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15 January 2024

The Red Sea’s escalation equation

The aims of the US’s and UK’s strikes on the Houthis were limited. But what happens next?

By Lawrence Freedman

The longer the Gaza War goes on the greater the concern that it will escalate into something much larger. Iran is being watched most closely because it orchestrates the “axis of resistance” of which Hamas is a part and could give the other members, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, a green light to raise the level of their attacks.

Most attention has focused on Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border. The exchanges between the two have stopped short of full-scale hostilities, but only just. The clashes began after Hamas’s attacks on 7 October, when Hezbollah fired rockets and artillery “in solidarity”. It continues to do so and Israel takes out Hamas positions in Lebanon. Over the past three months nine Israeli soldiers and four civilians have been killed, while 123 have reportedly died in Lebanon, including at least 21 civilians. More than 80,000 Israelis residents have been evacuated away from the border areas.

After Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces, was killed by an Israeli strike, Hezbollah retaliated with a drone attack on Israeli army headquarters in Safed, northern Israel, though without apparently causing damage or casualties. Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem also emphasised that the group did not want to expand the war, adding that if it was expanded by Israel ‘the response is inevitable to the maximum extent required to deter Israel.’ Lebanon is in no fit state to cope with a major confrontation. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been pressing Israel not to add to the current regional chaos by embarking on a major war with Hezbollah.

In addition, US troops in Iraq and Syria, still there after the fight against ISIS, have been attacked by Iran-backed militias 130 times since 17 October. There have been no American fatalities but occasional injuries. These have prompted US responses, of which there have been fewer than ten so far. The most serious came on 4 January when a militia leader blamed for the attacks was killed in Baghdad.

The most dramatic escalation has been with the Houthis in Yemen. The threat their actions pose to international shipping led to US and UK strikes early on Friday morning. As the dust settles on these strikes and the Houthis threaten retaliation, has this brought us closer to a wider war?

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Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis, who prefer to be known as Ansar Allah (“Partisans of God”), are not Iranian puppets – they make their own decisions – but their interests are aligned and their capabilities have been built up with substantial Iranian support. Though they are part of the “axis of resistance”, they have their own distinctive characteristics and interests. Their roots are in North Yemen, which joined with the former British Colony of South Yemen to form a unified, but subsequently fractious, state in 1990. In religious terms they are Zaydi Shi’ite, which is relatively moderate. Their politics over the years has been flexible, and while based on the Houthi tribe they enjoy broader support. (For an excellent introduction to the Houthis see this piece by Eilsabeth Kendall).

Their Shi’ite identity in a largely Sunni state (they make up about a third of the population) turned them into a radical force in Yemeni politics. The Yemeni government tried to suppress them in fighting which lasted from 2004 to 2010, with the Saudis joining in directly in 2010. But then during the 2011 Arab spring uprising they joined in an attempt to forge a new political order for Yemen. Unfortunately they soon became disenchanted with the process and decided instead, in September 2014, to take up arms against the government. They took over the capital, Sana’a, ousted the President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and sought to broaden their appeal by stressing the need to fight corruption and incompetence. As they gained in strength in the civil war, Hadi, who was still recognised internationally as president, sought outside support. This came in the form of a coalition led by the Saudis who found themselves in a far more daunting fight than expected. Instead of a quick victory they got caught up in a long and painful war, in which they were accused of causing the deaths of some 20,000 civilians, with a blockade of Yemeni ports creating a humanitarian crisis.

The war shaped the Houthis. During its course the group became more hard line, repressive, and closer to Iran. This was the context in which they developed attack drones and long-range missiles and used them to mount regular attacks on oil-related facilities in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At first they attacked targets close to the border but over time their attacks became more sophisticated and of longer range. They developed indigenous manufacturing capabilities for their long-range aerial and naval drones, with parts smuggled in from Iran. In December 2021 the Saudis reported that the Houthis had fired 430 ballistic missiles and 851 armed drones at Saudi Arabia since the war had begun in 2015, killing 59 Saudi civilians Ironically it was the threat posed by these capabilities that encouraged these countries to develop closer ties with Israel in the hope of getting access to their defensive technology. 

