Western states mull options as Houthi attacks continue in Red Sea

When the Yemen-based militia began targeting cargo ships through a narrow strait, it threw up several conundrums. It also garnered Arab support. What happens next will be important.

A Houthi helicopter flies over the cargo ship Galaxy Leader as Houthi fighters walk on the deck of the ship in the Red Sea, on 20 November 2023.
A Houthi helicopter flies over the cargo ship Galaxy Leader as Houthi fighters walk on the deck of the ship in the Red Sea, on 20 November 2023.

Western states mull options as Houthi attacks continue in Red Sea

The Houthis have had a starring Middle East role of late, which has come as something of a surprise.

When Israel launched its war on the Gaza Strip in October 2023, few could have predicted that it would be the Iran-backed Houthis’ moment to shine.

Yet to a domestic audience, that is exactly what they have done in their largely successful efforts to target and disrupt shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world.

The vessels have been heading northward towards Israeli and Egyptian ports or journeying from Asia to Europe. The Houthis said they would target ships owned by, or heading towards, Israel until it ends its war on Gaza.

The Houthis’ ability to impede ships traversing the strait, inflicting damage or taking them hostage, has registered globally. However, it is now practically constrained by increasingly effective Western military protection being afforded to these merchant ships.

Nevertheless, their success to date is noteworthy and includes their own PR videos, filming themselves landing by helicopter while hijacking a carrier partly owned by an Israeli businessman.

They have achieved a global impact in their efforts, garnered attention and occasionally instigated significant Western concerns. They have also hurt Israel, with the Israeli port of Eilat losing 85% of its shipping activity since October.

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The pinch-point is the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, of which only 26km is designated for international navigation. This is where the Houthis have disrupted the routine passage of goods that constitute around 12% of global trade.

The narrow Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is crucial to international maritime navigation. This is where the Houthis have disrupted the routine passage of goods that constitute around 12% of global trade.

Read more: Can the global economy withstand Houthi attacks on maritime trade?

This has forced shipping companies to go the longer, older, and costlier maritime route via the Cape of Good Hope in southwest Africa to reach Europe. As a result, ships’ insurance costs and other expenses have roughly doubled.

The Houthis have had a global impact and hurt Israel, the port of Eilat having lost 85% of its shipping activity since October.

The Houthis, still at odds with the legitimate government of Yemen at home, aspire to derive advantages from this confrontation with Israel and the West that far surpass their current losses.

Domestically, their objective is to secure support and fortify their position against their rival in the protracted Yemeni civil war, which is currently paused in a ceasefire.

Reports indicate that the Presidential Council has actively enlisted volunteers into the Houthi militias by assuring them of the chance to fight Israel in Gaza. Most likely, these recruits will engage Yemeni government forces.

The Houthis hope that by taking the fight to Israel, this will quell internal discontent, with allegations of corruption and mismanagement being laid at their door.

Furthermore, they count on gaining "revolutionary legitimacy" among certain factions, giving them a one-up on their adversary, the legitimate Yemeni government, which has refrained from direct criticism, instead simply re-emphasising its rightful role.

Neighbourhood watch

Externally, the Houthi attacks are in part geared towards garnering support from the Arab world, as they portray themselves as a resilient force against Israel. They know that public opinion is with the Palestinians.  

The leaders of several Arab nations stood clearly against Israeli attacks, calling for an immediate ceasefire, but declined to participate in the US-led naval force countering Houthi strikes and safeguarding vessels through the strait.

In recent years, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates has engaged in similar naval formations under US leadership, to counter piracy and smuggling.

A number, encompassing actions by Iran and the Houthis, have transpired in the same maritime regions, notably the Arabian Gulf.

Arab nations stood against Israeli attacks, calling for a ceasefire, but declined to participate in the US-led naval force countering Houthi strikes.

To date, Israel has refrained from attacking the Houthis, in part because they have not posed a direct threat. They are certainly not neighbours, Yemen being more than 2,200km from Tel Aviv.

Some in the Arab world might see any Israeli attack against the Houthis as provocative, carrying significant risks of conflict escalation and placing America's Arab allies in an awkward position.

Cautious approach

In its response to Houthi attacks, the US has exercised caution and refrained from taking military action.

Instead, it has favoured a containment strategy that gradually restores normal shipping operations without escalating into a full-blown fight.

A Houthi walks across the beach with a cargo ship seized by the Houthis in the background on 5 December 2023

The prevailing sentiment influenced this decision in Washington: that the Houthi attacks would end when the conflict in Gaza ended, which would hopefully be soon.  

Yet the containment strategy of intercepting Houthi missiles and drones has failed to give shipping firms the confidence they need to sail through the Red Sea, nor has it reduced shipping and maritime insurance costs.

Moreover, the Houthis' targeting of ships has grown increasingly more sophisticated, something analysts attribute to Iranian intelligence and technical support.

Moving into 2024, the Gaza war continues apace, despite the Americans wanting a swift end, or at least a substantial reduction in intensity, to mitigate international and Arab condemnation and avert any escalation into a regional conflict.

Among the conflicting factors shaping US policy is the need to prevent Israel from engaging directly with the Houthis. Although Israel has expressed an interest in doing so, Washington has rejected it.

Wider considerations

Any direct Israeli-Houthi battle would place America's Arab allies in an awkward position. It might also compel the US to engage militarily with the Houthis, which would be one step away from engaging Iran.

The US is also reluctant to jeopardise the beginnings of an agreement to conclude the civil war in Yemen. A deal would be a critical moment for the US in the Middle East following its appointment of a special envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking.

The Houthis' targeting of ships is increasingly sophisticated. Analysts attribute this to Iranian intelligence and technical support.

The initial agreement, which Saudi Arabia and the Houthis reached after arduous and lengthy negotiations with US support, has been forwarded to the United Nations through its own envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg.

The aim now is to seek international endorsement and set the final arrangements leading to imminent peace in Yemen.

So, having done the hard work, the US does not want this agreement to fall casualty to a confrontation with the Houthis over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

A container ship belonging to the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) transits the Suez Canal towards the Red Sea on 22 December 2023.

The US could still transition from a defensive to an offensive posture regarding the Houthis.

A step-up would target the group's Yemen-based missile platforms and launch sites. Indeed, there are some calling on US President Joe Biden to do so.

Steps to war

There is evidence that America's patience is wearing thin, and that further action may be needed, particularly after US helicopters destroyed three Houthi boats while they were attempting to seize a ship on 31 December.

The US action killed ten Houthi fighters and was the first time that American and Houthi soldiers had engaged one another.

Given the lack of Arab support to the US over the Houthis, Washington has looked to Europe for military and political support, given that the continent would lose most from disrupted traffic through the Bab-el-Mandeb.

On 31 December, the US killed ten Houthi fighters and destroyed three Houthi boats. It was their first direct confrontation. 

However, the European reaction has been uncertain and lacking in the typical unity that EU countries often demonstrate when it comes to external challenges.

Spain is reluctant to participate in the US-led maritime alliance, for instance, while France wants its naval units involved but operating independently, not under the US.

Others want to revive an old European naval mission aimed at countering piracy in the Red Sea.

Despite the divergent views on the specific nature, implementation, and timing of such measures, both Europeans and Americans share the common goal of preventing the Houthis from intercepting ships.

The Americans, together with the British and other allies, have now issued a final warning to the Houthis, urging them to halt their attacks on ships. Non-compliance would result in a military strike directed at the launch platforms.

If the Houthi targeting of ships does not substantially diminish or cease entirely, it appears to be only a matter of time before US military intervention becomes a tangible reality. For some, this would be sooner, rather than later.

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