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17 January 2024

How Israel’s war spread to the Red Sea

Yemen’s Houthis are allies of Iran but not proxies. They believe they are carrying out the will of God.

By Jeremy Bowen

I met Mohammed Ali al-Houthi for the first time during a Saudi bombing raid in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. He is a thick-set, noisy man, who laughs a lot, not always humorously, and that day he was laughing loudly at the Saudis. It was June 2015, nine months after the Houthis drove the internationally recognised government out of Sanaa and three months after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had gone to war to remove the Houthis from power. Al-Houthi strolled across the presidential compound in Sanaa, ignoring the hostile roar of jet engines and the thump of anti-aircraft fire. He seemed unconcerned that we were at the heart of an obvious target for the Saudi air force, and its squadrons of American F-15 and British Typhoon warplanes.

He barely looked up at their vapour trails, laughing again. “We are not worried. The Yemeni people can fight their own battles. The Saudis know that.” Then he went walk-about in a market not far from the palace, making a politician’s progress, stopping to shake hands, his aides keeping him supplied with wads of cash to hand out to anyone who took his fancy. Children pushed into the queue to get their share.

Nine years later, with the war that put Yemenis through terrible misery on ceasefire, and the Gaza war reverberating across the region, Al-Houthi is head of what is known as the supreme revolutionary committee. Like the rest of the Houthi leadership, he is as defiant as ever, and not at all cowed by the recent air strikes carried out by the US and UK. On the morning after the Americans and British took action on 11 January, Al-Houthi told the BBC that any country that joined the coalition formed by the US to protect shipping in the Red Sea would also be targeted. One set of air strikes has not shaken the Houthis’ confidence. The Saudis and their coalition failed to destroy them during years of raids with the latest US and British jets. Add to that the powerful arsenal gifted to the Houthis by Iran, and most of all their conviction that they are carrying out the will of God.

The group’s official title is Ansar Allah, supporters of God. It emerged from the mountains and valleys that run towards the border with Saudi Arabia in northern Yemen. The Yemenis in general, not just Houthis, have a long tradition of fighting invaders. In southern Yemen, the British were attacked repeatedly from 1839, when the Royal Navy seized the great natural harbour of Aden, until the 1960s, when the UK was forced out despite its modern weapons and despite enacting what the Imperial War Museum calls “swift, harsh and often indiscriminate” reprisals for attacks on British soldiers or their families.

When the final order to evacuate was issued in November 1967, the government of Harold Wilson considered the local threat serious enough to cover the retreat with a task force that included aircraft carriers with Buccaneer and Sea Vixen jets, commando landing ships, frigates, destroyers, the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. That evacuation was also connected to a war between Israelis and Arabs. A few months earlier, in the summer of 1967, Israel beat its Arab enemies in six days, occupying the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, creating the pattern of occupation that has shaped the long conflict ever since.

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The Houthis intervened in the war on 19 October, less than a fortnight after the Hamas attacks and before Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. At first, they launched ballistic missiles and drones from Yemen. When they failed to break through anti-missile defences deployed by the US Navy and the Israelis, they switched to attacks on ships close to Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. On 9 November Al-Houthi agreed, with alacrity, to do an interview via Zoom even though I was in Israel, or, as he called it, “the invading entity”. Houthi forces had just shot down an American drone and he was beaming.

On the screen I could see him settled comfortably in a grand, throne-like chair in a big room in Sanaa, his white robe framing his jambiya, the curved ceremonial dagger most traditionally minded Yemeni men wear attached to a broad, woven belt. The detail on the handle of the jambiya indicates the status and power of the man wearing it. Al-Houthi’s was impressive. 

I was in an improvised studio in my hotel room in Ashqelon, next to the Mediterranean Sea and close enough to the Gaza Strip to be able to hear the war. The Levantine autumn was as hot as a fine British summer, and for hour after hour, Israel’s bombardment thundered through the open windows. I would go to sleep in the early hours listening to it, and it was usually the first sound I heard when I woke up at dawn.

