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US–UK Airstrikes on the Houthis: What are its implications?

U.S.-UK airstrikes on the Houthis unfolded amid weeks of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb, which has caused the biggest disruption to global trade since the pandemic. The Houthis have launched at least 27 attacks on shipping vessels: roughly 12% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, including 30% of global container traffic.The disruption to global trade has direct implications for the global economy, including consumer goods and energy supplies. However, there are concerns airstrikes on the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, could potentially raise the prospect of a regional war. Moreover, military action may embolden the group. This compilation draws on the expertise of several scholars for their thoughts on the implications of military action against the Houthis and the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea.

The longer term answer may need to be a convoy system, the use of lower cost responses to the Houthis use of drones, plus a set of other deterrent measures –– John Jenkins

Sir John Jenkins is the former UK Ambassador to Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and co-leads the Westphalia for the Middle East Project at Cambridge University’s Centre for Geopolitics

Quite frankly it’s hard to see what else the US could have done. Simply put, the US-UK missile strikes of 11 January were a response to Houthi targeting of merchant shipping and indeed naval vessels. If the US is to remain the security guarantor of choice for Israel and the key Sunni states of the region, and send a deterrent message to Iran, China and Russia, it had to hit back. The failure to respond appropriately to attacks elsewhere by both the Obama and Trump administrations damaged the US reputationally and only encouraged its enemies.

But this is a short-term fix. The Houthis are a pest. They have been a pest for at least 30 years. But in every conflict they have fought they have emerged strengthened, regardless of the cost to Yemen as a whole. They also serve Iran’s interests. Given the secrecy of the Houthi high command, it is futile to speculate over the precise nature of this relationship. But we know they have accepted significant training, matèriel and moral support from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah for years. And, like Hezbollah and the key Hashd (Popular Mobilisation Force) militias in Iraq, they have come to see the world in similar ways and share key goals –– notably the destruction of Israel, the expulsion of US forces from the region and the remaking of the international order at least as it manifests itself in the Middle East.

The US has sought to construct a multilateral maritime coalition to address the challenge. Other states - including France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - have been reluctant to join. Missiles on their own will not be enough. The failure of the Saudi air campaign since 2015 has shown that the Houthis have extraordinary resilience. And they have accumulated stocks of sophisticated weaponry over the years. So the longer term answer may need to be a convoy system of some sort and the use of lower cost responses to the Houthis use of drones than multi-million dollar missile systems, plus a set of other deterrent measures, the development of alternative routes for trade and the renewed pursuit of a peace settlement in Yemen itself.

There is the question of Gaza, which has been an excuse for the recent crisis, even though it is certainly not the only cause: a ceasefire there, together with a political plan for the aftermath would help enormously. And then there’s Lebanon, where Iran again is pulling the strings along with its allies in Hezbollah. That’s one hell of an agenda for a US Administration which has set its heart on getting out of the Middle East. It’s also a wake-up call for the UK, whose armed forces have been hollowed out by years of austerity and (of course) other factors. And it’s a challenge for the states of the region whose economies will suffer most if trade is hit. It’s hard to see a future for Red Sea tourism, or indeed for impressively futuristic plans to “redefine liveability” in the desert – if the one constant is war and Iran continues to be allowed to expand its malign influence across the region unchallenged.

In the few months left before the US election campaign begins in earnest, can the Biden Administration deal with Gaza and organise the sort of collective international action required elsewhere? Can the UK sustain its efforts to support the US when Ukraine is putting demands on our military infrastructure that we are finding it hard to sustain? And can Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Jordan find enough common cause to help - if only in their own interests? It’s a huge ask.

China equivocated and begged off when asked to commit to naval safe passage. The question left is at what point China would rate itself relevant enough to get involved –– Ariel Ahram

Dr. Ariel Ahram is Co-Director at Crisis Response Council and a Professor at Virginia Tech University's School of Public & International Affairs.

The risk of regional conflagration was obvious at the start of Gaza War. Israel and the US publicly blamed Iran for providing Hamas the training, funding, and material needed to launch the October 7 assault. Iran, along with pro-Iranian groups like the Houthis, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah, and various militia-groups in Iraq pronounced their support for Hamas and declared their intention to resist the US and Israel. While they talked tough, all sides practiced caution initially. They engaged in a kind of tit-for-tat, launching small scale strikes and retaliations meant to signal resolve while remaining within unwritten red lines.

Houthi actions in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden blatantly crossed these lines. So far, Houthis have attacked over twenty five ships, including civilian oil tankers and container ships, and warships of the US and British navy that came to serve as civilian escorts. While the Houthis claim to be selectively targeting only ships with ties to Israel, in fact their hijacking and assaults have affected some fifty-five countries based, the ownership and flagging of the vessels, vessel registration, and the nationalities of the crew. The twenty-five men crew of the vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader, a mix of Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Philippines, Mexico and Romania citizens, remains missing after being hijacked and brought to the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah in November. Such violations of freedom of navigation, a core tenet of international law, were impossible to ignore.

Still, the US has struggled to muster allies to respond. Twenty countries announced their commitment to defend safe passage, but only the US and Britain have made a substantial commitment of warships to the mission. France, Spain, and Italy have vessels in the area, but prefer to operate independently. Other conspicuously absent are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia jointly fought a war against the Houthis from 2016 to 2022, with US military backing. Their naval vessels are capable of operating in the area and have a great deal to lose from shipping disruption. But Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are for now content to free ride on the Anglo-American effort for fear of become a target both of the Houthis and Iran. (Bahrain, a close ally to Saudi Arabia but military non-factor, is the only Arab country to participate so far.) China, too, has an enormous stake with any disruption of trade between Asia and Europe.

China has gained status in the Middle East by posing as an alternative global leader to the United States, less weighed-down by its friendship with Israel or a history of military adventures in the region. But China equivocated and begged off when asked to commit to naval safe passage. A Beijing spokesmen related that “relevant parties, especially major countries with influence, need to play a constructive and responsible role in keeping the shipping lanes safe in the Red Sea.” The question is left at what point China would rate itself relevant enough to get involved.

The Chinese response has been underwhelming. It is no surprise that China is not joining the military campaign against the Houthis but as a great power, it has failed to provide an alternative approach –– Jean-Loup Samaan

Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore

The ongoing escalation in the Red Sea shed light on the conflicted views of regional and big powers about the most efficient response against the Houthi missile attacks. After relying on a naval demonstration of force for weeks, the US administration had no choice but to retaliate following dozens of Houthi aggressions. Inaction would have undermined US credibility, especially after Washington had explicitly announced a "final warning" that the Houthis openly dismissed.

However, the strikes conducted by the US and the UK last Friday and Saturday did not put an end to the Houthi attacks. Limited by design, they did not really degrade the firepower of the Yemeni group and merely highlight the reluctance of the Biden administration to go after either the leadership of the movement, or as some have suggested, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who helped build the Houthi arsenal in the first place. The uncertainty surrounding the US endgame vis-a-vis the Houthis explains the conflicted reactions of its partners on the Red Sea crisis. Noticeably, Saudi Arabia refrained from joining the US operation as Riyadh fears that American airstrikes will only exacerbate the conflict inside Yemen while letting the Saudis to deal with the fallout.

Unease is also palpable among US European allies. Though some of them contributed to the airstrikes, many did not. Europeans have been increasingly at odds with the US Middle East policy and fear that the Red Sea crisis could drag them into a regional conflict. As a result, there are now talks in Brussels of launching a European operation –– possibly extending the mandate of the mission "European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz" (EMASOH) launched in 2019. Given the modest naval capabilities allocated to that mission, initiating a European operation does not make much sense militarily but it would send a major diplomatic message: that Europe is seeking a different approach to the American one.

But perhaps the most intriguing reaction is the one of China. Beijing relies heavily on the Red Sea and the Gulf for its energy supplies and its investors are active in many of the littoral states. China happens also to be the closest strategic partner of Iran that has a direct responsibility in empowering the Houthis. But so far, the Chinese response to the Middle East crisis has been underwhelming. It called for an end to the Houthi attacks but did not react after the message was ignored. It is no surprise that China is not joining the US in its response to the Houthis but as a great power, it failed to provide an alternative approach. Its diplomats only repeat vague statements about relaunching a peace plan for Israel and Palestine and remain conspicuously absent on the Yemen crisis –– even though the resolution of the conflict was supposed to be one of the pillars of the Saudi Iranian deal Beijing brokered last year.

Eventually, the cycle of strikes and counterstrikes between the US and the Houthis will continue until the US is forced to face the reality: that it cannot solve the Houthi challenge offshore without dealing with the Yemeni conundrum onshore.

The U.S. will likely have to alter its defensive posture in the region, deploying further personnel, aircraft carriers, air defense systems, and other assets to the region –– Caroline Rose

Caroline Rose is a Director at Newlines Institute and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University

It has been months of continued escalation and risk of violent spillover into the greater Middle East region from the unfolding war in Gaza. Recent agitation, assassinations, and strikes between Hezbollah, Iran-aligned militant groups, and Israel have threatened a second front along the Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Syrian border. Iran-backed militias have launched over 131 attacks on US forces and defensive infrastructure in Iraq and Northeast Syria. And in the Gulf, Iran-sponsored Houthi militants have targeted commercial vessels and naval assets passing though the Bab al-Menda strait and Red Sea at large.

With the risk of widespread regional conflict and potential direct confrontation with Iran, the US has been faced with a choice to either draw down its presence and reduce the risk of conflict or, alternatively, bolster its presence and respond more directly to attacks. Washington initially signaled that it was choosing the former, withdrawing its USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier from the Mediterranean at the start of this year. However, the joint UK-US strikes on over 60 targets of Houthi infrastructure across Yemen reflect a turning point in US planning and its potential defensive posture in the region. With these strikes, Washington is demonstrating that it seeks to draw a line with Houthi militants and is willing to shoulder additional risk of escalation in the region: these strikes (along with Iran’s hijacking of a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday) have further deterred commercial vessels from entering the Bab al-Mandab strait and will likely embolden Houthi militants to launch additional strikes on passing vessels, in addition to US military infrastructure in the Gulf region.

With further escalation, the US finds itself in a more complicated balancing act playing out directly with Iran-backed militias and indirectly with Iran itself. Accepting this greater risk of direct conflict, the US will likely have to alter its defensive posture in the region, deploying further personnel, aircraft carriers, air defense systems, and other assets to the region to support this spike in direct conflict with Iran-backed militias.

The Houthis can now leverage US-led targeting and direct maritime confrontations to achieve their political objectives externally. These include increasing their regional approval, acceptance and support -– Ibrahim Jalal

Ibrahim Jalal is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC

The main targets included Houthi military depots, camps, bases, missile and drone workshops, and radar sites, with limited casualties. While the operation aims at tactically preventing further Houthi attacks on commercial vessels, it is extremely unlikely to achieve that chiefly because it addresses the symptoms of a strategic transnational threat, not the threat itself. Following the initial strikes last Thursday, the US then unilaterally launched another small high-precision attack after the Houthis launched another anti-ship ballistic missile in the Red Sea. The latest attack signals the open nature of the military operation, which intends to demonstrate military resolve, improve the credibility of the “limited” attack, redraw the rule of engagement, and avoid appearing weak.

However, in its current form and conflict-avoidant approach to avoid spillover, the military operation will not neutralise Houthi capabilities, nor significantly weaken them. Until an assessment of capability loss is conducted and given the limited scope of the operation in time and space, the Houthis’ two-decade experience of guerrilla warfare and concealment tactics suggest that the group has located a major part of their capabilities in fortified mountainous positions and underground tunnels, having received earlier intelligence on attacks.

