In response to his recent attacks The Houthis On ships in the Red Sea they said were linked to Israel and American ships supporting Tel Aviv in its war on the Strip GazaDuring the past two days, the United States and Britain launched air strikes against the group’s sites in Yemen.
In this Q&A, International Crisis Group examined the implications.
What is happening in the Red Sea?
The Israeli war has extended to the Gaza Strip Gaza To the Red Sea, where the Houthis, who control large areas of the western coast, used it For Yemendrones, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and small boats to target ships they say are linked to Israel.
And outside the coast of the city HodeidahUnder their control, the Houthis targeted shipping in The Red Sea. The group also announced its intention to target ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This will include ships seeking to bypass the Red Sea via the Cape of Good Hope.
Among the important Houthi attacks was an attack that occurred last November 19, when the group took control of a ship…Galaxy Leader“, a commercial ship that the Houthis said was linked to an Israeli businessman, and they detained its captain and crew.
On December 26, the Houthis' use of guided boats led to an explosion approximately one mile from an American warship.
On January 9, they carried out a complex attack using a group of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles to target American warships in the vicinity of Bab al-Mandab, stressing that this was evidence of their continued support for Gaza and also a response to the Israeli aggression against the Strip.
In turn, the United States sank 3 Houthi boats at the end of 2023, killing 10 of their militants.
In mid-October, before targeting the ships, the Houthis on several occasions launched drones and missiles at the Israeli port of Eilat on the Red Sea coast. Tel Aviv announced that these attacks would be intercepted or thwarted in reaching their intended goals.
The frequency of these attacks decreased as the group shifted its focus to ships, viewing them as closer and more effective targets to make its position clear.
In response to the naval attacks, the United States, Britain, and France deployed warships in the Red Sea, and those countries said they succeeded in intercepting the majority of Houthi missiles.
However, overnight, on January 11-12, the United States and Britain carried out air strikes on Houthi military sites in Yemen in response to the latter’s targeting of commercial ships and clashes with naval patrols, resulting in the killing of 5 Houthi militants.
US Central Command described these strikes as defensive measures, claiming that their goal was to reduce the Houthis' ability to continue attacks on US ships and other military and commercial vessels.
The Houthis condemned these attacks, describing them as a blatant assault and threatening revenge, raising fears of escalating violence in this vital waterway.
What prompted the Houthis to launch these attacks?
The Houthis began attacking ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea in response to the Israeli war in Gaza.
The movement said, in its statements, that it would stop these attacks if Israel began allowing an unspecified amount of humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, and it would stop attacks on Israel itself as soon as Israel stops its attack on Gaza.
In doing so, the Houthis worked in coordination with other members of the so-called Axis of Resistance – a group it leads Iran A non-state armed group opposed to Israel and the United States.
In a speech on October 10, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi stated that members of the “axis” were coordinating their military activities.
While there is no evidence that the Houthis acted on direct Iranian orders, it is likely that there was some degree of coordination: the presence of an Iranian intelligence ship in the Red Sea may indicate Iranian assistance in Houthi decisions.
In addition, the Houthis may have been motivated by the fact that, through their alliance with the Palestinian cause, they began to gain unprecedented popularity in Yemen and beyond amid a broader wave of solidarity with the Palestinians in all Arab and Islamic countries.
Thus their campaign in the Red Sea turned into an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to embody their founding slogan of 2002 – “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse to the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
Failure to act in the face of the Israeli attack on Gaza could have jeopardized the credibility of their claim. Compared to others within the axis of resistance, the Houthis showed a much greater appetite for risk and seized this opportunity to prove their strategic value.
Also in Yemen, the Houthis have burnished their credentials, given the widespread sympathy among Yemenis for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Following the first attacks on ships in the Red Sea, the Houthis increased their numbers through recruitment campaigns in which they demonstrated their support for the Palestinian cause.
Moreover, the Gaza War provided the Houthis with the opportunity to deflect mounting popular pressure regarding their governance practices in areas under their control, and enabled them to “suppress” opposition to their rule by arresting opponents in those areas on charges of collusion with Israel and the United States.
How did the Western powers respond to these attacks?
Initially, the United States sent destroyers to the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping. On December 20, it unveiled the operation “Guardian of prosperity“, a multinational security initiative led by the United States that includes the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the Seychelles.
