March 12, 2024

IntelBrief: The Houthis Continue Destabilizing the Region With No End in Sight

AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The sinking or disabling of two commercial ships in recent weeks demonstrates that Western policy has failed to deter the Houthi movement or decimate its missile and armed drone arsenal.
  • The responses by major powers affected by the Houthi attacks on global commerce have been disjointed.
  • The Houthis have benefitted strategically from their Red Sea attacks, suggesting that they might escalate their demands even if the Gaza war ends.
  • Options to deter the Houthis span a wide range, from accommodating some Houthi demands to significant military escalation against the group.

Over the past three months, the United States and allied nations have undertaken a range of military actions to try to deter the Houthi movement of Yemen from conducting ballistic and cruise missile and armed drone attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis began attacking merchant ships transiting the Red Sea in mid-November after launching missile and armed drone attacks on U.S. warships and Israeli territory that were virtually all intercepted. The assaults on commercial shipping have forced realignments and added costs to global shipping routes between Europe and Asia. The Houthi persistence, in the face of U.S.-led military retaliation that began in January, has earned the Houthis respect and admiration among many Yemenis and citizens in the region who support pressuring the United States to halt Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Houthi approach has enabled the movement to attract new recruits and paint its domestic adversary, the UN-recognized Republic of Yemen government, as a tool of Western interests unwilling to support the suffering Gaza civilian population. The Houthis’ targeting and eventual sinking of the M/V Rubymar in late February, the disabling of the Barbados-flagged True Confidence in early March, which killed three of its crew members and wounded many others, and the 28-drone barrage on March 9 that was thwarted by U.S., French, and U.K. ships, demonstrate that no option has yet succeeded in de-escalating the Red Sea crisis.

No one factor accounts for the shortcomings of Western strategy, but it is noteworthy that some of the key stakeholders in the free and unfettered movement of commerce through the Red Sea have pursued disparate approaches. In so doing, major powers have not harnessed their collective power to compel the Houthis to change course as effectively as possible. Shortly after the Houthis began the campaign against commercial ships, the United States and more than twenty allies in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, including one Arab partner, Bahrain, assembled a maritime coalition (Operation Prosperity Guardian) to try to deter Houthi attacks. In early February, the United States and the United Kingdom began a campaign of airstrikes on Houthi missile and drone installations intended to degrade the Houthi arsenal. Despite having a wide range of military capabilities, the other members of Prosperity Guardian have supported, but not directly joined, the U.S. and U.K. airstrikes. On February 19, the European Union (EU) launched a separate mission, EUNAVFOR ASPIDES, with the stated objective, according to EU official releases, to “restore and safeguard freedom of navigation” in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and other key regional waterways. However, EU statements highlighted the mission’s “defensive mandate,” thereby virtually ruling out broad EU participation in U.S.-led airstrikes. Separately, in late February, China – whose trade with Europe has been made more expensive by the Houthi attacks – deployed a naval fleet, including the missile frigate Xuchang, to the Gulf of Aden to escort Chinese ships. Yet, the force has taken no action against the Houthis, adhering to China’s longstanding policy not to involve its forces in direct military action in the region. China has instead emphasized diplomacy, dispatching envoys to the region, including potential mediators such as Oman. Chinese officials also have reportedly insisted that Iranian leaders, to whom China has strong ties, demand their Yemeni ally stand down, but to no effect.

Some U.S. officials argue the U.S.-led airstrikes will eventually degrade the Houthi arsenal to the point where the group can no longer attack ships. However, as demonstrated by the several major Houthi attacks over the past several weeks, there is no sign the Houthi arsenal is close to exhaustion. Several U.S. officials have argued the key to resolving the Red Sea crisis is to reach a final settlement of the Yemen conflict, but the Red Sea attacks seem to have diminished any movement among the major parties for a peace agreement. Other U.S. and Western officials assert that the Houthi attacks are hampering aid deliveries to Yemen and causing environmental damage, potentially causing an anti-Houthi backlash among the Yemeni population. Diplomats and aid officials with regular access to Yemen assess that a growing number of Yemenis resent the Houthis for dragging Yemen into a low-intensity but still punishing state of hostilities with major Western powers, particularly the United States. However, many experts argue that global officials should not count on domestic pressure to bring about a change in Houthi policy.

Many global officials argue that the key to ending the Houthi Red Sea attacks is to end the war in Gaza. However, a wide range of experts assess the Houthis will not want to forgo the strategic benefits they have received from their attacks and might continue attacking ships even if a settlement to the Gaza conflict is reached. It is possible that the Houthis, seeking to capitalize on the leverage their attacks have earned them, might issue new conditions to halt their attacks. The Houthis might, for example, demand the United States and its allies lift all sanctions on Iran, echoing Tehran’s insistence the sanctions constitute “economic warfare” against the Iranian people. The Houthis might conceivably insist their attacks can only end if and when an independent Palestinian state is established. The group might try to condition an end to its attacks on a termination of U.S. arms supplies to Israel. Or the Houthis might offer to end their Red Sea attacks in exchange for a total and unconditional Saudi military withdrawal from Yemen and agreement by the Republic of Yemen government to cede the group full control of the country.

Whereas some U.S. and Western officials might argue for entertaining Houthi demands, others insist the only viable pathway for ending the Red Sea crisis is a dramatic military escalation intended to annihilate the Houthi arsenal and force the group to capitulate. Those who take this position maintain that defending the freedom of navigation is a longstanding U.S. and Western principle that cannot be compromised, and that the Houthis cannot be allowed to hold world commerce “hostage” to their demands. Yet, proposals for escalatory military options largely fail to achieve consensus, based on a cost-benefit analysis of the likelihood of achieving Western objectives at an acceptable cost. Among the costs widely cited are causing extensive Yemeni civilian casualties, worsening an already dismal humanitarian situation in Yemen, provoking the Houthis to resume missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other U.S. regional allies, and triggering Iran to engage in regional military action in defense of the Houthis. Among those who consider the costs and risks acceptable, some suggest relatively modest escalation consisting of more frequent air strikes on an expanded Houthi target list, including their command centers, helicopters, and other targets. Others insist that targeted strikes on Houthi leaders, like measures used against other designated terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State organization, might prove decisive in convincing the group to cease its attacks. Up the ladder of escalation, a substantial number of experts perceive Houthi policy as emanating from Tehran and propose exerting military pressure directly on the Islamic Republic to compel Iranian leaders to insist the Houthis stand down. Others say the only way to compel the Houthis to change course is to threaten their hold on Yemeni territory by providing close air support to the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government forces. Very few advocate moving to the highest level of escalation – the insertion of U.S. and other allied forces into Yemen to defeat the Houthis militarily. Yet, there is broad agreement that no option is certain to succeed, and any escalation risks a prolonged conflict with the Houthis and their allies, spanning the region and perhaps beyond.