Adam Gross

Walking in Israel’s difficult footsteps – the US Alliance in the Red Sea

With the recent airstrikes on the Houthis in Yemen by the US Alliance to protect shipping through the Red Sea against Houthi attacks, they – like Saudi Arabia and the UAE before them – have now started to walk in Israel’s well-trodden footsteps.

The Houthi playbook – confirmed in a media interview in early January with ex-Houthi official, Ali Bukhaiti – is basically the same as Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest of the Iran proxies, and includes two key principles:

(i) Highly dispersing military assets and personnel; and

(ii) Deeply embedding those military assets and personnel in the civilian infrastructure.

These principles are hardly unique, widely adopted by guerrilla forces going back many decades, and well known to any student of asymmetric warfare.

They tend to create a win-win for the guerilla force and a difficult dilemma for their opponents – the fear of civilian casualties either deters attack and allows for a consolidation of the guerilla force’s power, or the opponent goes ahead with the attacks and the resultant civilian casualties bolsters support for the guerilla force in both the domestic and international spheres.

In the face of this strategy, the US alliance effectively has six options:

1. Do nothing – the proxies then gradually increase their threat and control so the underlying problem grows in scale and complexity.

2. Diplomacy – there is limited scope for diplomacy with ideological actors for which advancement of their ideological goals is more important than all other potential ‘goodies’ that can be offered, except where it involves allowance for the proxy to increase their threat and control, with the same outcome as under (1).

3. Attack pure military targets – there are so few of these you are basically done after the first few airstrikes and already the ‘usual suspects’ are denouncing you for a ‘dangerous escalation’ (see Saturday’s newspapers to see who they are). Mostly this is the approach Israel has taken in response to rocket fire from Gaza pre-October 7th. Most Israelis know, however, that the Hamas ‘command posts’ and ‘training centers’ Israel has struck were little more than cow sheds and wasteland.

4. Attack military targets embedded in the civilian infrastructure – this is what Israel has sometimes had to do to reestablish deterrence because option 2 does not bring any real impact. This is also where Saudi Arabia/UAE reached in their Yemen campaign, and it results in unavoidable and tragic civilian casualties. Saudi/UAE found out, just like Israel, that this is where the global media and international institutions seem willing to play their allocated role in the Iranian proxies’ game. But even this approach is limited because there are only so many targets that can be attacked by air. Israel has seen that the successes it thought it had achieved in the air campaign against the Hamas tunnel network in 2021 were much less than it expected. And for those tunnels that were destroyed, it costs very little for the proxies to seize or smuggle construction materials and conscript unemployed youth to redig tunnels and bunkers.

5. Put ground forces in – in light of October 7th, this became unavoidable for Israel, having previously resisted this option after prior experiences in Gaza and Lebanon. Israel has found, and shown evidence, that the Hamas dispersion strategy involves tunnel nodes and shafts, weapons stores and booby traps in or under a huge proportion of Gaza’s civilian buildings. Hamas terrorists can move around freely as unarmed civilians, running into a building to grab a rifle or RPG and reemerge to attack. Hamas terrorists can emerge from tunnel shafts inside civilian buildings, fire rockets at Israeli cities from inside or close to those buildings, and then go back underground very quickly (in some cases, the rockets can be set to launch on timer so the terrorist is already out of the way). All of this is the real reason for the high and tragic civilian count in Gaza. It is also the reason why Saudi/UAE never had the intention to send ground forces into Yemen (If, G-d forbid, they would have suffered something even remotely similar to October 7th, this may have changed their mind).

6. The ‘head of the octopus’ approach – the Naftali Bennett option involves going directly for Iranian targets, as the main sponsor of the Houthis. The IRGC has larger assets that are more difficult to disperse in the civilian infrastructure. The logic of this approach is to apply pressure on Iran so they better restrain their proxies. The risk, of course, is a full blown conflict with a significant military power. It also risks reducing the continued alienation of the Iranian people from a deeply unpopular regime if the regime can tap into popular patriotic sentiment. (Incidentally, this may be why some Iranians see the hand of the regime behind the recent bombing at the Soleimani memorial.) Without endorsing any particular action, it would seem that to make this approach work would involve heavy use of subterfuge and a bifurcated strategy that simultaneously builds goodwill among the Iranian people while damaging the regime. I am not sure if anyone has really figured out how this can done.

Therefore, the US Alliance find themselves in a difficult position if (or when) the Houthis continue their attacks in the Red Sea despite the recent airstrikes. It seems to have come easy for the US and the international community to lecture Israel on abiding by international law in its war against Hamas, even though the dilemma of fighting a guerilla force that hides among a civilian population is well known, and even though the plethora of measures Israel takes to warn, evacuate or otherwise protect Gaza’s civilian population are well-documented.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the US and its allies manage against the Houthis when facing a similar dilemma.

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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