Will The US Draw The UK Into Yemen’s Quagmire s Saudi Arabia Grapples To Escape? – OpEd


The Us military announced on 9 March that it thwarted a ‘’ a large scale’’ attack by the Houthi Iran–backed movement. This attack came after the US and the UK launched a fourth wave of joint airstrikes on 24 February, targeting the Houthi positions in Yemen. The aim, once again, was to degrade the Houthi capabilities and thereby deter their attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The previous round of strikes came on 3 February, one night after the US launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for a drone attack that killed three US soldiers in Jordan on 28 January.

The timing of the joint strikes has masked the fact that the US has increasingly been compelled to take military action unilaterally despite leading the anti-ISIL coalition in Iraq and Syria. While Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary, and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, have both repeatedly underlined that the US and UK airstrikes have substantially degraded the Houthis’ capabilities, however the Houthis have defiantly pressed ahead with their attacks, therefore calling into question the effectiveness of four rounds of joint strikes and sustained US attacks. To make matters worse, a Houthi attack on a cargo ship turned deadly, causing the death of three crew members. On top of that the Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has threatened on 15 March to prevent Israeli-linked ships from passing through the Indian ocean.

Unlike the US, which has conducted ongoing attacks since the first wave of joint US-UK airstrikes on 12 January, the UK has refrained from taking part despite Mr Sunak’s – UK Prime minister – stern warning on 15 January, stressing that “we will not hesitate to ensure the security and safety of British people, our interests, and our assets.”

As a result, the US found itself in the unenviable position of appearing isolated, as it had no option but to take on the Houthis without the participation of the much-touted coalition named Prosperity Guardian. Without doubt, the inexplicable absence of the UK has emboldened the Houthis. Against this backdrop, US President Mr Biden sought to ramp up the pressure on the Houthis by redesignating them on 16 February, as a global terrorist group, while also underscoring the US’s unyielding resolve by declaring on 18 January that, even though the strikes have not stopped the Houthis’ attacks, yet “they are gonna continue.”

The Houthis have doubled down on their confrontational strategy after concluding that both the US and, to a larger extent, the UK have absolutely no appetite for taking limited, let alone engaging in a full-blown conflict. For Sunak, the overriding priority has always been domestic politics, as he has limited experience in foreign affairs. Given that his own survival as Prime Minister relies heavily on narrowing Labour’s seismic lead in the polls, Sunak appointed David Cameron – whose chief priority as prime minister was preserving the US-UK special relationship – as foreign secretary. To this end, he pushed hard for Sunak to launch the first wave of joint airstrikes, hence sending an unmistakable message: the US is not isolated. 

All along, the US-UK have shown a genuine desire to avoid getting embroiled in a military confrontation with the Houthis, given the following credible reasons.

First, failing to convince not just their closest NATO allies such as France and Spain to join the new US-led alliance in the Red Sea but even more damaging, their spectacular failure to gain the ringing endorsement of their staunchest ally in the Arab-Muslim world: Saudi Arabia, which has doubtlessly stripped them of the desperately needed legitimacy to target yet another Arab-Muslim country. Unsurprisingly, the top priority of Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, who has recklessly plunged Riyadh into a futile war against the Houthis ostensibly aiming to protect Riyadh’s national security while in reality seeking to shore up his position as the indisputable heir to the throne, has shifted to urgently escaping Yemen’s quagmire by ensuring that ending the war in Yemen is at the heart of a China-brokered reconciliation deal with its arch-rival Iran. Second, recognizing that relying solely on airstrikes without having boots on the ground would not work, particularly given that the Saudi-led coalition has failed to break the Houthis’ resolve or capabilities. Third, being mindful that the Saudi propped-up government in Yemen has all along been utterly dysfunctional and unreliable, therefore incapable of challenging the Houthis. Four, fearing that attacking the Houthis would not only fatally undermine their justification for dispatching their armies to the Middle East preventing the Israel-Hamas war from spreading but far worse it would be perceived as taking Israel’s side in the war. Five, realizing that their concerted efforts to disentangle any military action against the Houthis from the Israel-Hamas war would fall on deaf ears. Six, fearing that the Houthis would capitalize on such strikes by showcasing their unwavering support for Gaza, thus boosting their popularity domestically and around the Arab-Muslim world. Seven, worrying that such a confrontation would allow Russia to accuse the West of hypocrisy for firmly standing behind Israel and also deflect their attention away from what they perceive as Russia’s existential threat. Eight, fearing that their retaliation would ultimately fuel an all-out conflict with Iran. But while such a nightmare scenario might not materialize, yet US-UK airstrikes have already broadened the conflict, by provoking the Houthis to target US-UK vessels on top of those heading to Israel. 

The US-UK retaliation has effectively led to a 29% surge in the number of ships avoiding the Red Sea and taking the longer and more expensive route around South Africa. Of course, all this has seriously threatened global trade, which would inevitably precipitate an adverse impact on inflation in the West. And with both Biden and Sunak trailing in the polls in the run-up to decisive general elections in their respective countries, such deteriorating economic conditions would unquestionably derail their hopes of a resurgence in fortunes triggered by an economic revival.

Ever since 7 October, when the Israel-Hamas war erupted, the Iran-backed groups – making up the axis of resistance – have been working tirelessly to ease the growing pressure on Gaza. Although Hezbollah has managed, through daily bombing, to steer a significant portion of Israel’s forces away from Gaza while also ratcheting up the economic burden on Israel by keeping Israelis away from border towns, it has deliberately limited its involvement to avoid antagonizing Saudi-backed Lebanese factions opposing its intervention.

The Iraqi Islamic Resistance, meanwhile, has also been targeting US military bases in Iraq and Syria, seeking to push the US to press Israel to terminate its campaign in Gaza and withdraw its forces from Iraq. It has, however, been carefully calibrating its strikes to avoid destabilizing Iraq’s government, which enjoys the backing of their political wings.

The Houthis, by contrast, have pulled no punches in targeting US-UK interests, drawing strength from rock-solid support at home and spurred on by the undeniable fact that the cost of targeting US-UK vessels is incomparably far lower than that incurred by the West. On that basis, the Houthis have enthusiastically spearheaded the resistance against US-UK wholehearted support to Israel.

According to the Chilcot inquiry into Tony Blair’s handling of the 2003 Iraq war, the US-UK special relationship does not require the UK blindly head to war alongside the US. Apparently, Cameron has found that interpretation unacceptable, consequently, it was left to the UK Parliament to scupper his plans to join the US in striking Syria in 2013. 

At a time when Sunak’s popularity has hit rock bottom, the conservative party factions are at each other’s throats, and the economy sliding into recession, it would be indefensible for Sunak to embrace Blair’s or Cameron’s discredited interpretation of the special relationship, thus paving the way for the US to drag the UK into Yemen’s quagmire.

Zayd Alisa

Zayd Alisa is a political analyst and a writer on Middle East affairs with numerous appearances on various TV channels, including BBC and France 24. Zayd Alisa has published several articles and press releases relating to the Middle East, and has been a human rights activist for twenty five years and have actively promoted democracy and freedom of expression in the Arab world.

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