The Houthis hoped this Anglo-American attack would happen for the many benefits they could reap. Internally, they will leverage opposition to foreign intervention to expand domestic support, military recruitment and mobilisation, and territorial control, promote their hardline ideology and boost morale among their fighters. The Houthis, in their theological teaching, have defined the US as an enemy; they can now leverage US-led targeting and direct maritime confrontation to achieve their political objectives externally too. These include increasing their regional approval, acceptance and support given their framing of maritime attacks as in support of Gaza and the ensuing consequences, deepening their role within Iran’s Axis of Resistance and gaining prestige.

Given the US’ signalling of its interest to not escalate, the overall attack appears as a military messaging after a series of direct and back-channel diplomatic efforts that the Houthis failed to respond given they have too little to lose. Further US-led attacks on Houthi positions are set to continue as the Houthis continue Iranian-backed maritime adventurism disrupting global maritime trade in the Red Sea worth one trillion dollars, with the risk of regional spillover now heighted.

Many perceive these airstrikes as primarily symbolic, driven by pressure from local actors, shipping companies, and other stakeholders who have faced rising costs in recent months -– Francesco Schiavi

Francesco Schiavi is a Middle East Expert and Analyst specialising in conflict-management, hybrid security and non-state actors

The recent airstrikes carried out by the US and UK against the Houthis can be seen as a response to weeks of unanswered and diplomatic attempts to pressure the group into ceasing its hostile activities in the Red Sea. However, the effectiveness of these strikes in curbing Houthi operations and their broader impact on the region remain uncertain. Drawing parallels with recent incidents in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, it is unlikely that similar retaliatory strikes will significantly diminish Houthi military capabilities, even in the short term.

Many perceive these airstrikes as primarily symbolic, driven by pressure from local actors, shipping companies, and other stakeholders who have faced rising costs in recent months. Contrastingly, these US-led military actions are unlikely to prevent the Houthis from launching further attacks in the Red Sea, particularly as long as the conflict in Gaza persists. This may have been part of the Houthi leadership's strategy from the outset. With over two decades of experience in guerrilla warfare and resilience developed during the regionalized war since 2015, the Houthis have proven themselves as highly experienced, well-armed actors, partly owing to their Iran-supported missile and drone program. More critically, these US-led military operations could have severe repercussions within Yemen and the broader region.

Internally, international intervention is likely to fuel anti-American and anti-British sentiments among the public, potentially bolstering domestic support for the Houthis. They may frame the maritime attacks as a response to the Gaza conflict, using this narrative to mobilize fighters and enhance their legitimacy at home at the expense of the Yemeni government. Furthermore, the Houthis' exploitation of popular pro-Palestinian sentiments and their resistance to international intervention could elevate their status both locally and within the Iran-led "Axis of Resistance." Importantly, this military escalation may exacerbate Yemen's civil war, drawing in regional actors and further complicating or even obstructing the delicate UN-led peace process currently underway in the country..

In the long term, we will witness a strategic challenge to sea-born trade and navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb –– Ahmed Aboudouh

Ahmed Aboudouh is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Director of the China programme at the Emirates Policy Center

The US-UK strikes intend to establish deterrence south of the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. The declared objective is to protect shipping, freedom of navigation and global trade. This is why the strikes are framed as an act of self-defence on the back of the Houthi attacks against American and British naval ships earlier this week. Essentially, they are meant to send a message to Iran to reign in its proxies and as a warning that these strikes could be expanded to include other militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as well. However, these strikes have short and long-term implications. In the short term, they are unlikely to deter the Houthis and might worsen the situation. Since the ultimate objective is to achieve deterrence and maintain US prestige and power in the region, they are likely to continue as the Houthis are resilient and will be defiant in the face of this pressure. As a result, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden region will become an increasingly militarised area.

