Western allies consider options against Houthis including Yemen strikes

Rebels' Red Sea attacks are jeopardising imminent peace road map, diplomats and officials warn

An Israeli flag on the ground in Sanaa, after the Houthis attacked a Norway-flagged tanker off Yemen. EPA
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The US and its allies are studying options to respond to Houthi attacks on Israel-bound ships in the Red Sea, including strikes in Yemen, diplomats told The National.

Yemen's warring parties are considering a broader ceasefire to allow for crucial peace talks.

But the Iran-backed Houthis' actions in support of Hamas in Gaza are jeopardising the process, Yemeni officials have said.

“Western security agencies and diplomatic missions … are studying together with other intelligence agencies how to respond to this increasing threat in the Red Sea, including possibly conducting targeted air strikes,” said one western official.

Two other western diplomats working to avoid a spillover of the war in Gaza confirmed the details of the talks between the US and its allies.

The Iran-backed Houthis, Hamas allies, have recently attacked several ships in the Red Sea, claiming they were linked to Israel.

In the months running up to the current war, there had been relative optimism over prospects of a peace deal in Yemen, which has been ravaged by one of the world's most significant humanitarian crises.

Pentagon press secretary Berig Gen Pat Ryder said the US and partners are working to bolster a maritime task force to address the Houthi threat to shipping in the Red Sea.

"This is an international problem and it requires an international solution," Brig Gen Ryder told reporters.

"All of this is underscored by the fact that we recognise the tensions in the region right now, and we want to continue to stay very focused on ensuring that this does not broaden into a wider regional conflict."

He said the Pentagon would be releasing more information "in the near future" as it relates to military efforts in the Red Sea.

Senate foreign relations committee chairman Ben Cardin told reporters “it may be time” to look at redesignating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation.

The Biden administration removed the designation in February 2021, citing humanitarian concerns.

The US last week said it was in talks with other countries to set up a task force after a spate of attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis on ships in the Red Sea.

Tehran responded by warning that any proposed multinational task force would be challenged.

“If they make such an irrational move, they will be faced with extraordinary problems,” Iran's Defence Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani told the official Iranian Student News Agency.

He said “nobody can make a move in a region where we have predominance”.

“Further escalation in Yemen and the Red Sea sea won’t only delay such a possible peace deal that the United Nations has been juggling for nine years to achieve, but also threaten the current already fragile ceasefire within Yemen and between Houthis and Saudis,” said one of the diplomats.

The Houthis and the internationally recognised government of Yemen have primarily agreed to the proposed road map for peace.

“The agreement is expected to be announced soon,” a Yemeni official earlier told The National.

“It should lead to a ceasefire and comprehensive political negotiations before a lasting peace. The only issue that might cause a delay is the Houthis' actions in the Red Sea.”

A second Yemeni official warned “some western capitals, which have condemned Houthi attacks against trade ships, have questioned the timing and requested further consultations before announcing it”.

“The Houthis are arguing that their actions are unrelated to the attacks.”

Fighting was curtailed by a UN-brokered ceasefire in April last year, despite the truce expiring six months later.

In September, Saudi Arabia hosted Houthi representatives for several days of talks, in the first public official visit by a Houthi delegation to the kingdom since 2015.

Despite the risk to the deal, the Houthis have vowed to continue their attacks in the Red Sea and attempts to strike Israel with drones and missiles as long as the war continues in Gaza, where more than 18,400 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes and shelling since October 7.

“Against the backdrop of our operations in the Red Sea … we are receiving several communications and messages from active countries confirming … that they are against the expansion of the conflict,” Houthi spokesman Mohamad Abdelsalam wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Yemen's position will remain the same, to stand alongside the Palestinian people until the aggression stops and the siege on Gaza is lifted.”

The US has yet to reveal any plans to respond to the Houthis.

But a State Department official last week told The National recent escalations in the Red Sea were “threatening almost two years of joint progress to end the war in Yemen”.

Over the past few weeks, the US and French navies have intercepted drones and missiles launched from Yemen towards Israel.

One western diplomat said Saudi air defence systems had intercepted some of those missiles, although Riyadh has not announced any actions in this regard.

“So far, no human lives have been lost in any of those attacks," the diplomat said.

"Houthis have shot at western ships. If it happens at one point, it is only going to drive further international military intervention in Yemen."

Updated: December 14, 2023, 9:20 PM