Bombing Yemen’s Houthis: Not a Long-Term Strategy

Not backing down: newly recruited Houthi fighters chant slogans in a demonstration against the US and UK attacks in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy

Regardless of how seriously the Houthis may be hit, the strategy of periodic Western bombing cannot be sustained, and won’t bring stability to a vital strategic waterway.

The 12 January US and UK attacks on Houthi locations across four different provinces in Yemen were justified by President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a limited military operation in response to the Houthis’ maritime attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Pentagon said it had targeted drone storage sites, radar systems and missile launchpads. The Houthis from their side vowed to continue their maritime attacks, which they say are being made in solidarity with the Palestinians who are facing an Israeli military operation in Gaza.

The Houthis’ Maritime Attacks Will Continue

Since last November, and against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, the Houthis have launched 26 attacks against commercial and military ships passing through the Red Sea. The Houthis – who are part of a network of Iran-backed groups in the region known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – want to position themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause at the same time as a considerable number of Arab states are normalising their relations with Israel. The Houthi attacks will likely continue to gain some form of internal legitimacy and attract popularity across the Arab world.

The Houthis are facing numerous challenges domestically, from the dire humanitarian situation and deteriorating public services to the ongoing issue of public sector salaries, which the group has not paid since mid-2016. The latest of these challenges came in September, just a few days before the war in Gaza started, when the Houthis were faced by public demonstrations in many of the cities they control. The group responded with a heavy crackdown, arresting hundreds of protesters. The Houthis are using their response to the events in Gaza to polish their image and supress any form of local dissent.

The Houthis want to position themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause at the same time as a considerable number of Arab states are normalising their relations with Israel

Both the US and the UK have emphasised the limited nature of their attacks, and have not shown any signs of threatening the Houthis’ position of power in Yemen. The Houthis do not have significant military infrastructure and rely on mobile military units and weapons that can be reassembled in various locations across the territory they control. They have survived an aerial campaign led by two of the strongest militaries in the region (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that lasted almost nine years. The only gains made by the Saudi-led coalition were a result of ground operations that caused the Houthis to lose some territory. Throughout the last nine years, the US and the UK have signalled their lack of interest in engaging in such forms of warfare. These factors will play into the Houthis’ decision to continue their maritime attacks. The Houthis also will not want to show that the recent US and UK operations have in any way deterred them from continuing their attacks.

Saudi Arabia is Exercising Caution

Saudi Arabia has been holding direct talks with the Houthis since April 2022. The country is now planning its exit from Yemen after intervening against the Houthis in support of the Yemeni government back in 2015. Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023, Saudi Arabia has expressed its concern that the conflict may spill over into other countries in the region. The Houthis’ escalation in the Red Sea was a sign that Yemen could be a potential battlefront if the war in Gaza was not contained. In response, Saudi Arabia has tried to expedite its talks with the Houthis, handing over a draft agreement to the UN Envoy for Yemen. Sources from within the Yemeni government confirmed that the Saudis are pushing them not to show any signs of either approving or rejecting the proposed draft, and to proceed with the UN Envoy to hold talks with the Houthis.

Contrary to what many believe, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea did not start following the war in Gaza on 7 October. The Houthis have attacked oil tankers and seized ships over the course of the last nine years. Saudi Arabia has long sought to persuade the international community that the Houthis posed a threat to international trade and maritime routes. However, the mood in Riyadh is different today. It has lost trust in the willingness of its allies – primarily the US and the UK – to dislodge the Houthis from the west coast of Yemen. As a result, Saudi Arabia is less keen to engage in a new military adventure in Yemen.


While Western capitals continue to debate how to deter the Houthis using limited military operations, they do not seem to be addressing the core issue in Yemen. The Houthis can only operate due to the absence of a functioning Yemeni state. If the Houthis are not threatened with losing their control over the west coast of Yemen, they are unlikely to be deterred. Over the last nine years, the US and UK have only half-heartedly supported steps to weaken the Houthis militarily, while Iran has doubled down on its support for the group. The recent strikes do not showcase a sustainable Western policy towards Yemen, but instead represent a confused military action that is unlikely to produce results.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Baraa Shiban

Associate Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content