This, in turn, will spike insurance premiums for shipping and increase the cost as more ships diverge to the longer Cape of Good Hope route, with direct implications on food supply chains and global inflation. It could also prompt the Houthis to withdraw from peace negotiations with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states tacitly support the strikes to prevent the Houthis from recking havoc with impunity and limit their ability to increase their leverage in the ongoing Yemeni peace negotiations, they worry about the impact of expanding the Gaza war into a regional conflagration –– one that could undermine their security and de-escalation with Iran. In the long term, we will have a strategic challenge to sea-born trade and navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab. The region will witness more Western/regional naval deployments and reduced traffic. If the situation worsens, we may see Western/Arab troops deployed to drive the Houthis out of Hudayda Port and some other bases on the Red Sea coast.

The Houthis profile will rise as an anti-Israel/anti-Western resistance movement and may gain the upper hand over the internationally recognised government in Yemen. They may be successful in banking on anti-American sentiment rife now across the region to promote themselves as real supporters of the Palestinian cause. There is a serious concern the escalation may end the de-escalation moment between Iran and other Gulf States since Iran’s position may be boosted, having, so far, managed to pressure the US position on Gaza and score real gains regionally. Ultimately, further escalation may force more US military involvement in the Middle East, potentially creating more room for manoeuvre for China and Russia in Europe and the South China Sea to consolidate their strategic posture while the US is increasingly occupied elsewhere.

Iran's Supreme Leader and IRGC are signalling they have the ability to shut down the Red Sea whenever they like for whatever reason they like. This is the kind of coercion the rest of the world can’t let stand –– Colonel Joel Rayburn

Colonel Joel Rayburn is the former United States Deputy Assistant. Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria, responsible for implementing U.S. policy concerning Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon

The US-UK airstrikes on Houthi military targets last night were a necessary and long overdue response to the Houthis' attacks against international shipping and against American and allied naval vessels. The United States and virtually all its European and Asian allies share a vital interest in protecting freedom of navigation, and especially so in the Red Sea that constitutes one of the main maritime trade routes at the center of the entire global economy. However, the airstrikes, though necessary, were almost certainly not sufficient to end the danger to international commerce and navigation. This is because the Houthis' attacks on international shipping are not a matter of Houthi strategy, but of Iranian regime strategy, and imposing a cost on the Iranian regime's proxy rather than on the Iranian regime itself will be unlikely to change the Supreme Leader’s calculus and the actions of his IRGC.

The Iranian regime decision to disrupt the Red Sea trade route has little to do with the situation in Gaza, other than to cite it falsely as a rationale, and nothing to do with the Houthis’ local interests, and everything to do with Tehran’s ambition to blackmail its way into being treated as a great power. Having established the ability to attack Red Sea commerce in the name of the Gaza crisis, the Supreme Leader and IRGC are in fact signalling that they have the ability to shut down the Red Sea whenever they like for whatever reason they like. This is the kind of coercion the rest of the world can’t let stand, especially since if it were to succeed, we all could expect to see it employed by rogue regime and malign actors everywhere else as well.

We don’t yet know how much damage the strikes have inflicted on IRGC-Houthi missile and UAV capacity. It may or may not have crippled that capacity, and if it didn’t, then the U.S. and its allies will have to be willing to do more. There is every indication the U.S. administration in fact is not willing. The media leaks of the impending strikes in London, Israel, and Washington yesterday appear to have been a deliberate U.S. signal to Tehran that any Iranians or Lebanese Hizballah people located at the likely target sites needed to get to safety, probably meant to ensure that there would be no Iranian or Lebanese casualties that Tehran would feel compelled to retaliate about. It was a signal from President Biden, therefore, that as far as he was concerned he meant to punish the Houthis, not their sponsors, a single time and let the cycle end there.

We will see if Tehran accepts Biden’s de-escalation overture in Yemen, but we are unlikely to see Tehran abandon its strategy of a multifront offensive to pressure the United States out of the region. And since that’s the case, the United States and its allies still need to get serious about developing a strategy to deter the Iranian regime’s unprecedented region-wide onslaught—and indeed, its onslaught beyond the region when we include its intervention in the Ukraine war as Putin’s main arms supplier. The Biden administration’s de-escalation approach cannot solve this bigger problem. Detente without deterrence is nothing more than appeasement, and worse is yet to come if Biden doesn’t change course.


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