Don’t Bomb the Houthis

Careful Diplomacy Can Stop the Attacks in the Red Sea

The conflict between the United States and the Houthis in the Red Sea is steadily escalating. On December 31, Houthi small boats attempted to attack a commercial vessel; after U.S. naval helicopters responded to the attack, the Houthis—a rebel group that controls territory inhabited by 80 percent of Yemen’s population—fired on them. U.S. forces returned fire, sinking three Houthi boats and killing ten crew members. Then on January 9, the Houthis launched one of their largest attacks in the Red Sea to date including 18 drones, two antiship cruise missiles, and one antiship ballistic missile, which were intercepted by U.S. and British forces.

This engagement represented just the latest in a series of attacks in the Red Sea. Since mid-November, the Houthis have launched more than 20 attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, a strategically critical strait that is transited by 15 percent of global trade. Characterizing their attacks as a response to the Israel-Hamas war, they have also fired missiles and drones toward southern Israel. The Red Sea attacks have forced some shipping companies to temporarily suspend sailing through the Suez Canal, routing instead around the Horn of Africa, a change that adds about ten days to their journey. The attacks have not yet led to a significant disruption in global trade, but over the long term, the rising shipping costs they provoke are likely to increase oil prices and the cost of consumer goods worldwide.

In response, the United States has mobilized international partners, launching in mid-December a multinational initiative aimed at protecting commercial vessels in the Red Sea. And on January 3, these partners issued a joint statement that U.S. officials indicated should serve as a final warning to the Houthis before Washington took more drastic action. U.S. officials are now considering military attacks on Houthi targets.

Don’t Bomb the Houthis
Careful Diplomacy Can Stop the Attacks in the Red Sea
By Alexandra Stark
January 11, 2024
Houthi forces marching at a parade in Sanaa, Yemen, December 2023
Houthi forces marching at a parade in Sanaa, Yemen, December 2023
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
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The conflict between the United States and the Houthis in the Red Sea is steadily escalating. On December 31, Houthi small boats attempted to attack a commercial vessel; after U.S. naval helicopters responded to the attack, the Houthis—a rebel group that controls territory inhabited by 80 percent of Yemen’s population—fired on them. U.S. forces returned fire, sinking three Houthi boats and killing ten crew members. Then on January 9, the Houthis launched one of their largest attacks in the Red Sea to date including 18 drones, two antiship cruise missiles, and one antiship ballistic missile, which were intercepted by U.S. and British forces.

This engagement represented just the latest in a series of attacks in the Red Sea. Since mid-November, the Houthis have launched more than 20 attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, a strategically critical strait that is transited by 15 percent of global trade. Characterizing their attacks as a response to the Israel-Hamas war, they have also fired missiles and drones toward southern Israel. The Red Sea attacks have forced some shipping companies to temporarily suspend sailing through the Suez Canal, routing instead around the Horn of Africa, a change that adds about ten days to their journey. The attacks have not yet led to a significant disruption in global trade, but over the long term, the rising shipping costs they provoke are likely to increase oil prices and the cost of consumer goods worldwide.

In response, the United States has mobilized international partners, launching in mid-December a multinational initiative aimed at protecting commercial vessels in the Red Sea. And on January 3, these partners issued a joint statement that U.S. officials indicated should serve as a final warning to the Houthis before Washington took more drastic action. U.S. officials are now considering military attacks on Houthi targets.

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Because the Houthi attacks could have serious consequences for global commerce, the United States is under substantial pressure to respond militarily. But instead of retaliatory strikes, the U.S. should favor a diplomatic approach. The Houthis may be recent entrants into international newspaper headlines, but they have been challenging the United States and its Gulf partners for two decades. And the use of force against the Houthis in the past, whether by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime or by a Saudi-led effort to reinstate the government the Houthis overturned in the mid-2010s, has merely allowed the group to refine its military capabilities and portray itself as a heroic resistance movement, bolstering its legitimacy at home.

Indeed, the group needed a boost: it faced growing domestic resistance before October 7. Now, however, its response to Israel’s operations in Gaza appears to have won support in Yemen and across the region. Retaliatory strikes would also increase the likelihood that the Israel-Hamas war will expand across the region and that the civil war in Yemen will resume. Over the past year and a half, a UN-negotiated truce kept serious conflict in Yemen at bay, but direct U.S. strikes on Houthi targets could reignite internal warfare. The United States has few good options to respond to Houthi attacks. But a diplomatic push for a sustainable peace in the war in Yemen while continuing efforts to deter Houthi attacks alongside international partners is the least bad of them.

