The Houthis won’t back down after US and UK strikes on Yemen

Air strikes will not prevent further attacks in the Red Sea but have already regionalized Yemen’s civil war and delayed the fragile peace process.

Expert comment Published 12 January 2024 3 minute READ

US and UK air strikes on Yemen on 11 and 12 January were characterized by the Biden administration as ‘a clear message’ that the US will not ‘allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation’ in the Red Sea. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the strikes as ‘limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence’.

The air strikes come after the Houthis ignored calls to end their assaults, including a private formal letter delivered to the group leadership by the UK on behalf of the international community (according to various senior Houthi leaders).

The US/ UK strikes are presumably intended as the only possible bad choice to pressure the Houthis to end their hostile activity. But these strikes are largely symbolic, mostly a response to pressure from local actors, shipping firms and other interests who have seen costs rise during the last months of Houthi attacks. One shipping company has already expressed its approval for the operation.

The questions are what actual effect will these air strikes have on Houthi operations, how will the Houthis respond, and what broader impact will the events have on the region?

Houthi capabilities

The air strikes are highly unlikely to have a significant impact on Houthi military capabilities, especially their maritime operations.

The Houthis are far more savvy, prepared, and well-equipped than many Western commentators realize.

The Houthis are far more savvy, prepared, and well-equipped than many Western commentators realize. They are highly experienced in waging war after years of brutal conflict, involving direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia and a lot of supporting and capacity building from Iran through the years.

For the last five years Houthi capabilities have been consistently underestimated, even as Iranian support has seen their drone and missile forces develop considerably. Their recklessness, and willingness to escalate in the face of a challenge, is also significant and always underrated.

The Houthis know that international support for US and UK strikes is thin. The recent UN Security Council resolution, calling for the Houthis to cease their attacks, provided the closest to international cover for the air strikes – though it did not endorse military action specifically. But other major countries were clearly not interested in participating in these US-led military operations.

The Saudis, for instance, have stayed out – having seen their own air strikes against the Houthis fail to achieve results for nine years. Other regional players remain distant, fearful of the politics involved in attacking a group that has framed its activities in the Red Sea as in solidarity with Palestinians.

Houthi leadership will have calculated, correctly, that a Western attack on Yemen will only increase local and regional support for their efforts.

Regardless, an anti-Israel/US stance is fundamental to Houthi ideology and their leadership will have calculated, correctly, that a Western attack on Yemen will only increase local and regional support for their efforts. The US and UK will more than ever be perceived by a majority in the Middle East as outright allies of Israel in a broader regional conflict.

These strikes will therefore not make the Houthis halt or reduce their attacks – which were unlikely to cease so long as the Gaza war continued.

If anything, the attacks on Yemen will have the opposite effect, instigating a widened Houthi campaign. This will include attacks on US and UK installations across the Arabian Peninsula, and oil infrastructure – using missile and weapons technology the Houthis have already demonstrated through their launches against Israel.

Yemen’s peace process

One thing the air strikes will achieve is to draw out and further regionalize and internationalize Yemen’s destructive civil wars, expand the conflict, and make long-awaited UN efforts to resume a peace process virtually impossible.

The airstrikes will also have a tremendously negative impact on food security and transport in the country – already a nightmarish situation following the fallout from the pandemic, the Ukraine war and Yemen’s own civil wars.

There will certainly be no call within Yemen for the Houthis to pull back.

There will certainly be no call within Yemen for the Houthis to pull back. Airstrikes, and force overall, don’t make a difference in this extremely complicated country. Even the Houthis’ foes in the civil war could not and will not endorse the US action – at least not publicly. In Yemen, even more than Iraq, there is a powerful sentiment against outsider interference.

Expanding the Gaza war

It is not clear if and to what extent Iran played a direct role instigating the Houthis’ activities, which will have required no encouragement from Tehran. The Iranians have been content to observe developments from a distance, denying direct involvement but approving of the threat to US interests and prestige.

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They will also have approved of the Houthis’ obvious intention to further undermine any prospects for Israel–Saudi normalization, which the Gaza war had already set back by years.

Until now, the Houthi attacks have not represented a strategic threat to Israel, and Tel Aviv has refrained from opening a new war front in Yemen. But should the US strikes provoke a regional escalation, drawing in Hezbollah, that may change.

Israel has intervened directly in Yemen before, in the 1960s. It is however most likely to go after the Houthi leadership, inside and outside the country, through targeted operations and assassinations.

China, though theoretically happy to watch the West drag itself into another bloody regional conflict, will actually suffer considerably if the Red Sea closes.

Arab countries like Egypt will also see negative effects. But neither can stand against the Houthis, risking perceived alignment with Israel and the West.

Following mounting Houthi attacks, the US and UK felt they needed to make a show of force, for domestic reasons more than anything.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Houthis wanted and prepared for.

What follows is unpredictable, and perilous for the region and the world. It is disastrous for Yemen and Yemenis, who have suffered too much already in the last decade.