The Red Sea Crisis And Political Equity Of Non-State Armed Actors – Analysis


By Kabir Taneja

This past week, the United States (US) announced the deaths of three servicemen in a drone strike in Jordan along the country’s border with Syria. These are the first US fatalities since the crisis began in October 2023. Only a few hours later, the spokesperson of the Yemen-based Houthi rebels (officially known as Ansarallah), Yahya Sare’e, announced the launching of a missile attack against the US naval warship USS Lewis B Puller. Sare’e reiterated the Houthis’ commitment to target commercial shipping in support of the Palestinian cause not just in the contested Red Sea, but the wider Arabian Sea as well.

The attack on the USS Lewis B Puller was not random as it comes at a moment when militias in the region, many of whom are emboldened by Iran as part of its wider “Axis of Resistance” design in support of the Palestinians as Israel continues its military operations in Gaza. The Puller was also previously engaged in special operations by US Navy Seals to intercept shipments of components of Iranian-made ballistic missiles. Two US Navy Seals were reported killed recently after going missing during an operation to take over a vessel near the coast of Somalia. Iran-linked groups such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and others across Syria and Iraq have benefitted from access to Tehran’s decision to liberalise ballistic missile tech along with drones and other such asymmetric warfare capacities.

Since the 7 October attack against Israel by Hamas, regional security has been shunted off-course from big-ticket announcements such as the Abraham Accords, IMEEC, I2U2, and potential Saudi–Israel normalisation to back to a core area of contestation, Palestine. However, Iran’s strategy of creating and supporting buffer groups peppered across the geography, in effect creating large buffer zones for itself and its own tactical aims, has not only brought upfront a new challenge for regional states and the US alike but added to a worrying trend of non-state armed (militant) actors gaining more power, legitimacy, and strategic equity in a fast-unravelling global order. These newfound geopolitical equities by non-state militant actors will be critical to understand and navigate as political and strategic vacuums become common and ‘superpower’ management of these crisis points erodes.

The Iranian support for non-state militias has arguably heralded a new era for such entities, their place in global geopolitics and relations between themselves. Much of the contemporary understanding of militant groups was defined by the US-led post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ era, meaning studying the likes of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and later the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) and its various global iterations. The strategies driving kinetic engagement against these groups were similar to what the current aims of Israel are in Gaza. While the US engaged militarily in both Afghanistan and Iraq to remove Islamist extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, Israel is doing the same, to destroy Hamas.

The increasing equity of non-state militant groups driven by their incremental political successes is not a new phenomenon, and neither is allowing them political off-ramps, and engaging in dialogue. Scholar Colin Clarke recently highlighted a slew of examples of how insurgencies end, from the Provisional Irish Republican Army agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement with London in 1998 ending 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland to Hezbollah partaking in elections in Lebanon since 1992, every militant crisis has its own blueprint from political history to ideological challenges. Others such as scholars Sara Harmouch and Nakissa Jahanbani have further explained that the relationship between an alleged sponsor state and non-state militants is never a zero-sum game. The options available to both the US and Iran after the drone attack in Jordan also highlight conundrums both for Washington and Tehran, and how the likes of Houthis and others, are leveraging political indecisions to improve their own stocks.

For President Biden’s administration, the killing of three US soldiers raises the heat on him back home to retaliate against Iran directly, and not necessarily continue to aim towards just its proxies. Alternatively, to target a senior Iranian figure outside Iran and in and around these proxy battlefields, such as the strike that killed noted Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. But current realities are different as the US enters election year and is already embroiled in an increasingly challenging Ukraine theatre with Russia. (Update: US Retaliatory Strikes Hit 85 Targets In Syria And Iraq)

“We are not looking for a war with Iran,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said hours after the Jordan strike. Biden’s unbridled support for Israel also has two main fronts to it. The first, is domestic, as the Jewish population in the US has a lot of traction in both American politics and business. Second, is the US advertising its commitment to its allies more strongly, pushing back against narratives of being a superpower in decline and ceding space to the likes of China. This can also be seen as a course correction post the presidency of Donald Trump, who is now looking to challenge Biden once again as the Republican nominee this year, causing palpations amongst many US allies across Europe and Asia.

On the other side, the situation is not black and white for Iran either. The only off-ramp available to Tehran now is if Israel takes a step back in Gaza. The ideological investments committed by the likes of Houthis, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Kat’aib Hezbollah amongst others limit the space for realpolitik as far as Iran is concerned. A shift away from institutional support or pushing for a majority of such groups to step back only for Iran to enter talks with the West can chip away at the ‘resistance’ design that it has constructed. At the moment, Tehran is capable and able to say that these groups are independent in nature and it has no influence or control over them. It also places the country at the helm of supporting the Palestinian cause, even beyond others like Qatar and Türkiye, both Sunni majority states compared to Iran, being the seat of power for Shia Islam, hence on the opposite ideological spectrum.

From the Taliban in 2021 gaining control of Afghanistan to the rise of the Houthis in Yemen, non-state militant actors have over the past five years gained more political and geopolitical equity in the global order, and more specifically, in the peripheries of West and South Asia. While these realities may be comparatively more acceptable to manage from a distance for Western powers, for regional states, it’s a trend that would cause significant unease.

In a broader geopolitical contestation between the West and China (now also joined by Russia since the fallout of the Ukraine conflict), coupled with a push towards multipolarity, non-state militant actors have a menu to choose from on aligning with interests within these strategic crevasses. This is highlighted by the recent visit by Hamas leadership to Russia, and the Houthis reportedly not targeting China- and Russia-flagged vessels in the Red Sea.

These shifts in the behaviour and capacities of non-state militant actors, many of whom are listed as sponsors of terrorism under various multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, are forcing arbitrary, ad-hoc, and short-term implementation of security policy. Instead, the current trends require long-term scrutiny of these observable changes to better respond to an increase in such groups’ influence within a redeveloping global order.

  • About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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