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US and UK Strike Houthi Targets in Yemen: Reaction from Sana’a Center Experts

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

The United States and Britain carried out air and missile strikes against Houthi targets in the early hours of January 12, following two months of Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The maritime attacks caused major shippers to reroute, disrupting international commerce and threatening a new round of global inflation. The airstrikes appear to have struck targets in Sana’a, Sa’ada, Hajjah, Hudayadh, and Taiz governorates. Houthi authorities said five people were killed and six wounded, and vowed to continue Red Sea operations as long as Israel’s war on Gaza continues. The United States has accused Iran of providing the military capabilities and intelligence behind the Houthi attacks.

The US-UK action was supported militarily by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, and followed a UN Security Council vote this week calling on the Houthis to halt their missile and drone operations, which have not caused any casualties so far. Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, issued a statement expressing “great concern,” reflecting its desire not to become further embroiled in a conflict that could compromise its economic development projects. This latest escalation comes during direct Saudi-Houthi talks aimed at formally ending hostilities between the two sides and establishing a Yemeni-Yemeni peace process to end the conflict. The fate of those much-anticipated talks could now be in the balance.

Sana’a Center experts Abdulghani Al-Iryani, Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, Hussam Radman, Maged Al-Madhaji, and Bilqees Al-Labhi react to the latest developments and look ahead to what they might mean for the future.

Compared with Saudi-led coalition (SLC) strikes on Houthi-controlled Yemen, those of the US-led coalition were probably based on better intelligence and were probably more effective. However, after years of airstrikes by the SLC, not many targets are left. The US is going after mobile radar units and missile launchers, but even hitting suspected arms depots won’t reap much benefit. Weapons caches are now distributed all over the country, and high-value Houthi individuals are probably underground.

In the same way that the Houthis won when they fired their first missile into the Red Sea, they will win again by withstanding the initial US-coalition strikes, and likely celebrate their victory with volleys of missiles and drones targeting US and British warships in the coming hours and days.

The anti-Houthi camp in Yemen is dumbfounded. The few statements made against the Houthis since the beginning of their operation in support of Palestine have been severely criticized by the Yemeni public. The sentiment is captured in a common phrase: “My brother and I are against our cousin, and my cousin and I are against the stranger.” Citizens of all stripes have demanded that spokespeople of anti-Houthi groups “shut their mouths.”

The Saudis have expressed grave concern over the unfolding developments. This reflects their desire to go ahead with a ceremonial announcement of the end of hostilities in Yemen, sponsored by themselves and Oman. Riyadh is now the only party to the conflict eager to hold that ceremony. The kingdom wants to ensure that, should the conflict widen, the Houthis will not target Saudi territory and assets. However, after painstaking negotiations, and a series of concessions to get the Houthis to acknowledge Saudi Arabia as a mediator rather than a participant in the conflict, a signed deal no longer appears imminent. The Houthis, intoxicated by the tremendous political capital they have gained from acting in solidarity with Palestine, are hinting at renegotiation.

The US and UK strikes followed a long media and propaganda campaign, and so lost the element of surprise. The Houthis had likely prepared themselves – the group does not have the military infrastructure of classic armies and relies on missile launch bases that can be moved easily. Their weapons are cheap, and they can now manufacture them inside Yemen. This poses the question: what were the airstrikes for? Experts agree that they will not curtail the Houthis military capabilities; the best that can be achieved is to stop the Houthi attacks for a short period, until the situation in Gaza changes and opens the door for negotiations. However, this scenario appears unlikely.

The strikes inside Yemen will complicate the situation in the region for several reasons: First, they will not deter the Houthis from attacking in the Red Sea – on the contrary, they may now extend their attacks to US military bases in the region, particularly in Bahrain. Second, the US-led coalition has refused to connect what is happening in the Red Sea with Gaza, but they are inextricably linked. Regional hate and anger against the US for supporting Israel during its assault on Gaza is unprecedented. Direct military action against the Houthis will increase their popularity and give them more leverage. Third, the strikes in Yemen are another obstacle to ending the nine-year-old war, postponing indefinitely a Saudi-Houthi deal for a permanent ceasefire. They serve Houthi propaganda purposes, encouraging further recruitment and providing a cover of legitimacy that the group has lacked since April 2022, when a truce halted strikes by Saudi Arabia and led to growing domestic opposition due to their corruption and bad governance. Fourth, Yemen is already contending with difficult humanitarian and economic conditions. If the military operations expand and lead to the closure of the port of Hudaydah, this will only worsen the humanitarian situation.