On the monitor Al-Houthi was as defiant as ever, and still laughing. The list of powerful men the Houthis have defied includes the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Back in 2015, he was only months into his first big job, as Saudi defence minister, when he rushed into the war against the Houthis, hoping for a quick victory. In private, senior Saudis told me that was not because of any love for the deposed president of Yemen, who was in an unhappy, gilded exile in a fancy hotel in Saudi Arabia. Instead, it was because Iran was supporting the Houthis, and the Saudis did not want Iranians in what they called their backyard.

Since they hit Yemen on the night of the 11-12 January, the US and UK have tried to draw a distinction between the war in Gaza and their determination to stop the Houthis’ attempts to block one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Politicians are choosing their words carefully. They do not want to be blamed for starting a new front in the war. Without a doubt the US, the UK and the other states involved in the naval taskforce in the Red Sea need to keep open the short cut to Asia through the Suez Canal and Red Sea. As the Houthis know, closing it carries a serious economic penalty, already being paid in delays and millions of dollars’ worth of extra fuel as ships go the long way round, via the Cape of Good Hope and the west coast of Africa.

It is impossible to separate events in the Red Sea from the war in Gaza. One reason is that the Houthis insist they are attacking shipping because of the war and will continue until Israel stops attacking Gaza. Some critics of the US-UK air strikes say dropping their objections to a ceasefire might be a better way for Washington and London to uphold freedom of navigation than bombing Yemen.

But don’t just take the Houthis’ word for it. A geopolitical circuit board, with intersecting political and strategic wires, transmits and spreads conflicts in the Middle East. The war in Gaza connects to the crisis in the Red Sea via the rift between friends of Iran and friends of America. Israeli jets were bombing Gaza, just a few miles away, as I sat in Ashqelon listening to Al-Houthi’s view: “We are an axis of resistance, facing American and European imperialism, and Joe Biden, who is 76 [in fact he is 81] falls off the stairs and blesses the killing of children in Palestine.”

It was, Al-Houthi said, normal and acceptable to join any fight to support the Palestinians, or Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia and political movement in Lebanon. What was not acceptable was the US and British naval presence in the Red Sea, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter.

He went on: “The holy Koran says: fight all the infidels when they fight you. Iran is welcome to fight against the Jews… so are all Islamic and Arab countries and other countries who want to back freedom in Palestine. They are all welcome to fight the Jews.”

The “axis of resistance” is the name Iran and its friends give to their network. Iran’s enemies, led by the US and Israel, call it a network of terror. Iran constructed its ring of allies and clients to project its power and as forward defence. It has not been noticeably weakened by the US’s assassination of the man who did most to create it, the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020.

Apart from the Houthis, Iran’s network also includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, a variety of Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Hitting one organisation can produce a response from another part of the network. Iran does not desire an all-out war, which could end with the destruction of the Islamic regime in Tehran, but it wants to keep the pressure on Team America. One answer to Israeli attacks in Gaza and into Lebanon has come from attacks on US troops in Syria and Iraq by militias that are funded and trained by Iran.

The Houthis do as they please, not as they are told: they are allies of Iran but not its proxies. In parallel with its Middle Eastern network, Iran is getting closer to Russia, which buys its attack drones, and China, which buys its oil. War is always a catalyst for change, and Gaza looks to be accelerating shifts in power in the region.

It is possible, as Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak hope, that air strikes are the best way to deliver a credible warning to Iran and the Houthis – to stop what they’re doing, or else. One senior Western diplomat said they had to demonstrate that red lines do not turn pink under pressure. The Houthis, however, will do all they can to continue the attacks. Even a powerful naval presence in the Red Sea might not be enough to persuade the world’s big shipping lines to risk running into a Houthi blockade when insurance is expensive and another route is available. That leaves aside even worse scenarios. What happens if the Houthis kill American or British sailors? What if a swarm of Iranian missiles defeats naval air defence systems and even sinks a ship?

It is too late to talk about preventing the war from spreading beyond Gaza. That has already happened. The challenge now is to stop it getting even worse.

Jeremy Bowen is the author of “The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History” (Picador)

[See also: The Red Sea’s escalation equation]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge