America's Houthi dilemma: Limited strikes or full-fledged war?

An extended military campaign in Yemen is improbable as Biden doesn't want to get entangled in a war during election season

America's Houthi dilemma: Limited strikes or full-fledged war?

The situation in the Red Sea has further intensified, with no signs of de-escalation. The defensive measures taken by the US and its allies to neutralize the impact of Houthi attacks on ship movements in this crucial trade artery have proven ineffective, prompting a shift to an offensive stance.

In response, US and British forces conducted overnight strikes on military sites in Yemen, aiming to weaken the Houthi group's military capabilities. Despite this strong message, the Houthis declared their intention to retaliate for the 73 airstrikes that resulted in the death of five of their fighters, vowing to continue their attacks in support of Palestine.

Despite the Houthis' refusal to change course, it is unlikely that the US and its allies will initiate a full-scale and prolonged military campaign against the militant group. This reluctance is rooted in the limitations associated with military actions against the group and the various risks such measures pose to the US and the region.

Read more: US options to counter growing Houthi threat

In response to Israel's war on Gaza, the Houthis have been actively targeting commercial vessels associated with Tel Aviv in the Red Sea since late October, utilizing drones, fast boats, land attack cruise missiles, and notably, anti-ship ballistic missiles, a first in global incidents of this nature. Subsequently, several major international shipping companies have halted operations in the Red Sea region, extending voyage durations, causing delays and increasing costs.

Until recently, the response from the US and its allies to these attacks was reactive, primarily involving intercepting Houthi missiles as they approach by Western military vessels positioned in the Red Sea. However, these defensive measures failed to dissuade major freight companies from suspending operations in this crucial trade artery for the foreseeable future. Subsequently, the US, along with other nations, issued a final warning to the Houthis, demanding that they cease their attacks or face the consequences.

While retaliatory attacks against targets in Yemen might have a clear military justification, the path to effectively halting Houthi attacks is highly intricate. 

Despite this stern ultimatum, the Houthis continued their assault. The most significant of these occurred on 9 January , with the group deploying 18 suicide drones and three anti-ship cruise missiles, marking the largest attack in the Red Sea to date. The militant group also issued a statement afterward, asserting that these attacks were aimed at US forces in retaliation for killing Houthi fighters days before.

This escalation appeared to compel the US and the UK to conduct strikes on Houthi targets inside Yemen, underscoring the gravity of their threats. The swift response was likely facilitated by pre-existing military plans developed by US officials to degrade the group's military capabilities.

While retaliatory attacks against targets in Yemen might have a clear military justification, the path to effectively halting Houthi attacks is highly intricate. This complexity could partly explain why the Biden administration is likely to remain hesitant to fully embrace  this offensive approach, even after initiating attacks against Houthi targets.

The Houthi militia's military capabilities are relatively low-tech, lacking obvious critical targets—such as costly infrastructure or sizable warships—that the US military could easily eliminate. Leveraging over two decades of experience in guerrilla warfare, the Houthis have made this task more difficult by decentralizing and concealing their heavy arms, bases, and camps. This strategy has enhanced their combat mobility and made it extremely difficult to identify and neutralise their assets.

Read more: Piracy off Yemeni coast raises global shipping costs

Getting tougher

Hence, it is difficulty in identifying viable targets to strike that would outweigh the substantial gains the Houthis are reaping from these attacks. Their assaults have become a cornerstone of their domestic and international public relations efforts, evidenced by the production and widespread dissemination of promotional videos showcasing their operations in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

On the domestic front, these attacks have served as a means to solidify support, attract new recruits, and bolster their position in the protracted Yemeni civil war. Externally, the Houthi attacks aim partly to garner regional and global support, positioning themselves as a resilient force against Israel.

These attacks could position the Houthis as a resilient force against Israel.

The impact of the attacks will be further limited due to ongoing Iranian support for the Houthis, enabling them to sustain operations in the red sea despite setbacks. Iran has reportedly supplied the Houthis with funding and sophisticated weaponry, including drones, land attack cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.

Tehran is also reportedly playing a substantial role in planning and aiding the Houthis' assaults on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Therefore, these strikes, which do not seem to address Tehran's role, will fail to disrupt Iran's supplies will turn attacks against Houthis into an endless game of whack-a-mole.

Moreover, aside from the UK, most of the US allies that issued the ultimatum are unlikely to join a military campaign against the Houthis. Mindful of the challenges and risks involved, most countries, such as France, Italy, and Spain, will likely continue to limit their military involvement in the Red Sea to safeguarding their own nation's ships.

Besides its limited impact, launching a full-fledged military campaign carries significant security and political risks. Entering a military campaign against the Houthis could further entangle President Joe Biden in the Middle East during a crucial election year. The US support for Israel's war on Gaza has sparked a series of attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria since October.

Despite attempts to avoid clashes with Iranian-backed forces, these attacks have compelled retaliatory measures, notably an incident in Baghdad targeting a high-ranking Iraqi commander. In this context, launching attacks against Houthis will likely be framed by the group, among others, as a pro-Israel move. This framing would likely escalate operations against US forces in the region, potentially resulting in casualties and prompting increased military involvement.

Beyond the security risks to regional stability, such heightened escalations could detrimentally impact Biden's re-election prospects, particularly as the 2024 campaign season gains momentum. Biden's pledges to end wars, despite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, could still be challenged.

A military campaign against the Houthis could further entangle Biden in the Middle East during a crucial election year.

The involvement of US troops in these confrontations, especially if prolonged, is likely to be used against Biden in election campaigns and debates. The impact of this issue on elections will especially intensify if escalations lead to heavy US military engagement or loss of US troops.

Measured approach 

Escalations against the Houthis also risk reigniting the protracted Yemeni civil war, currently in a ceasefire. This action might jeopardize the ongoing Saudi-led negotiations with the Houthis, which holds the potential of contributing to resolving the Yemeni conflict.

Reportedly, an initial agreement has been reached after extensive negotiations and is now being circulated among local and international stakeholders for their endorsement, aiming to finalize all necessary arrangements.

The success of such an agreement would be pivotal for Yemen's stability and the broader region. Contrarily, prolonged offensive attacks against Houthis risk jeopardizing this potential agreement, turning it into a casualty of a confrontation with the group over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

While the Biden administration might opt for limited strikes against groups associated with the attacks on merchant ships, a full-fledged and extended campaign against the Houthis in Yemen is improbable.

The risks associated with launching a full-fledged and extended campaign against Houthis are likely to prompt the US to adopt more measured approaches. The Biden administration will likely stick to launching limited and sporadic attacks as a face-saving measure rather than pursuing a goal-driven strategy.  Simultaneously, the US and its allies might explore options to bolster the protection of merchant vessels, potentially implementing convoy systems escorted by warships.

Despite the efficacy of such measures in enhancing the security of freight ships, it is unlikely to completely thwart Houthi attacks. The escalation against international cargos was triggered by Israel's war on Gaza, and the resolution of that conflict remains the primary means to defuse tensions in the Red Sea without further repercussions.

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