Major Powers Struggle to Deter Houthi Shipping Attacks

The United States and its allies face a shortage of viable options to stop escalating Houthi attacks on commercial shipping and other targets.

Houthi attacks have caused several large commercial shipping firms to avoid Red Sea routes, putting pressure on the United States and its allies to respond to the rebel movement more forcefully.

A new U.S.-led coalition maritime mission, Operation Prosperity Guardian, might help better counter Houthi attacks but still may not deter the group’s aggression.

U.S. leaders are considering strikes on key Houthi targets amid concerns that military action will widen the Israel-Hamas war and strengthen the Houthis politically.

The Houthi movement has progressively escalated its involvement in the Israel-Hamas war, even amid its unresolved conflict with the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Republic of Yemen government. While acting at the behest of their sponsor in Tehran, the Houthis are also appealing to deep pro-Palestinian sentiment among the Yemeni population. The group is the most active and aggressive faction among Iran’s “axis of resistance” coalition of non-state actors in retaliating against Israel and its main international supporter, the United States. By threatening freedom of commerce through a key chokepoint, the Bab El-Mandeb Strait at the south of the Red Sea, the Houthis are also creating an array of powerful new enemies – particularly the United States and its European allies. These powers have the potential to assist the Houthis’ domestic opponents, the Saudi and Emirati-backed Republic of Yemen Government. Earlier this month, the group expanded its target selection beyond Israeli-linked ships by threatening to attack any ship heading toward Israeli ports unless Israel allows food and medicine to enter the Gaza Strip.

Following the collapse of Yemen’s government authority in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and forced the government and its loyalist forces to retreat to southern Yemen. Assessing the Houthis as a vehicle for their regional rival, Tehran, to further expand its regional influence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE assembled an Arab coalition to militarily support efforts by the Yemen government to push the Houthis back to their core support base in northern Yemen. In recent years, the Saudi-led counteroffensive bogged down, and the Houthis caused significant damage to targets in the Kingdom using Iran-supplied land attack cruise missiles and armed drones, causing the Gulf states to seek a negotiated solution. An April 2022 Houthi-government ceasefire has largely held, despite expiring in October 2022, and talks to formally restore the truce and move toward a political settlement have advanced, even since the Israel-Hamas war.

The Houthis’ attacks on U.S. naval ships, Israeli ground targets, and international commercial shipping vessels have not caused Israel to alter its goal of eliminating Hamas’ military and administrative infrastructure from Gaza. However, the group has caused the United States and partner countries to redeploy military assets to protect freedom of navigation, diverting attention from the Israel-Hamas conflict. The threat to international maritime commerce has globalized the Houthi threat. Approximately twelve percent of oil and eight percent of liquified natural gas traded by sea in the first half of this year passed through the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while “one-sixth” of the world’s commercial shipping passes through both “the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait and Red Sea,” according to the United Kingdom’s highest-ranking naval officer, Admiral Sir Ben Key.

The attacks on shipping are a significant escalation from the movement’s initial response to Israel’s ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza. When the offensive began in late October, the Houthis had primarily launched Iran-supplied land attack cruise missiles and armed drones toward Israel, though these attacks missed their targets or were intercepted by ship-based U.S. air defenses and Saudi-operated, U.S.-supplied missile defense systems. Sensing the launches were causing little more than harassment of U.S. and partner forces, in mid-November, the Houthis began focusing their attacks on commercial ships while continuing to launch drone attacks at or near U.S. naval vessels in the Red Sea. After the movement stated it would seek to damage Israel’s war effort by seizing Israeli-owned or Israel-bound shipping vessels, Houthi commandos seized the Galaxy Leader on November 19. In mid-December, the Houthis shifted toward missile and drone attacks on commercial ships, hitting and damaging several, without any reported casualties. They also kept up a steady stream of armed drone attacks on U.S. and coalition naval vessels. The USS Carney reported it downed fourteen Houthi-fired drones on Sunday.

The adverse consequences of the Houthi involvement in the war – which the Houthis assess will have few consequences for their domestic position in Yemen – were brought home on December 15 as Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, halted all shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Since then, German transport company Hapag-Lloyd, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the French company CMA CGM, and BP have all followed suit. The growing threat to shipping has alarmed multiple international powers that depend on the free flow of commerce through the region. A Japanese naval vessel assisted the United States in thwarting the seizure of the Israeli-owned Central Park on November 26. As a demonstration of its interest in the free movement of goods, three vessels from the Chinese Navy were also near the Central Park when it made its distress calls. However, demonstrating China’s reluctance to become directly involved in the region’s conflicts, the Chinese vessels did not assist in driving off the Somali attackers, who were later arrested by the responding armada. The Pentagon has stated the attackers were Somali pirates and said the event was “clearly a piracy-related incident,” while the Houthis denied responsibility for the hijacking.

A French naval vessel patrolling off the coast of Yemen shot down a drone threatening a Norwegian-flagged chemical tanker in early December. In mid-December, a UK warship downed a Houthi drone. International interest in protecting the shipping lanes facilitated U.S.-led efforts to assemble a new maritime security task force to counter the Houthis. During his visit to the Middle East this week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin plans to announce the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a new international effort to deal with Houthi threats. The operation will reportedly resemble and augment Combined Task Force 153, which was established in 2022 and focuses on international maritime security and capacity-building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden.

The new maritime security mission offers an alternative to the widely recommended but significantly riskier option of conducting air strikes on Houthi targets, such as missile and armed drone facilities and naval craft. To date, U.S. and allied ships have not conducted any retaliatory attacks on Houthi targets on or off the coast of Yemen. However, the burgeoning threat to the free flow of commerce apparently has caused U.S. and allied officials to consider air and/or missile strikes on assets the Houthis are using in their attacks. Many regional experts assert that deterring the Houthis from conducting further attacks on shipping or other targets will require imposing significant consequences on the movement beyond expected sanctions or diplomatic measures.

Corroborating reports that pre-emptive strikes are under active consideration, in the past week, the U.S. military moved the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group from the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, and moved three additional missile defense destroyers into the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, U.S. officials express caution about exercising the option of strikes or other military action. Such action could push Iran closer to entering the war on its ally’s behalf, expanding the conflict to a regional conflagration. Others maintain that striking the Houthis would enhance their popularity in Yemen and throughout the region by confirming their identity as a “resistance movement” rather than a rebellion against the recognized government of Yemen. Strikes on the Houthis would likely void the possibility of restoring a formal Yemen ceasefire or achieving progress in the ongoing peace talks among Houthi representatives, Saudi officials, UN diplomats, and regional and international stakeholders. U.S. officials also assess that striking Houthi targets would provoke retaliatory and other action by the Houthis. This may not only further complicate the flow of commerce through vital maritime chokepoints off Yemen’s coast, but could also expand the conflict in the region, as the Houthis may turn to targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, for example. It appears that the international community has had more difficulty designing a coherent and successful response to the Houthis than to any other members of Iran’s axis of resistance.

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