‘Fed up with war’: Yemenis fear new conflict after Houthi Red Sea attacks

Many Yemenis worry that the Houthi attacks on Red Sea vessels will spark a Western or Israeli response, dragging their war-battered nation into a new conflict.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. Yemen's Houthis have seized the ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen after threatening to seize all vessels owned by Israeli companies. (Houthi Media Center via AP)
Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, November 19, 2023. Yemen's Houthis have seized the ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen after threatening to seize all vessels owned by Israeli companies [File: Houthi Media Center via AP]

Sanaa, Yemen — When Israel’s war on Gaza broke out on October 7, Saleh Abdullah, a 48-year-old supermarket owner in Sanaa, joined pro-Palestine mass protests, expressing his solidarity with the besieged enclave. It never crossed his mind that the Houthi armed group that controls Yemen’s capital and large parts of the country would intervene militarily.

On October 19, a United States warship intercepted drones and missiles fired from Yemen as they were heading to Israel. Later, the Houthi group, which has been the de facto authority in north Yemen since 2015, claimed responsibility for firing ballistic missiles at Israel, announcing to launch more.

Abdullah celebrated. “When the Houthis declared sending missiles and drones towards Israel, the news lifted our morale and brought a sense of euphoria,” he said.

But that sentiment was short-lived, as Abdullah began to ponder over the repercussions of the escalation when his country is awash with multiple crises, including political instability, military rivalry and an unhealthy economy, and diplomatic talks to conclusively end years of fighting have remained inconclusive.

Now, a spate of attacks by the Houthis on ships transiting through the Red Sea — which the Yemeni group argues are aimed at pressuring Israel to end the war on Gaza that has killed almost 20,000 people — has triggered a backlash from the West.

On Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a multinational maritime task force involving 10 navies aimed at securing the Red Sea from what he described as a “reckless” escalation by the Houthis.

It is precisely the kind of response that Abdullah has been fearing. “The Yemeni attacks on Israel or American forces will invite their response, and their response will put Yemen in a state of war. This is what lots of Yemenis and I do not want to see. We are fed up with conflicts and do not want atrocities to erupt anew,” he said.

Worry about war return

It has been nine years since Yemen slid into a civil war, sparking a catastrophic humanitarian situation with thousands killed and millions displaced. Since last year, efforts by the United Nations and regional players have helped silence weapons in Yemen, and civilians hope that that will continue, even as talks over a long-term ceasefire remain in limbo.

Yet in recent weeks, the war in Gaza has cast a shadow on those hopes. Multiple Houthi attacks on vessels traversing the Red Sea, a key maritime trade artery passing through a region that is the world’s biggest oil-supplier, have threatened to drag Yemen into a new war.

On Friday, some of the world’s biggest shipping companies announced that their vessels would stop transiting through the Red Sea amid the missile attacks, a move that threatens to send oil prices up, in turn hurting the global economy. The very next day, the navies of the United Kingdom and the US intercepted 15 attack drones fired from Houthi-controlled territories. Two other ships were attacked on Sunday.

‘Zero impact’

The Houthi missiles and drones have been a cause of concern for Israel over the past few weeks. However, the public in Yemen has conflicting views regarding the impact of such attacks.

Leila Salem, a 28-year-old university student in Sanaa, said the Houthi missiles and drones cannot be enough to stop the Israeli army from continuing its war on Gaza. She told Al Jazeera, “Firing drones and missiles from Yemen towards Israel is like hitting an angry elephant with a small stick. Such attacks can have a zero impact on the Israeli army.”

Instead, Salem worries, the consequences will be felt more by the Yemeni people, many of whom commend the Houthis for sending drones and firing missiles on Israeli and Western-linked vessels in the Red Sea.

“The previous US administration classified the Houthis as a foreign terrorist group. The ongoing Houthi attacks on shipping lanes and the American forces in the region may pave the way for blacklisting the group,” she said.

If the group is redesignated as a “foreign terrorist organisation”, the Houthis will survive, she said. “The group will not be weakened or eliminated overnight, and only civilians will bear the brunt.”

Ali al-Dhahab, a Yemeni political and military analyst, said the international maritime coalition coming together in the Red Sea will not stand idly by if it detects missiles or unmanned aircraft launched from Houthi-controlled areas. “The coalition will respond to the sources of fire,” he said. Any armed clash between the Houthis and international forces would impede the peace process in Yemen, he cautioned.

Persistent Houthi defiance

While civilians in Yemen display worry about the fallout of the Houthi involvement in Israel’s war on Gaza, the Iran-backed group’s leadership and fighters remain defiant.

Mohammed Nasser, a 28-year-old Houthi fighter on the front line in the city of Marib, told Al Jazeera that if their drones and missiles cannot reach Israel, they can still easily hit targets in the Red Sea, especially Israeli and US ships.

“We are prepared for all scenarios and capable of hitting targets in the Red Sea. No country can stop us from supporting Gaza,” Nasser told Al Jazeera.

On December 15, Houthi spokesperson Yahia Sarea said the group attacked two ships, MSC Alanya and MSC PALATIUM III in the Red Sea. He added, “The Yemeni armed forces confirm they will continue to prevent all ships heading to Israeli ports from navigating in [the Red Sea] until they bring in the food and medicine that our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip need.”

Houthi gains

To be sure, the Houthi intervention in the war on Gaza has some popular support too. A Sanaa-based political researcher, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the Houthi group had won the hearts of countless people in Yemen through its attacks in support of Gaza.

“By firing missiles at Israel or Israeli targets in the Red Sea, the Houthi group earns popular support in Yemen, and this is a considerable gain. The public support helps them consolidate their authority, which ensued from their 2015 coup against the Yemeni government,” he said.

However, he too acknowledged that these “gains” for the Houthis could mean losses for Yemen, which could face new “humanitarian and economic troubles”.

And prospects of peace could suffer. “The Houthi arrogance will rise, which may obstruct an agreement on ending the civil war with their local opponents,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera