February 26, 2024

The Red Sea Crisis Continues with No Resolution in Sight

AP Photo, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Houthi movement of Yemen has continued attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea despite U.S.-led “dynamic” strikes on Houthi weaponry being readied for launch.
  • The current U.S. and allied approach assumes that the Houthi arsenal can be degraded to the point where the attacks stop.
  • The lack of clear results from the allied strategy is prompting growing calls for U.S. officials to support ground operations by the Houthis’ domestic opponents in Yemen.
  • Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are disinclined to re-engage the Houthis militarily, seeking to avoid provoking the Houthis to resume missile and armed drone attacks on their territory.

In late October, the Houthi movement in Yemen began a campaign of missile and armed drone attacks on Israeli targets and U.S. and allied warships, claiming they were acting to compel the international community to intervene in an effort to halt Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Observing most of their barrages intercepted or missing any targets by a wide margin, on November 19, the Houthis began targeting Israel-affiliated commercial ships transiting the Red Sea, at first with a helicopter-borne boarding and seizure of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship. The establishment in December of a U.S.-led maritime security coalition of more than 20 nations, Operation Prosperity Guardian, failed to deter the Houthis, as did the subsequent deployment of separate European Union (EU) and even Chinese maritime forces off Yemen’s coast. The Houthi attacks have caused many shipping lines to avoid the Red Sea, slowing shipping and adding to its costs. Global officials broadly cite the Houthis as threatening the freedom of navigation and global commerce. In the first half of February, the Suez Canal, at the entrance to the Red Sea, experienced a 42% drop in monthly transits and an 82% decrease in container tonnage from its peak in 2023, according to the United Nations.

In mid-January, following more than 20 Houthi attacks on commercial ships, the United States and the United Kingdom led a 14-nation campaign to “degrade and deter” the Houthi attacks by striking Houthi missile and drone launch and storage facilities and associated targets such as radar and air defense installations. The U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, who has been trying to negotiate a settlement in Yemen since early 2021, summed up the strategy by remarking: “The Houthis can keep doing this or they can stop and we can go back to peace.” Still unable to halt the Houthi attacks, in late January, the United States and the UK began conducting “dynamic” strikes – attacks against Houthi weaponry observed being readied to launch against commercial shipping. By early February, U.S.-led strikes had destroyed more than 100 missiles and launches, including anti-ship missiles, drones, radars, unmanned waterborne drones, and other equipment, according to U.S. Defense Department officials. However, even a more proactive approach did not deter the Houthis, who in mid-February conducted their first strike that disabled and forced the crew to abandon a commercial ship, the Belize-flagged, UK-registered vessel M/K Rubymar, which is leaking oil and taking on water. On February 22, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said there had been “an increase in attacks from the Houthis, more consistency” over the past several days, and press reports indicated some U.S. officials have concluded the strikes alone are not working. Some officials argue it is impractical to keep firing multimillion-dollar missiles at cheap Houthi drones and missiles.

U.S. military leaders and strategists struggle to explain why the air campaign has not accomplished its objectives. Speaking on background, some officials have assessed a lack of precise intelligence on the size of the Houthi arsenal as a critical challenge. Iran has supplied the Houthis - now emerging as the most active member of Tehran’s “axis of resistance” - with a vast array of attack cruise missiles, armed drones, and medium-range ballistic missiles since the Houthis expelled the Republic of Yemen Government from the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. Multiple officials have told journalists that U.S. intelligence still does not have “a denominator” that would allow them to assess the percentage of Houthi equipment they have actually destroyed. “They continue to surprise us,” one senior defense official told journalists, “We just don’t have a good idea of what they still have.” Another unknown is whether, and if so, to what degree, the Houthis might still be getting resupplied by Iran. The U.S.-led maritime coalition has intercepted numerous shipments by Iran, but whether additional deliveries are getting through undiscovered remains unknown.

The difficulties in deterring and degrading the Houthis have raised questions about whether a shift in U.S.-led strategy is warranted. Some argue that the U.S.-led coalition should not escalate its campaign against the Houthi arsenal but instead continue to push for a Yemen political settlement. According to this argument, a Yemen settlement would entail, as a condition, an end to the Houthi attacks on the Red Sea. Talks between the Houthis, Saudi representatives, and U.S. and regional mediators on a political settlement have continued uninterrupted despite October 7 and the Red Sea crisis, although with no breakthroughs. Others argue the only viable means of ending the Houthi attacks is to press for an end to the war in Gaza, which has been the basis of the Houthis’ public justification for their assaults. Those who argue resolving the Gaza war is central to quieting the Houthi attacks note that the Houthis ceased their launches during the November 2023 ceasefire and Hamas hostage releases, resuming the assaults after Israel resumed its offensive.

Many officials and experts reject a conciliatory approach toward the Houthis and, at the same time, oppose continuing the current deter and degrade strategy that is not accomplishing its objectives. Instead, there are growing calls in Washington and, to a lesser extent, in London for a significant escalation. Some argue that the only viable strategy to compel the Houthis to back down is to undertake military action against the regime in Tehran, the main backer of the Houthis. However, critics of that approach argue that attacking Iranian targets would significantly expand the Gaza war into a regional conflagration. And many question the degree of influence Iran has over Houthi policy, noting that Tehran largely ignored the Houthi rebellion in Yemen until the movement captured Sanaa in 2014.

As of the end of February, calls in Washington for a significant escalation directly against Houthi forces in Yemen have been gaining momentum. Prominent experts and some former U.S. officials are calling for U.S. support for ground combat operations against the Houthis as the only means of forcing the movement to alter its policies. Several witnesses at a late February House Foreign Affairs Committee advocated a ground strategy against the Houthis – implemented by arming and providing close air support to the forces of the Republic of Yemen Government. Advocates of confronting the Houthis on the ground assert that doing so would not require deploying any U.S. or European forces in Yemen. According to a February 2024 American Enterprise Institute policy study: “The United States and its allies will have to put at risk something more valuable to the Houthis than what they gain from these attacks on shipping. The only thing that meets that threshold is Houthi control of Yemeni territory, which the Houthis have demonstrated they will make sacrifices to retain.” An alternative version of the recommendation might envision supporting, with close U.S. air support, Saudi and Emirati re-engagement in ground combat against the Houthis, presumably violating a tacit ceasefire in place since April 2022. However, the Kingdom and the Emirates are known to be reluctant to restart combat in Yemen – even if they had the U.S. military support they lacked during 2015-2022. Resuming ground combat would likely cause the Houthis to restart missile and armed drone attacks on Saudi and Emirati territory – an outcome both governments have sought to avoid. Others argue a resumption of ground operations in Yemen would further worsen the dismal humanitarian situation in the country. Yet, despite the risks U.S.-led escalation against the Houthis might entail, the perceived threat the Houthis now pose to U.S. and Western vital interests virtually guarantees that calls for an alternative to the current approach will continue to gather strength.