Joe Biden was much cooler to Riyadh than Donald Trump, and when he became president he sought to ease the humanitarian situation by removing the Houthis designation as a terrorist organisation, only recently imposed, as this risked preventing aid getting to Yemen. The Saudis concluded that they had little choice but to engage with the Houthis to end the war, although a peace formula has yet to be found. An uneasy truce was reached in April 2022, which has thus far lasted beyond its original six months. It has left the Houthis in control of northern Yemen, and more than two thirds of the total population of 20 million. As the Economist has reported, the country has been left immiserated by the fighting:

The UN estimates that 223,000 people have died from hunger and lack of medical care since the war began. 80% of the population now lives in poverty. None of this bothered the Houthis, who stole food aid, imposed a raft of taxes to raise funds and relied on Iran for military support. They have maintained a long siege on the south-western city of Taiz, barring civilians from bringing in food and medicine – exactly as they accuse Israel of doing in Gaza.

Operation Prosperity Guardian

On 8 October 2023, the day after the Hamas attacks on Israel, the US deployed a carrier strike group, including a cruiser and three destroyers, to the Eastern Mediterranean. This was largely to warn Iran against any direct interventions. Houthi attacks on commercial shipping began on the same day. On 19 October one of the destroyers, USS Carney intercepted four cruise missiles and 15 drones launched by the Houthis, apparently directed against Israel. On 19 November, perhaps having decided that they could not get at Israel directly, they turned their attention to commercial shipping, seizing a cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader, and diverting it to the port of Hodeidah. They claimed this to be linked to Israel although it was British owned and Japanese operated. This remains their main success to date. On 3 December Carney along with some commercial ships were attacked in international waters with anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Yemen. Three commercial ships were struck, while Carney shot down three drones.

After this the Americans stepped up their response. Sanctions against 13 individuals and entities alleged to be funding the Houthis were announced on 7 December, and then more entities were sanctioned at the end of the month for conveying money from Iran to Houthi forces. On 19 December the US defense secretary Lloyd Austin announced that a coalition had been formed of 20 nations that would send ships to oppose the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. This was not easy to put together. Most states shared the concern about the threat to shipping but were nervous about being associated with anything that might be seen to be helping Israel. So eight out of the 20 sought to remain anonymous. Italy and Spain both put some distance between themselves and the force. Given their past fraught relations with the Houthis, the Saudis and the UAE wanted nothing to do with the joint force, at least publicly, as they still wish to extricate themselves from the war in Yemen. France said it also wanted to protect freedom of navigation but that its ships would remain under French command. India has taken a similar position, sending destroyers to the Gulf of Aden after one of its ships had been attacked.

Over the past few weeks the level of concern has grown over the extent of the threat to shipping. The Red Sea is the entry point for ships using the Suez Canal, which handles about 12 per cent of worldwide trade. Because of the Houthi attacks many ships have rerouted around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, substantially increasing sailing time and costs, and disrupting supply chains.

On New Years’ eve the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship, reported that it was coming under fire from four small Houthi ships, and that there had been attempts to board. An on-board security team was holding off the intruders. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and destroyer USS Gravely responded to the distress call. According to US Central Command, as the warships issued “verbal calls” to the small boats, the small boats fired upon the US helicopters with crew served weapons and small arms. The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.

Then on 10 January US task force ships along with HMS Diamond from the Royal Navy shot down 18 drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile. This was the largest attack to date from the Houthis.

The threat could no longer be gainsaid. Already on 3 January the UK, US, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore had warned that: “The Houthis will bear the responsibility for the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, or the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”

After the 10 January attack – the 26th on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea since 19 November – it was even possible to get a Security Council resolution, sponsored by the US and Japan. This demanded: “That the Houthis immediately cease all such attacks, which impede global commerce and undermine navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace and security.”

Importantly, it allowed member states, in accordance with international law, “to defend their vessels from attack, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”

Eleven nations voted for it, though Russia, China, Mozambique and Algeria abstained.

Then on 11 January, the 27th attack occurred when an anti-ship ballistic missile was fired close to a commercial ship, although it only hit the water. Having warned the Houthis not to continue to mount attacks, the members of what was now called “Operation Prosperity Guardian” (who thinks up these names?) were always likely to respond.

The response

The strikes mounted by the US and UK against Houthi capabilities in Yemen early on Friday morning were not designed to punish or “send a message”. They were designed to make it very difficult for the Houthis to continue with their anti-shipping campaign. The targets were not simply, as the BBC suggested, “symbolic”. Attacks were carried out against the sensors that enabled the Houthis to identify and track targets, as well as missiles and drones, factories that produce them and storage. Some 100 precision weapons hit 60 targets in 16 locations. The four RAF Typhoons attacked two sites, both used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones, and missiles. The targets appear to have been hit as intended. The importance of getting the sensors explains the follow-up strike on Saturday morning against a radar, which presumably had survived a first attempt to take it out on Friday.

