the Houthis imposed permit applications on ships entering Yemeni ports they controlled.

However, charging them to pass through the Red Sea would be a new phenomenon, said John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, adding that some companies “potentially” might pay the levy.

Regular air strikes by the US and British have also put a dent in the Houthi offensive capabilities and their stockpile of cruise missiles appears to have diminished, the International Institute for Strategic Studies webinar Turmoil in the Red Sea: assessing the Houthis’ strategic agenda was told.

Yet, having received training and parts from Iran, the Houthis can manufacture their ballistic missiles, kamikaze drones and boats although they still have to smuggle in cruise missile parts which they then assemble in Yemen.

While the Houthis vowed to increase their attacks they now have fewer vessels in the area with the vast majority of western shipping going via southern Africa.

Ultimately, the Houthis may be following the example of the Taliban by waiting for US patience to run out.

“They have seen what happened in Afghanistan, that if you exert enough pressure sooner or later they will pull out,” said Mr Albasha, who leads Navanti’s risk analysis and emerging threats in the Arabian Peninsula.

“They will continue to harass coalition warships in the region until they push them out.”

 

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