The U.S. has launched a new long-term military intervention in the Middle East, as Department of Defense officials warn that plans to strike at Houthi positions in Yemen are open-ended. Yet these same officials acknowledge that the attacks won’t work—not least of them President Joe Biden—reflecting a more serious issue facing the U.S.: How to address the long-term challenge posed by the Houthis, even when the crisis in Gaza comes to a close.
“Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes,” is how Biden summed it up to reporters last week. His actions met his words when the U.S. and U.K. launched more airstrikes on Jan. 20 and again on Monday as part of the continued attempt to deter the Iran-backed militants.
As with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in the Red Sea is not one the U.S. can resolve through sheer military force.
From the moment the Houthis began targeting commercial ships and forcing a diversion in shipping traffic around the Red Sea, a U.S. military response was always likely. The waterway handles more than 10% of daily shipping traffic and its disruption by a non-state actor, which the U.S. recently reclassified as a global terrorist organization, was an unacceptable affront to the free flow of international commerce. That’s why few observers—including, very likely, the Houthis themselves—were surprised when the U.S. and U.K. first bombed Houthi targets in Yemen on Jan. 11 and have continued to do so since.
But as many analysts—including myself—expected, these strikes did little to deter the Houthis. In fact, the group appears emboldened. In the week following the first round of U.S. strikes, Houthi attacks on international shipping accelerated. They also became more successful—the Houthis struck three ships from Jan. 15 to 17.
Besides strikes, the U.S. has also stepped up efforts to cut off the Houthis from their Iranian patron by intercepting arms shipments—though one such operation resulted in the presumed deaths of two Navy SEALs. Now the U.S. is musing a more sustained campaign even as the Houthi weapons of choice—drones and ballistic missiles—are easy to hide and fire quickly.
What is the U.S. endgame in Yemen? The Houthis have said they began their attacks in protest of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, which has killed at least 25,000 Palestinians. Significantly, U.S. officials have recently admitted a connection between the war in Gaza and the Houthi campaign against shipping, indicating that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas would impact the situation in the Red Sea.
It is likely that the Houthis will wind down their attacks in the event a ceasefire is reached in Gaza. But they likely won’t stop completely. The Houthis have various reasons for launching their attacks, beyond their desire to show solidarity with Gaza and pressure Israel. The group wants to be taken seriously. The show of force in the Red Sea accompanies flashy social media displays and regular announcements from Houthi spokespeople who want to be acknowledged as the sovereign government of Yemen and a new force to be reckoned with in the region.
The Houthi narrative belies some important context. While Saudi Arabia is on the verge of departing the decade-old conflict in Yemen, the civil war is not over. The Houthis control roughly half the country, but they still face a largely Western-backed, albeit rather weak Yemeni government to the south. The Houthis are the dominant force in the country, but they are still jockeying with other militant groups for control. They face a raft of domestic problems such as persistent famine and widespread poverty, stemming from Yemen’s shattered economy and the Houthis’ authoritarian governing style.
Meanwhile, events have likely played out as the Houthi patron, Iran, has expected. For years, Tehran supplied the Houthis with anti-ship armaments, outfitting the group to harass shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Iran likely doesn’t have to commit further assets to help them if they come under attack. Capable, determined, and resistant to pressure—the Houthis are Iran’s new perfect proxy.
All in all, it’s a gloomy picture from Washington’s perspective. The U.S. has committed itself to fighting an enemy that can’t be deterred, with capabilities that will be nearly impossible to fully degrade, on a timeline with no clear endpoint. While a ceasefire in Gaza would certainly help, the Houthis are driven by motivations that stem from their domestic interests and those of their patron in Tehran.
The Biden Administration will be hard-pressed to find a solution to the problem. The absence of one means we can expect more U.S. airstrikes, if for no other reason than to demonstrate Washington taking action, with or without results.Leave a comment