The Pentagon indicated that more than 20 countries agreed to participate in the initiative, although a number of them declined to confirm their participation publicly, or denied their participation when asked about it.
The move expanded the Joint Task Force, a multinational naval force formed in 2009 in response to piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia.
The members of the coalition – according to their announcements – succeeded in intercepting most of the Houthi attacks. On December 31, they sank small Houthi boats, killing 10 Houthi militants, after the boats opened fire on US Navy helicopters. On January 12, they carried out The United States and the United Kingdom air strikes on Houthi military sites inside Yemen.
Even before the recent escalation, Washington and many Western countries conveyed messages to the Houthis through Oman urging a halt to the escalation.
In late October, the United States also asked Saudi Arabia to include shipping security in its ongoing political talks with the Houthis, but the Houthis refused, noting that their military activities in the Red Sea are linked to Gaza, not their conflict with the Kingdom.
On November 29, Washington imposed economic sanctions on individuals it claimed were part of a network facilitating funds to the Houthis. On January 10, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Houthis immediately stop their attacks on ships in the Red Sea, while implicitly endorsing the US-led task force.
What impact do these events have on the Red Sea?
The military escalation in the Red Sea has come at a primarily economic cost. The Red Sea is a major shipping route linking Asia and Europe. Increased security concerns have led to higher insurance costs on commercial ships and necessitated an increase in the number of security personnel on board.
Many shipping companies chose to reroute their ships around the southern tip of the African continent, resulting in higher overall shipping costs due to increased travel time. The previously bustling Suez Canal saw a decline in traffic, further damaging Egypt's already “fragile” economic situation, and the Israeli port of Eilat halted most commercial activities. Delays in deliveries, in turn, caused disruptions across global supply chains.
While naval operations are not new to the Houthis, the recent series of attacks risk entrenching them as a key tactic, and US officials privately express concern that the Houthis will seek to disrupt naval operations and global shipping in the long term.
Before the Gaza War, the group targeted Saudi oil ships, in 2018, and seized an Emirati cargo ship, in January 2022. For its part, American military ships and other countries are present in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and are carrying out continuous operations against smugglers and ships transporting Weapons and ammunition for the Houthis.
Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea could also undermine efforts to end the Yemen war.
Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have made progress in their long-running talks to reach an agreement on military withdrawal from Yemen and start an internal Yemeni political process, but further escalation could delay or even thwart the talks, especially if the Houthis are empowered to the point that they feel they can make demands. New information for their Saudi interlocutors. They could reject the UN-led peace process, leading to the freezing of the political track.
The Houthis may also resume attacks on those groups they consider loyal to or collaborating with the United States and other Western countries. Both the Houthis and their opponents along Yemen's Red Sea coast may seek to bolster their military presence, risking a resumption of fighting there.
Finally, tensions in the Red Sea could exacerbate the already deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen, especially after the World Food Program's decision on December 5 to suspend aid in Houthi-controlled areas in northern Yemen. This, coupled with high shipping costs, makes it difficult for Yemenis to access basic food products.
What could prompt the Houthis to stop their attacks?
A military response to Houthi attacks may have symbolic value for Western countries and may limit certain Houthi capabilities but will have limited overall impact and could even make matters worse. This may prompt the group to intensify its naval attacks and expand the range of ships it targets.
While the Houthis' capabilities are limited compared to those the United States can use, advances in weapons technology allow the Houthis to inflict significant economic damage, particularly through the use of remotely piloted weapons.
The Houthis' current military attacks are likely to prompt many Yemenis to support them out of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, even if they oppose the group.
The Houthis may not be too concerned about being beaten, postponing or even canceling talks with Saudi Arabia. Thanks to popular support, they feel empowered to make their way at a tolerable cost. This does not mean that the only way forward is through further escalation.
The Houthis have made clear that their attacks are a response to Israel's war on Gaza and not an independent initiative. If that war ends, and assuming the situation in the Red Sea has not gotten out of control by then, the Houthis may return to their previous status quo, if they are serious about their pledges and are careful as well. To be taken seriously as a major party in the future ruling authority in Yemen.
But without an end to the war in Gaza, and in the face of an ever-increasing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, tensions will continue to rise not only in the Red Sea, but also in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and on the Israeli border and the occupied territories.