The Houthis Are Holding The World To Ransom – OpEd


The Houthis – whose flag proclaims, among other things, “Death to America, Death to Israel, a curse on the Jews” – operate from the chunk of west Yemen they have seized from Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG).  It is a well-populated area which contains the capital Sana’a and a great length of coastline bordering the Red Sea, including the vital port of Hodeidah.  For the past ten years the Houthis, intent on extending their grip to cover the whole country, have been locked in a civil war which, despite various well-intentioned peace brokering efforts, has so far resulted in a virtual stalemate.  

As a result, recently their standing among the hard-pressed Yemenis had been on the slide, and they had been competing for popular support against the IRG and the other main protagonist in the contest for supremacy in Yemen – the so-called Southern Transitional Council (STC).  Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, who founded the STC and is its president, has set his sights on establishing an independent state of South Yemen.

Hamas’s incursion into Israel on October 7, and the subsequent massacre, provided the Houthis with a totally unexpected political advantage.

As the news of the attack broke, the Houthis – needing little prompting from their Iranian paymasters – virtually declared war on Israel in support.  It was no doubt at Iran’s behest that the Houthis went on to plan a series of assaults on Israel. Not all went according to plan. Three cruise missiles fired from Yemen on October 19 were intercepted by the US navy.  A drone attack launched on October 28 apparently went off-course and resulted in explosions inside Egypt.

Since then, claiming they are acting to force the international community to halt Israel’s offensive in Gaza, the Houthis have begun a campaign of missile and armed drone attacks on commercial ships transiting the Red Sea.  The maritime security coalition of more than 20 nations, Operation Prosperity Guardian, set up by the US in December has done nothing to deter them, nor has the deployment of EU and even Chinese maritime forces off the coast of Yemen. 

In mid-January, following more than 20 Houthi attacks on commercial ships, the US and the UK led a 14-nation campaign to “degrade and deter” the Houthi attacks by striking Houthi missile and drone launch and storage facilities, extending this to associated targets such as radar and air defense installations. When this too proved ineffective, in late January they began attacking Houthi weaponry being prepared for launch against commercial shipping. By early February, US-led strikes had destroyed more than 100 missiles and launches, including anti-ship missiles, drones, radars, unmanned waterborne drones, and other equipment.

Whatever the effect of this on the Houthis’  total military capacity, there has been no appreciable reduction in their bellicose operations. They have, if anything, stepped up their aggressive activity.  On February 18 they conducted their first strike against the crew of a commercial ship, forcing them to abandon it.  Struck by a missile, the Belize-flagged, UK-registered vessel M/K Rubymar, sank in the Red Sea on March 3.

On March 6, a missile attack on a commercial ship, the M/V True Confidence, in the Gulf killed three of its crew members and forced survivors to abandon the vessel.

The Houthi attacks, threatening freedom of navigation and global commerce, have led  many shipping lines to take the longer Europe-Far East route round South Africa, avoiding the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.  Rerouting traffic around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope can add anything from 12 to 20 days to the journey.

In the first half of February, according to the UN, the Suez Canal experienced a 42% drop in monthly transits and an 82% decrease in container tonnage compared to its peak in 2023. Meanwhile commercial vessels have been rerouting to the Cape of Good Hope for nearly two months, leading to a near doubling of vessel transits in the region and a 75% increase in trade volume. 

This failure of the world’s leading military powers to deter the Houthis still lacks a convincing explanation.  There is not even evidence that the Houthis have been resupplied by Iran, followed the degradation in their military hardware from Western action.  The US-led maritime coalition has intercepted numerous shipments from Iran, but whether additional deliveries to the Houthis are slipping through remains unknown.  The Houthis’ original stockpile of weaponry may have been far higher than originally estimated.

How should the West proceed?  One approach under consideration is to concentrate on reviving the peace talks between the warring parties in Yemen, pushing for a political settlement which would include an end to Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Another is to escalate the attacks on the whole Houthi military machine and defeat them by overwhelming force.  How Iran might act in such a scenario is the great unknown.

The respected US think tank and research body, the Soufan Center, believes that 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 US officials, it says, “are calling for US support for ground combat operations against the Houthis as the only means of forcing the movement to alter its policies.”

The argument runs that the US and its allies will have to threaten something more valuable to the Houthis than the prestige they derive from attacking commercial shipping. The only thing that reaches that threshold is Houthi control of Yemeni territory.  So consideration is being given to massively boosting the anti-Houthi forces engaged in the civil war.  It is appreciated that supporting a direct attack on Houthi-held territory would entail a great many risks.  Of greater significance is that it would add to the misery of the Yemeni population, already the victims of a massive humanitarian catastrophe.  

Yet despite the negative consequences, the Soufan Center believes that the perceived threat the Houthis now pose to US and Western vital interests virtually guarantees that calls for an alternative to the current approach will continue to gather strength.

There is a chink of hope.  When the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza comes to an end, as it must eventually do, the Houthis might seize the opportunity to withdraw from holding the world to ransom.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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