The Gaza war has given the Houthis a timely rallying cause against the West

Facing criticism at home and seeking greater influence in political talks, the Iran-aligned rebels are exploiting the conflict

A Houthi spokesman delivers a televised statement on Monday following a missile attack on a US-owned ship in the Gulf of Aden. Weeks before the war in Gaza began, the Yemeni rebels staged a military parade in Sanaa. EPA
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The US-UK air attacks last week against the Houthis in Yemen were widely anticipated and even trailed in the media, but they were no less dramatic for that. Tomahawk missiles launched by plans, ships and submarines hit 60 targets at 16 sites across four Yemeni governorates.

Since October 7, there have been many warnings that the Israel-Gaza war could escalate. They have proved correct – to a point. The war has escalated. Cross-border conflict between Israel and Hezbollah threatens Lebanon. The US has retaliated against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq. Yesterday, five civilians were reported to have been killed by Iranian missile in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, with Tehran claiming it was after a Mossad headquarters and a base for US troops. A residence was also struck.

Iran is, of course, the common denominator in a multi-front conflagration. There may be debate about the degree of influence Tehran has over the Houthis, but it supplies their missiles for their Red Sea campaign. Surely, it is supplying the strategic playbook, too.

The Houthis' attacks on shipping in the Red Sea directly threaten the West’s supply chains and global trade and are a deliberate challenge to the West, particularly the US and the UK, on Israel and Gaza. But the Houthi attacks not only affect the West, they could destabilise the Middle East.

The Red Sea is one of the most important arteries in the global shipping system, with 40 per cent of Asia-Europe trade flowing through it. However, since the attacks, more than 150 ships have chosen to avoid Red Sea routes, opting for the longer, more expensive route around the Horn of Africa. Shipping companies are already passing on the cost of these longer journeys, some doubling their rates.

The Houthis' campaign is having a serious impact, which is why it must be confronted. But how?

In the UK, the civil war in Yemen has perhaps been regarded as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” (Neville Chamberlain’s notorious description of Czechoslovakia in 1938). So, when the Saudi-led coalition engaged in strikes against Houthi rebels in northern Yemen in 2015, many in the UK believed inaccurate narratives claiming Gulf states had “invaded” a homogenous Yemen. Whatever the popular driving force, we are now paying the price for a collective failure to prevent the Houthis taking control of western Yemen, and in particular, the port of Hodeidah.

Western decision-makers have a difficult balance to strike. They can neither allow the Red Sea to become a Houthi-Iran channel, nor risk reigniting conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, previously leading the military coalition, is now leading the peace talks, and it has repeatedly urged restraint in the West’s response to the Houthis.

Riyadh’s diplomacy reflects a wider policy of prioritising regional stability after years of confrontation with Iran and its allies, and a perception that the West cannot be relied upon for support. It has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in the “barbaric war” in Gaza while it normalises ties with Tehran and extricates itself from the nine-year conflict with the Houthis in northern Yemen.

Analysts suggest that although the strikes on Houthi targets may do little to affect the group’s actual capability, the message may be of greater impact than the action. Many will be hoping they are right

The people I have spoken to in both Saudi Arabia and southern Yemen urge the West to be eyes-wide-open to the deeper Iranian ambitions underlying Houthi activity, but also emphasise the relative calm in Yemen at a time of direct peace talks between Saudi and Houthi officials.

Since October 7, the US has become inevitably embroiled in regional politics again, in defence of Israel. But even Arab allies have been dismayed by what they see as the West’s unconditional support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The West has done itself few favours if it intends to compete as Mena’s ally of choice and balance the region’s drift towards the Brics grouping.

The American strategy in Israel is a gift to the West’s adversaries – including the Houthis, who now pitch their Red Sea campaign simply as fighting injustice in Gaza.

But, as sources in Yemen remind me, these endeavours did not start on October 7, and while the Houthis claim that its missiles are aimed at preventing war supplies reaching Gaza, they have attacked ships indiscriminately. The West would be wrong to take such claims at face value.

There is also a more local dynamic. On September 21, weeks before Hamas’s attack on Israel, the Houthis held a military parade in Sanaa. This was to signal their prestige and power, not least to elevate their position in the dialogue with Riyadh.

Equally, the Houthis had reportedly been facing criticism at home. Previously, they could claim that their failure to provide basic services to their population was because of the war. That narrative became harder as peace talks replaced missiles. Now events in Gaza have provided a timely new rallying cause against the West.

After the debacle of 2013, when the US rowed back from its “red line” on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, the region may be looking to see if the West can now re-assert its authority with strategic action as a dependable ally. Iran-Saudi hostilities may be dormant, but no one is taking anything for granted.

But with elections on the horizon in the UK and US, western politicians will be mindful of diverse public opinion. Those advocating a non-interventionist approach, particularly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will be countered by powerful voices urging more tangible hawkishness on Iran.

The UK has given indications that this has been a one-off forensic strike on key Houthi infrastructure. Analysts suggest that although the strikes may do little to affect the group’s actual capability, the message may be of greater impact than the action. Many will be hoping they are right.

Published: January 16, 2024, 2:05 PM