How the US, UK bombing of Yemen might help the Houthis

The Yemeni group could gain from a raised domestic and international profile, with a superpower taking them on.

Newly recruited Houthi fighters hold up firearms during a ceremony at the end of their training in Sanaa, Yemen January 11, 2024. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Newly recruited Houthi fighters hold up firearms during a ceremony at the end of their training in Sanaa, Yemen, on January 11, 2024 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Yemen’s Houthis will not be deterred by United States-led attacks on them in retaliation for their targeting of Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea, and could in fact be emboldened further, say analysts.

On Thursday night, the US and the United Kingdom bombed multiple sites in Yemen that Washington said were Houthi facilities, a day after they shot down missiles fired by the Yemeni group in the Red Sea. The bombings are the first time during this war that the US or its allies have attacked Yemeni territory.

But the Houthis could gain from a raised regional and domestic profile, as the world’s sole superpower takes on a group that is not internationally recognised as the government of Yemen despite controlling large parts of the country, say experts.

On January 10, the US and the UK repelled 21 drones and missiles in the Houthis’ largest operation yet on Red Sea traffic. And the United Nations Security Council, with the world’s most powerful nations, focused on the attacks on Red Sea ships, in a resolution that condemned the Houthis – but also underscored their growing influence as a force to reckon with.

“The Houthis actually won that confrontation the day they started it,” Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher with the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera.

Within Yemen, Ansar Allah, the formal name of the Houthi group, controls the west, including the Bab al-Mandeb strait that leads into the Red Sea, and is fighting for territory against the internationally recognised government of Yemen and its domestic allies.

The group’s actions in the Red Sea, along with its messaging about supporting the people of Gaza, have been immensely popular among Yemenis, bolstering recruitment and allowing it to mobilise massive rallies in support of the Palestinian people.

The Houthis say they are intercepting Israel-bound and Israeli-owned ships passing through the Bab al-Mandeb strait to pressure Israel to at least allow sufficient humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, which Israel has pounded for the past three months.

The Israeli war on Gaza following an October 7 attack by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups has killed more than 23,000 people, most of them civilians, some in direct bombings and others as a result of the dire conditions the enclave has been plunged into by Israeli actions.

The Houthis grabbed global attention on November 19, when they commandeered the Galaxy Leader cargo ship and subsequently turned it into a tourist attraction.

While global shipping has been deeply affected, with major shipping companies avoiding the Red Sea altogether, the Houthi interceptions have caused minor damage to most ships and have avoided killing or injuring anyone on board.

On December 31, four Houthi vessels tried commandeering a ship travelling through the Red Sea when US Navy helicopters attacked them, killing 10 Houthi fighters and sinking three boats.

In early January, the Houthis began using unmanned surface vessels. In the past, the group has used them as drone boats that explode on impact with other vessels. While the group has changed tactics, they have not stopped their activity in the Red Sea, on the one hand, analysts say, because their declared aim has not been achieved, and on the other, because they do not fear US threats.

“The Red Sea front has entered the next level – the direct clash between the Houthis and the US,” Eleonora Ardemagni, a senior associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told Al Jazeera. “Both the US and the Houthis are respectively testing the effects of their moves and how far they are willing to go.”

Air attacks will not deter the Houthis

In response to an ultimatum from Washington and its allies to stop Red Sea activity or incur their military wrath last week, the Houthis held an enormous rally in Yemen’s capital Sanaa where bombastic speeches from the group’s leaders declared themselves ready for US escalation.

“Everything that was worth striking has been struck by the Saudi coalition in the past nine years,” al-Iryani said, referring to the war waged against the Houthis by a Saudi-led coalition that began fighting the Houthis in 2015 after they had overthrown President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, head of the internationally recognised government.

“I don’t think [US attacks on Houthi targets] are going to act as a deterrent to the Houthis,” Raiman al-Hamdani, a researcher at the ARK Group and a former visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera. “Considering the Houthis’ rhetoric of always blaming the United States and Israel for the problems that exist in Yemen and in the Middle East in general, I think they’d be quite happy.”

Strategically speaking, al-Iryani said, the Houthis should also be quite comfortable. The Houthi mobile infrastructure should make picking targets more difficult for the Americans, he said.

Making peace with neighbours

Meanwhile, the Houthis are still in talks with neighbouring Saudi Arabia over a long-term ceasefire and analysts say they may be trying to strengthen their hand through the Red Sea show of power.

The Saudis have been keen on preventing an escalation in Yemen and, in December, Riyadh urged the US to exercise restraint. Saudi Arabia doubled down on that message of caution after Thursday night’s attacks on Yemen.

Instability next door would not benefit Saudi Arabia, which has had its oil infrastructure badly affected in past Houthi attacks. The Saudis may also have longer-term considerations in these negotiations, in that it would benefit them to build relations with the Houthis and may be on track to recognise them.

“Formal recognition may be the most important thing to [the Houthis],” al-Hamdani said. “The group’s main concern is to continue consolidating power over the country.”

To date, the Houthis have drawn support from Iran as part of their regional Axis of Resistance, along with Hamas, Hezbollah and a network of militias in Iraq and Syria. “The Houthis … have developed a relationship with Iran that many analysts consider to rival that Iran possesses with Hezbollah,” Yemen researcher Nicholas Brumfield told Al Jazeera.

But analysts say the group should not be seen as an Iranian proxy and, in the future, the Houthis may look to recalculate their regional alliances. “It’s going to be better for them to be close to the Saudis,” al-Hamdani said, adding that they could benefit more by “relying on [Saudi Arabia’s] financial resources rather than depending on Iran for weapons”.

The Houthis’ identity as a Shia group does not mean that they will fall under Iranian influence by default – the long historical and cultural ties between Yemen and Saudi Arabia can play a pivotal role between the two.

Source: Al Jazeera