Collateral damage was limited. The majority of the targets were not in built-up locations. The Houthis have reported that five soldiers were killed and six injured in the strikes. Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric about turning the Red Sea into a “sea of blood” this is not what happened. In addition, no Houthi leaders or Iranian advisors were targeted. This was not about regime change.

In terms of what happens next this is not irrelevant. Substantial civilian casualties, especially in the light of what is going on in Gaza, would have made the demands for retaliation more intense. An attempt to remove the leadership could lead to a much more serious conflict. But as much as these strikes can be, these were precise and discrete with a limited purpose. The group’s leader Mohammed al-Bukhaiti said the US and UK would “soon realise” the action was “the greatest folly in their history”. But that was while the strikes were ongoing and before they had a chance to assess the damage. How much they will have degraded Houthi capabilities is, however, hard to know as intelligence on their overall missile inventories is limited (for what is known see this from IISS), and the strikes were telegraphed sufficiently in advance for some systems to have already been moved to a safer place. 

There is a narrative battle already underway. The Houthis have claimed that their aim is to hurt Israel and show solidarity with the people of Gaza, currently an extremely popular cause in the Middle East. But most of their attacks have been directed against whatever ships came into view and range, whether or not they had Israeli links. If this continues for much longer it will damage the international economy. Some might think it serves the international community right for not doing more to stop the Israelis, but so far the big losers are those countries that get their income from the shipping route, most notably Egypt, whose revenues from the Suez Canal have dropped by at least 40 per cent. Whatever happens now, it will take some time before the shipping companies, and their insurers, conclude that the route has become safe.

A lot will depend on Iran’s attitude. According to one source on X/Twitter the Iranian ship that had helped the Houthis target shipping left the area on 10 January. This suggests that they did not want to get caught up in any US strikes. If it stays away that will also limit Houthi intelligence on potential retaliatory targets. There is no reason to suppose that Iran is any keener on picking a fight with the US than it was three months ago. One view is that it would rather wait for its nuclear weapons programme to yield results before it embarks on a full showdown. It also learned a lot about how sea trade might be throttled in a future confrontation, with the Bab el-Mandeb Strait now added to the Strait of Hormuz. For now, it is happy to see unrest bubbling up around the region.

Teheran’s attitude will affect the Houthi’s response. They certainly will want to do something. A lot depends on whether they wish to show that they are not cowed or determined to sustain their anti-shipping campaign or even retaliate in some other way. These tit-for-tat exchanges need not lead to massive escalation. For example when General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, was assassinated on the orders of Donald Trump, as a response to attacks by Iranian-backed militias on US forces in Iraq, retribution was promised. On 8 January 2020, Iranian forces launched ballistic missiles at an airbase in Iraq where US personnel were based. Initially no American casualties were reported, although it later transpired that some had been wounded. From the Iranian perspective honour had been satisfied. The US had no need to take the matter further. President Biden has linked any further US action to whether the Houthis carry on attacking shipping (“We will make sure that we respond to the Houthis if they continue this outrageous behaviour.”)

It would be embarrassing for the US if attacks on shipping resume. The strikes on 12 January were expensive and naval air defence missiles cost a lot more than Houthi drones. Nonetheless, their systems, including intelligence collection, have been degraded and they might have difficulty mounting an effective strike. One was attempted on 12 January but the target turned out to be a tanker carrying Russian oil. The missile missed the target. Three small craft were there to follow up, but they left the scene. There is no point persisting with the campaign if they keep on failing. This is more likely in the short term while the US and UK forces will be on high alert. and many potential targets are making themselves scarce by avoiding the Red Sea. It should also be relevant that very few ships actually linked to Israel are there to be attacked.

So long as the Houthis are capable of resuming their campaign the problem may be one of persuading commercial shipping to return to the Red Sea route. The obvious way to reduce the risks would be to get a ceasefire in Gaza. Western governments are looking for ways to wind the war down even if it cannot be stopped completely, but this is because they are exasperated by the Israeli government’s policies and alarmed by the growing risk of disease and famine in Gaza, not because of problems with shipping.

The region is very unsettled and there are other flashpoints. This remains a worrying time. But strikes of 12 January are not in themselves likely to lead to a major escalation. This is not the start of a big new Western intervention in a Middle Eastern country. The aims of the strikes were limited, to make a point about freedom of navigation. No ground forces are being employed, and there is certainly no intention to oust the Houthis from their position in Yemen.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: The risk of a wider Middle East war is growing]

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