Are the Houthi Red Sea interceptions going to bring about a regional war?

Analysts tell Al Jazeera the Houthis are not likely to back down and the impacts on the region will be felt widely.

Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the U.S. and the U.K. strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa
Houthi fighters and tribesmen rally against the US and UK attacks on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on January 14, 2024 [AP Photo]

Beirut, Lebanon – Yemen’s Houthis hit a US-owned ship on Monday, a day after attacking a US navy destroyer in the Red Sea, indicating that the group will not be deterred by recent air attacks on Yemen by the United States and United Kingdom.

Not only have the Houthis seen a spike in popularity domestically, but they also have found solidarity among the so-called axis of resistance of Iran-supported groups in the region. They were already incensed by Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 people, most of them civilians.

And as the war on Gaza continues, so does the possibility of a confluence of confrontations, experts told Al Jazeera.

“Yemen is now becoming a participant in the regional escalation related to the war in Gaza,” said Raiman al-Hamdani, researcher at the ARK Group, a Dubai-based social enterprise that offers strategic management services.

An escalation loop

The Houthis control parts of western Yemen, including the strategically valuable Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which leads into the Red Sea and up to the Suez Canal.

They say they are intercepting Israel-bound and Israeli-owned ships passing through Bab al-Mandeb to pressure Israel to cease fire in Gaza or at least allow sufficient humanitarian aid in.

But they now seem to have expanded operations after hitting the US ship sailing in the Gulf of Aden, which is at least their second attack on a vessel in the body of water off Yemen’s southern coast.

So far, the Houthi interceptions have not caused any casualties in the Red Sea. But that could change if a direct hit on US or British soldiers happens.

“In such a scenario, retaliation in Yemen would take a much more aggressive approach,” al-Hamdani said.

And that could further inflame tensions regionally.

As the war has ground on, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have targeted US bases with the US responding by assassinating Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi, aka Abu Taqwa, the leader of Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militia in Baghdad.

Lebanese armed group Hezbollah has traded drone and rocket attacks with Israel.

“We’re in the middle of an escalation loop,” Yemen researcher Nicholas Brumfield said. “It’s hard not to see wider regional escalation.”

The administration of US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said it is trying to avoid an escalation in regional tensions.

Still, critics say his words ring hollow as he has twice bypassed the US Congress to send weapons to Israel rather than condition aid or take steps that might encourage a ceasefire.

“If the US and the UK respond to continued Houthi escalation with more air strikes on Yemen, then this will impact regional security, including in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Hannah Porter, a Yemen researcher, told Al Jazeera..

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden speak at the start of the meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) during the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 11, 2023.
From left, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden have ordered their militaries to bomb sites used by the Houthis in Yemen in retaliation for Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping [File: Paul Ellis/Pool Photo via AP]

“Although these countries do not want to return to military engagement with the Houthis, ongoing escalation could change that calculus.”

Saudi Arabia has been working to solidify a ceasefire with the Houthis to end Yemen’s war, which has dragged on for the past decade, as Riyadh seems committed to avoiding a restart of past Houthi attacks that disrupted its oil output.

But the exchange of attacks in the Red Sea could derail the peace process.

“The Houthis are playing with fire, and one wrong move could have severe consequences,” al-Hamdani said. “However, it seems unlikely as both the Houthis and the Saudis as well as the US and the UK desire an end to the state of war they find themselves in.”

Steady intensification of Red Sea attacks

While the Houthis have yet to cause any casualties, their actions have disrupted global shipping through the Red Sea, prompting the US and UK to decide to attack Yemen.

“The US and the UK felt like they had been backed into a corner and didn’t really have another option,” Porter said.

“They’ve been issuing threats to the Houthis for some time now about their targeting of ships in the Red Sea, and those threats were starting to feel very redundant and very unsubstantiated.”

On Wednesday, the Houthis fired 21 drones and missiles at the Red Sea, which US and UK naval forces repelled. The next day, US and UK forces bombed multiple sites in Yemen.

The US said those attacks took out a quarter of the Houthis’ ability to target ships, but the group has not been deterred. If anything, the attacks may well intensify, according to Yemen analysts.

“The Houthis have no intention of ceasing their attacks on the Red Sea,” Porter said.

“We are likely to see further escalation by the Houthis and the same pattern of intercepted attacks and near-misses of military and civilian vessels.”

The US and UK retaliation seems to have only emboldened the Houthis and bolstered their support as a rally of hundreds of thousands on Friday in the capital, Sanaa, showed.

“This is the ‘Big Bad’ the Houthis have been rhetorically prepping to fight for 20 years,” Brumfield said. “’Death to Israel’ is on the [Houthis’] flag, but ‘Death to America’ is first.”

The only casualties in these confrontations have actually been Houthis. On December 31, four Houthi vessels tried to commandeer a ship travelling through the Red Sea, and US helicopters attacked them, killing 10 fighters and sinking three boats.

people on boats wave Yemeni and palestinian flags
Members of the Houthi-affiliated Yemeni coastguard patrol the Red Sea on January 4, 2024 [AFP]

Thriving in war, struggling in peace

The Houthis have always been in the opposition in Yemen and spent most of their time in the spotlight fighting against Yemen’s government.

They overthrew the internationally recognised president of Yemen, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in 2014 and have been fighting in Yemen’s war since then.

Hadi had the support of Saudi Arabia, which led for a time an Arab coalition to fight the Houthis.

A truce has been in place since April 2022 as talks progressed between the Houthis and Riyadh over a more permanent ceasefire.

Currently, a split among Yemen analysts exists over whether the Houthis would like all hostilities to cease and if they would stop their Red Sea interceptions if a ceasefire is declared in Gaza.

Many believe the Houthis would continue their operations while a few have pointed out that the Houthis abided by the last ceasefire in late November between Israel and Hamas.

“The Houthis want this kind of military engagement because they are a group that functions well in wartime and they actually haven’t been tested during peacetime,” Porter said.

“Their good governance capabilities are not great.”

But while this may serve the Houthis’ domestic and regional goals, the population of Yemen will likely suffer.

“Unfortunately for people living under their control in what is described as ‘the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster’, the consequences would be devastating,” al-Hamdani said.

Source: Al Jazeera