Houthis have burnt their bridges with menacing attacks on shipping

For too long the West has ignored the threat the militant group poses - now it is clear for all to see

Houthi supporters rally in Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters
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For the first time since the war in Yemen started in 2015, the US and the UK are considering limited air strikes against Houthi military infrastructure in the north-west of Yemen.

This highlights how much the threat perception in western states about the Houthis’ behaviour has been raised, marking a shift from the past.

Options to target the military capabilities of the Houthis cannot be decided in isolation. The coalition would be well advised to consider the interests of its Arab partners and the wider Gulf region as it embarks on its course of action.

Escalating attacks by the Houthis against commercial vessels in the Red Sea have been described by its spokesmen as moves in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

The disruption of a choke point in world trade has, however, had the effect of quickly changing western views on the Iranian-backed group in Yemen.

The warning sent by 12 states – led by the US and the UK – to the Houthis through a joint statement on January 3 said the group must cease attacks or “bear the responsibility of the consequences” emphasises that shifting threat perceptions could turn into unprecedented decisions in the short term.

On the other hand, the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian, launched on December 18, has clearly not been successful in deterring Houthis’ attacks so far.

Thus the US and its allies clearly understand it is not enough to fully restore safe commercial navigation in the Red Sea. Moreover, after the defensive naval operation was announced by the Pentagon, some European states – France, Italy and Spain – have opted out of the US-led mission, instead providing their contribution under, respectively, the French command and the existing European naval mission, or choosing not to join the operation.

Though Red Sea security is increasingly acknowledged as a global concern, the way Prosperity Guardian has been organised, announced and communicated has indirectly contributed to conveying a message of uncertainty and lack of resolve.

For too long, international stakeholders, especially western states, have underestimated the threat coming from the Houthis’ rise and consolidation. They mainly looked at the Houthis simply as an armed movement fighting in the Yemen civil war, something that – in their view – didn't have a vital impact on regional stability and global balances.

This clearly differed from the perception that many Yemenis and Arab states already had, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been targeted, especially since 2019, by Houthi drones and missiles.

Two watershed moments have changed the western states’ perception of the Houthis: first, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and now the escalation against shipping in the Red Sea. In fact, Russia is frequently using Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in Ukraine – the same drones the Houthis used to attack regional targets just weeks before Ukraine was invaded.

From that moment on, the US, the UK and the EU have come to realise that the Houthis’ unrestrained behaviour is a menace to the stability not only of Yemen but of the entire Middle East, in particular because their alliance with Iran and the “axis of resistance” has significantly tightened in recent years.

During her speech at the Manama Dialogue in 2022, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen explicitly said “it took us too long to understand” about the group's drone and missile proliferation. The escalation against commercial shipping in the Red Sea has definitely rung the alarm bell in Washington and European capitals.

However, growing threat perceptions of the Houthis have not resulted in overlapped policies so far, as the Prosperity Guardian case reveals, mainly due to the fear of further regional destabilisation.

Capitalising on current threat appraisals, the US, the UK and EU states should now build common policy ground to cope with the Houthi menace: something that can’t be detached from the Yemen war and the need to support UN diplomatic efforts towards a ceasefire and an inclusive peace process.

More easily said than done, but otherwise the risk is to implement a flawed response that wouldn’t restore freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, also with the risk of breaking the informal truce that still holds in Yemen.

However, time is really running out. In the last few days, three events demonstrated the Red Sea has entered the next escalation level.

First, the unprecedented direct confrontation between the Houthis and the US, with three Houthi vessels sunk and 10 fighters killed by the Americans; second, the use of anti-ship missiles and then the deployment of an explosive drone boat by the Houthis; and third, the arrival in the Red Sea of the Iranian warship Alborz.

Whatever option that aims to undermine Houthis’ offensive capabilities should be co-ordinated now by Western states with Arab partners, since they have countered the Houthi threat in the last few years and understand the difficult balancing this demands.

Even taking into account that the Houthis are operating off the back of the Gaza war, as the group advances their own goals, it is important to consider the scenarios ahead and prevent possible retaliation risks.

Published: January 06, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: January 07, 2024, 7:30 AM