Analysis | What Yemen’s Houthis gain through their Red Sea strikes

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U.S. officials claimed success after hitting some 60 targets in Yemen belonging to the country’s Houthi militants at the end of last week. Lt. Gen. Douglas A. Sims II, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the United States was “pretty confident” it had successfully degraded the Houthis’ capacity to continue attacking ships in the Red Sea with missiles and drones — a campaign launched by the Yemeni faction as a reaction to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

But a major segment of global shipping is still skirting transit points through the Red Sea that are in range of Houthi attacks. And the Houthis themselves appear unbowed after the U.S.-led coalition’s attacks. At rallies staged over the weekend in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, Houthi supporters reportedly chanted: “We don’t care and make it a world war.” On Monday, the Houthis hit an American-owned and operated container ship in the Gulf of Aden.

The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, or the “partisans of God,” are a rebel movement that seized control of Sanaa in 2014. Their thin ideological and tactical links to the theocratic regime in Iran have grown thicker in the years since, as Yemen buckled under a brutal civil war that saw the Houthis mostly stave off a Saudi and Emirati-led coalition that was also armed and backed by the United States.

While ordinary Yemenis still cope with economic collapse and a sprawling humanitarian calamity, the Houthis hold sway over large swaths of the country, actively threaten Gulf neighbors with missile and drone strikes and can project their power over one of the world’s most strategic maritime passageways.

Analysts contend that this new phase of hostilities may strengthen the Houthis, rather than weaken them. The aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas has seen Israel conduct an operation unprecedented in its scale and ferocity, reducing much of Gaza to rubble, killing more than 23,000 people and immiserating Gaza’s population. The Houthis are part of the so-called “axis of resistance,” a network of Iran-aligned militant groups around the Middle East. While militias like Lebanon’s Hezbollah seem to want to avoid a direct escalation with Israel, the Houthis thrust themselves into the spotlight by taking up the mantle of the Palestinian cause. They insist their actions in the Red Sea will stop when Israel ceases its bombardments.

“They are gaining what they want, which is to appear as the boldest regional player when it comes to confronting the international coalition, which is largely in favor of Israel and does not care for people in Gaza,” Laurent Bonnefoy, a researcher who studies Yemen at Sciences Po in Paris, told my colleagues. “This generates some form of support for them, internationally as well as internally.”

Sympathy for the Palestinians transcends the internecine strife and rivalries that divide Yemen, and so the Houthis are mustering some goodwill even from Yemenis who otherwise do not back them. Moreover, even their avowed enemies, including governments in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, have avoided endorsing the recent U.S.-led campaign against the Houthis, warning of escalation. That the Houthis are now withstanding international airstrikes is another feather in their cap.

“I think they dream that the Americans or the Israelis attack them, because that will turn them into a real ‘resistance’ force,” Mustapha Noman, a Yemeni analyst, writer and former diplomat, said at a Chatham House briefing in December, at a time when Western powers were more focused on defensive actions in the Red Sea.

Washington and London launched strikes against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen on Jan. 11 after a string of attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

The Houthis have long coped being in the crosshairs of foreign powers. And it’s unclear what appetite the United States and Britain, the other major Western power that participated in last week’s strikes, has in launching a concerted campaign to further degrade Houthi capabilities.

“The Houthis may well calculate that, having withstood seven years of Saudi aerial bombardment over the course of the Yemeni civil war, it’s unlikely that a U.S. air assault on Yemeni targets would inflict more substantial damage or that any damage to its equipment or facilities could not be quickly repaired or replaced,” observed Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador in Yemen.

“Moreover, a U.S. (or other) attack on Houthi military targets would validate, from the Houthi perspective, their propaganda that they are fighting on the front lines in support of Palestinians and that their operations are succeeding in threatening U.S. and allied interests,” he added.

Indeed, the Gaza war and its repercussions, noted the International Crisis Group, have “provided the Houthis with an opportunity to deflect mounting public pressure over their governance practices in the areas under their control, and enabled them to quell opposition to their rule by arresting opponents in those areas on charges of collusion with Israel and the U.S.”

In Washington, analysts across the political spectrum are skeptical of the Biden administration’s strategy regarding the Houthis. Hawks scoffed at the limited approach of the current campaign, what Eliot Cohen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies described as the “therapeutic bombing” on show last week, which in the long run may do little to dent Houthi capabilities or resolve.

“People are harder to replace than things, and instilling fear is more effective than dreaming of deterrence,” Cohen argued, calling for strikes that killed more Houthi personnel as well as Iranian agents and allies.

After Houthi attacks on shipping targets continued into this week, Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a think tank which advocates restraint in U.S. foreign policy, sighed in frustration. The Biden administration is “left deciding whether to back down and look feckless, or pointlessly escalate.” He added: “The only way out of this is diplomatic.”

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