Ari Heistein

The Houthis are everybody else’s problem

The anemic international response to the Houthi attacks have taught the Iranian proxy to keep escalating as long as so little harm comes to themselves
Yemen. (Wikimedia Commons)
Yemen. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Houthis are everybody’s problem. Or to be more precise, they are everybody else’s problem.

The Houthi challenge is on a clear long-term trajectory of growing more dangerous over time. The group has been causing turmoil within Yemen since 2004, when they launched a rebellion against the central government which culminated in their takeover of Yemen’s capital city Sanaa one decade later. Following that, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi led a coalition to roll back the Houthis and reinstall the internationally recognized government – for which they paid a major price in blood, treasure, and reputation. After being hamstrung by their Western allies before they could retake the critical port of Hodeidah from the Houthis in 2018, it was clear that the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition would not succeed in prying northern Yemen from Houthi hands.

In the months leading up to October 2023, Sanaa faced growing pressure at home over their failures to deliver economic improvements following a ceasefire with Saudi Arabia.  So when Hamas initiated its massive terror attack against Israel on October 7th, the Houthis latched on to the Palestinian issue as a pretext to demonstrate their most advanced weaponry on the international stage. For the past nine months, the Houthis have been rallying anti-Israel sentiment for their own cause by targeting Israel and international maritime traffic in the Red Sea with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and UASs.

In the early months the Houthi attacks, Israelis experienced shock and then a short-lived sense of relief. The initial surprise that this ragtag-looking militia could launch ballistic missiles targeting Israeli territory and international shipping was followed by a sense of optimism that either China or the US would resolve this issue.

China, some believed, would only have to lean on Iran which would in turn pressure the Houthis to stop their attacks on international shipping. The logic held that Iran has few allies, and therefore would feel compelled to abide by the requests of its more powerful and advanced partners in Beijing. But it turns out that China is either unwilling to expend political capital to halt the attacks, perhaps enjoying the way it exposes the weakness of the U.S.-led global order even as Chinese industry suffers from rising shipping costs, or it is unable to do so.

Then, the hope was that the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian would resolve the issue of Houthi attacks. However, in light of Washington’s estimation that Houthi attacks have minimal impact on vital US interests and US military action can achieve very limited aims in Yemen, the White House remains fairly cautious in approaching the Houthi problem. The US and its allies have thus far primarily targeted sites and platforms directly linked with the Houthi maritime attacks in order to promote a declared goal of de-escalation in the Red Sea. This timid approach has only pushed the Houthis’ to escalate further, as it was entirely predictable that broadcasting Washington’s limited will to fight has informed the Houthis that it would be fairly easy to push back even harder on the US in order to maintain escalation dominance.

And so the Houthis continue to launch attacks in an international maritime chokepoint without facing much resistance. Over the past month, they have demonstrated that their intentions and capabilities for targeting Red Sea traffic are rising rather than declining. The immediate consequences of the Houthi attacks and the global failure to stop them are increased shipping costs in the Red Sea (due to rising insurance costs), bottlenecks and delays in the global supply chain, damage to undersea Internet cables, and environmental damage.

In retrospect, the only group that was committed to defeating the Houthis, was deterred from doing so. The Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition was convinced, both by the direct costs of serving as the tip of the anti-Houthi spear as well as by US diplomatic pressure, that they’d be better off seeking accommodation with the Houthis by negotiating a diplomatic-financial agreement. Now as the US searches for partners to collaborate with on enhancing the pressure on an ever more dangerous and aggressive Houthi regime, the Saudis and Emiratis appear unwilling to jeopardize their de-escalation efforts in Yemen for the sake of a sclerotic US Middle East policy. While Jerusalem may also have a strong interest in rolling the Houthis back, given the fighting along Israel’s borders with Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, the Houthi threat remains a comparatively lower priority.

So long as the Houthis do not feel that they have miscalculated in a way that places their vital interests at risk, they will continue to escalate against the US and its allies. Indeed, the Houthis and their Iranian and Hezbollah patrons are learning a great deal from the valuable operational experience of this apparently low-risk engagement. While the economic consequences of these attacks are more limited than initially predicted (or what the Houthis themselves are advertising), it is worrying that the long-term strategic threat posed by the Houthis is set to be “managed” by an anemic international response until it becomes unmanageable.

About the Author
Ari Heistein was chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He works in defense technology and has published extensive research on Yemen.
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