BLAST RESISTANCE
The Houthi movement began in the 1990s, when a group then calling itself Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”) began to resist Saudi proselytizing of Wahabism and to assert Zaidi identity and religious practice across Yemen. Zaidism is a variant of Shiism local to northern Yemen and parts of southern Saudi Arabia. There are important doctrinal differences between mainstream Shiism and Zaidi Islam: mainstream Shiites recognize 12 imams, for instance, while Zaidis recognize only five.

But as the movement came to oppose the corruption endemic in Saleh’s regime—and his partnership with the United States in the global “war on terror”—it gained Yemeni supporters beyond the Zaidi community. Media accounts sometimes portray Yemen’s long-running civil conflict as sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites. In fact, throughout the early years of the twenty-first century, notes Marieke Brandt, an anthropologist who has studied the Houthis extensively, the Ansar Allah movement expanded to become “a catalyst with the potential to unite all those [in northern Yemen] . . . who felt economically neglected, politically ostracized and religiously marginalized.”

In response to the movement’s rising prominence, beginning in 2004, Saleh’s government launched six brutal rounds of fighting—killing the group’s charismatic leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. But these military efforts failed to root out the movement. Instead, Ansar Allah gained new adherents and enshrined its founders’ family members as its leaders.

Years of airstrikes against the Houthis only aggravated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
When the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011, Saleh was eventually forced to step down, yielding to his vice president, Abd-Rabu Mansur Hadi. But the country’s democratic consolidation faltered when the National Dialogue Conference, a 2013–14 process meant to negotiate a transition to democracy, fell apart. Recognizing a power vacuum, the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and then attempted to extend their influence south, seizing control of most of the country.

The Houthis’ 2014 rise provoked alarm in neighboring countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Around this time, the Houthis also began to receive support from Iran and their proxy Hezbollah—adversaries to the Saudis and Emiratis. In 2015, a coalition led by those two countries—and supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—intervened militarily, launching airstrikes to support other military organizations that nominally backed Hadi’s government.

But instead of restoring peace, the airstrikes helped aggravate a war that resulted in what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Between 2015 and 2022, airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition—backed by U.S. intelligence-sharing, aerial refueling, and aircraft maintenance—killed an estimated 9,000 Yemeni civilians. Four-and-a-half million Yemenis are displaced, and more than 21 million, or two-thirds of Yemen’s population, remain in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

GROWTH OPPORTUNITY
As the Houthis solidified their control over much of northern Yemen, they began to seek more visibility on the regional stage. Their slickly produced, Beirut-based media channel, Al Masirah, produces content in both Arabic and English to share their perspective with a broader audience. Houthi traditional poems, set to music and video and widely shared on social media, declare Houthi opposition to Israel and the United States.

To understand the Houthis’ goals, it is worth taking seriously what they themselves say they want. Since about 2003, the Houthis’ sarkha—their motto, usually printed in green and red—echoes the slogan of revolutionary Iran and proclaims Houthi values and aims in no uncertain terms: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” In their public statements, Houthi leaders have repeatedly framed their current attacks as a response to Israeli operations in Gaza. Their intent, they say, is to pressure Israel to de-escalate its war against Hamas.

But this rhetorical posturing has also allowed the Houthis to build legitimacy in Yemen and across the Middle East, diverting attention from their failures at home, where their popularity has eroded in recent years. They have been unable to deliver economic growth to the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa. The Houthis are also brutally repressive, torturing and executing journalists, arresting and detaining peaceful protesters, and restricting the rights of women and girls. Many Yemenis increasingly see the Houthis as driven by a desire to establish a totalitarian religious state that protects Zaidi elites’ power.

The Houthis have used their attacks in the Red Sea and on Israel to demonstrate their importance to Iran.
In September 2023, protests against the Houthis for failing to pay public-sector salaries were followed by arrests, but the Houthi leadership recognized it had a problem. In September 2023, they announced they were preparing a “radical change” to their government to address corruption and economic problems—before the Israel-Hamas war gave them a new opportunity to gain legitimacy. A Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll conducted in late November and early December of 2023 found that residents of Gaza and the West Bank ranked Yemen’s response to the Israel-Hamas war as the most satisfying among regional actors. The Houthis have trumpeted Yemeni pro-Palestine demonstrations as evidence of their support for the Palestinian people.