Finally, the US has lost the confidence of allies in the region like Saudi Arabia, both because of its position during the Gaza war and its turn against Saudi involvement in the Yemen war. The Saudis and Emiratis will remind the US that it stopped their military offensive to capture Hudaydah from the Houthis in 2018. The US strikes are further evidence of a reactionary and shortsighted US policy in the region, and especially in Yemen.

The US-led attacks in Yemen seem to have three goals. First, the US is moving toward a formalized international military presence in the Red Sea, which it has been working on since 2022. Second, Washington has gone some way to restoring a form of strategic deterrence in the region against Iran’s network of regional allies, following a series of strikes against Iran-backed groups in Iraq. Third, the rules of engagement in the Red Sea have changed once again. Now, whenever there is an attack at sea by the Houthis, it can be followed by a US response on land.

It’s clear that the US attacks have given the Houthis the gift of recognition and quasi-legitimacy. The extent of the damage caused by the attacks isn’t clear – both sides are pitching it according to their propaganda aims. Saudi Arabia has officially distanced itself from the attacks, but US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia just days in advance, with a high-profile meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, suggests Riyadh was aware and gave at least tacit approval for a proportionate response.

Moving forward, things are likely to escalate gradually. The United States and Houthis will engage in low-level strikes against each other that are in some ways largely performative, to maintain standing and send political messages. On the other hand, the Houthis might step up their attacks against Western targets more broadly, in effect baiting Washington into responding further. There is also a lingering possibility of the involvement of pro-government forces in Yemen, to pressure the Houthis as part of a US-led effort.

For now, the US has restored a form of deterrence in the region through a coalition to protect Red Sea shipping that can act at will, perhaps similarly – though at a lower level – to NATO operations in Syria and Iraq that targeted the Islamic State group. Whether this discourages or invigorates the Houthi group is another question.

We are witnessing a shift in the location and dimension of the Yemen war – the thin line that prevented a clash between the United States and the Houthis has now been removed. The limited nature of the airstrikes appears intended as a deterrent message: the US military can distinguish, target, and reach sites across Yemen, undermining Houthi military capabilities. In a sense, this is a rougher form of diplomacy.

The Houthi group appears committed to the continued harassment of shipping in the Red Sea as a means of pressuring Israel and the West to end the military assault on Gaza, and its reaction to the airstrikes could entail the targeting of American and British naval vessels in the Red Sea. Depending on how the United States responds in turn, further Houthi escalation could see the targeting of more sensitive American assets in the Gulf, such as military bases. This new battle is politically and symbolically important for the Houthis, and they will leverage their usual military discourse and ideological narratives for the face-off with their greatest opponent, the United States. Importantly, the new confrontation gives them cover to continue the domestic war and re-harness society into a new cycle of conflict, sustaining and entrenching the group and its nature. But this time it will find increased popular support across the region.

The limited nature of the US strikes could indicate that Washington will refrain from engaging in a major military adventure in Yemen, responding to fears that a wider campaign could squander fragile opportunities for peace. For now, the US might simply claim it has restored strategic deterrence in the southern Red Sea. But rather than serving as the last word, the strikes are likely to inaugurate further transformations in a volatile region. They will not end the militarization of the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The Houthis may consult closely with their Iranian allies on their military and political response to the attacks, but a direct confrontation with the US and Britain goes to the heart of the group’s ideological discourse and founding identity. Their leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, has stated frankly and clearly that they will not hesitate to join the battle.

US military interventions are never good news, and there is a real fear that in this case it will again only lay the foundation for the growth and development of ideological, armed movements in Yemen.

Prior to these airstrikes, US involvement in Yemen was distant and piecemeal, enough to contribute to the Saudi-led war, but not enough to help the internationally recognized government achieve its primary goal of restoring its rule in Sana’a. Direct US intervention in Yemen, paradoxically, will serve to strengthen the Houthi group (Ansar Allah) at the expense of other Yemeni parties.

There may be a recognition of this in Washington, but the military action was nevertheless undertaken as patience wore out for the Houthis’ obstruction of maritime trade in the Red Sea, and the inconvenience it posed for the US-backed Israeli war in Gaza.

Past experiences of direct US military intervention do not bode well. When faced with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the United States lacked good local knowledge of the groups they faced and ended up fragmenting the country. In the case of Yemen, these strikes will not deter Ansar Allah. Rather, they could increase the group’s popularity even in areas outside its control, including among opponents who are already impressed with the willingness to fight this fight on behalf of Palestine.

The effect on the ground is that Yemeni men, women, and children will pay a heavy price for the Houthis’ recklessness, as the country’s internal conflicts continue and perhaps become even more complicated. We have seen the suffering of ordinary Yemenis deepen in recent years, as rights and freedoms are eroded amid the organized and random violence of war, whose victims are all too often women and girls.