Regionally, the Houthis have used their attacks in the Red Sea and on Israel to demonstrate their importance to Iran’s “axis of resistance,” the network of state and nonstate actors that Iran has leveraged to spread its influence across the region and encircle its opponents, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The partnership between Iran and the Houthis deepened substantially over the course of Yemen’s civil war. Iran values the Houthis because they allow Tehran to act more widely while maintaining plausible deniability. The Houthis, for instance, claimed responsibility for a September 2019 drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, but the attack is widely believed to have been carried out by Iran. Until the April 2022 truce in Yemen, the Houthis were also launching an escalating series of strikes facilitated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force on territory within Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Quds Force has helped the Houthis build stockpiles of sophisticated weapons, including unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles. Since approximately 2016, Iran has helped the Houthis learn to assemble their own weapons using parts from abroad, outrunning the international community’s efforts to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Yemen. The fact that the Houthis are now able to launch missiles directed at Israel and commercial vessels—while, thus far, avoiding significant retaliation—is undoubtedly further demonstrating the group’s strategic value to Iran. Tehran has offered support to the Houthi attacks, sharing intelligence to assist attacks in the Red Sea and moving its own warship into those waters.

STRIKE OUT
International actors must respond to the Houthis’ attacks, both to preserve the Red Sea shipping route and to prevent further regional escalation. But the United States is confronted by an array of bad and worse options for how to do so. Some politicians and analysts have argued that the best way to counter Houthi aggression is with military escalation designed to “restore deterrence.” This perspective sees the United States’ eventual decision, in 2021, to push for peace negotiations in Yemen as a failed policy of appeasement.

But proponents of airstrikes against the Houthis cannot articulate what should happen afterward. It is hard to see how airstrikes would deter Houthi attacks now when they have failed to do so over the past decade. Airstrikes against Houthi targets might marginally erode the Houthis’ ability to launch missiles and drones, but it will be much harder to effectively target and eradicate the Houthis’ small, cheap manned and unmanned boats.

Likewise, designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, as the Trump administration did briefly in 2020, would likely have little effect. Their leaders have long been under U.S. sanctions, and they would no doubt simply use the designation as further proof that they can get a rise out of powerful adversaries. But the FTO designation would certainly make the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen more difficult.

An approach that combines diplomacy with deterrence is the least bad way for the United States to deal with this intractable problem in the near term. There is little international appetite for a military response. Even Saudi Arabia, which led the 2015 military intervention against the Houthis, is now cautioning the United States to act with restraint.

To deal with the Houthi threat, the United States must push for an end to the war between Israel and Hamas.
Washington cannot count on public support from its Gulf partners. Although some of the commercial ships the Houthis have targeted have no apparent links to Israel, the fact that they have repeatedly called their attacks an effort to support Palestinians limits the degree to which Arab states can respond to Houthi aggression, even if they were inclined to get involved. Public opinion in Saudi Arabia, for instance, has turned even further against establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Gulf states have little incentive to risk the wrath of their publics. Aside from Bahrain, the Arab states have been reluctant to publicly associate themselves with the multinational operation that the Pentagon announced in mid-December.

Still, that operation is a useful first step to demonstrate international opposition to Houthi aggression and to intercept and deter attacks. The United States must also continue to support the UN’s efforts to negotiate a sustainable peace in Yemen. The 2022 truce agreement has held, more or less, and the parties are close to a deal that would make the cease-fire permanent and launch talks about the long-term future of Yemen’s governance.

To deal with the threat posed by the Houthis, ultimately the United States must push for an end to the war between Israel and Hamas—as well as to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. Like it or not, the Houthis have linked their aggression to Israel’s operations in Gaza and have won domestic and regional support for doing so. Finding a sustainable, long-term approach to both conflicts will be critical to de-escalating tensions across the region and getting the Houthis to call off their attacks on commercial vessels. Such attacks would have limited utility in the absence of these conflicts.

These measures cannot fully address the threat that the Houthis pose to U.S. interests and to stability in the region more broadly. But they remain the best among bad options—and the United States has only bad options because of its failed approaches to Yemen over the past 20 years. Washington must not repeat its mistakes. Decades of experience have shown, by now, that military efforts to dislodge the Houthis are unlikely to be effective. Instead, they may merely further devastate the lives of the already struggling people of Yemen.

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