The Houthi Attacks Stem from a Failed Policy of Appeasement and Containment

Preparing to board: Houthi militants hijack an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the southern Red Sea on 19 November 2023. Image: UPI / Alamy

By pressuring the Yemeni government and its allies to draw down operations against the Houthis, the international community gave the militant group a chance to rebuild its strength, as demonstrated by recent attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

In a televised speech on 14 November, the leader of the Houthis in Yemen vowed to target Israeli ships passing through the Red Sea. Since then, the Iranian-backed group has launched a series of maritime attacks. The most significant incident occurred on 20 November when the vessel Galaxy Leader, a commercial ship headed to India reportedly owned by an Israeli company, was seized. The most recent attack took place on 16 December, when the US military announced it had intercepted drones fired by the Houthis targeting commercial ships. These attacks are likely to continue as the war in Gaza escalates.

Like Hizbullah in Lebanon, a significant aspect of Houthi messaging focuses on the plight of the Palestinian people. While Hizbullah has a history of fighting Israel and continues to argue for armed resistance in Lebanon, the Houthis, located far from Israel, have not been involved in any confrontation until now. This marks the first time since the war in Yemen started that the Houthis have actively demonstrated their involvement in a conflict with Israel.

The US administration has voiced its concern about the Hamas–Israel conflict spilling over onto new fronts, and has pointed to Iran’s role in the Houthi attacks. These attacks serve the interests of both Iran and the Houthis and reveal a significant failure by the international community to anticipate the longer-term impact of the war in Yemen.

The Houthis' Local Interests Align with Iran’s Regional Policy

Just a few weeks before the war in Gaza started, the Houthis held a massive military parade showcasing their military capabilities. They displayed drones, ballistic missiles and other long-range weapons. This parade took place despite their engagement in talks with Saudi Arabia and the existence of an active ceasefire since April 2022. The parade was an attempt to deflect attention from mounting public pressure calling on them to meet their humanitarian obligations.

The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have provided a face-saving display, showing that Iran is finding other ways to support its allies in Gaza

Since 2022, the Houthis have made financial gains as a result of Saudi Arabia easing restrictions on commercial ships, opening flights to Sanaa airport, and implementing other measures intended to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. In all Houthi-controlled areas, public sector workers have not received salaries since mid-2016, and this has not changed despite ongoing talks with the Saudis. As public pressure calling on the Houthis to meet their obligations grows, they are using the escalation in Gaza to avoid public scrutiny. In the past, the Houthis justified their actions by claiming they were fighting a Saudi-led coalition and its allies on the ground. Now, they can say they are fighting the US and Israel, having an open battlefront on the Red Sea.

On another front, is Iran facing public criticism for its response to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The images coming out of Gaza and the stark increase in civilian casualties have brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of Arab public opinion. For the first time, Iran is unable to capitalise on the anger of the Arab people. Hizbullah has shown unusual constraint, despite vowing for many years to come to the aid of the Palestinian people. This became obvious as Hamas leaders came out on multiple occasions to say they expected more from Iran and its allies. The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have provided a face-saving display, showing that Iran is finding other ways to support its allies in Gaza. The Houthis' long-range capabilities are Iranian-supplied weapons, and will likely continue to flow. This arrangement serves both the Houthis and the Iranians.

The Failure of the International Community

It is hard to ignore the fact that only a few years ago, in late 2018, the international community – led by the UK – applied significant diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Yemeni government to halt a military operation that came very close to pushing the Houthis out of the west coast of Yemen. The UN Envoy at the time, Martin Griffiths, warned that a total military takeover of the strategic port city of Hodaidah by the Saudi-led coalition and its allied Yemeni forces would cause huge disruption to UN humanitarian operations in North Yemen. As an alternative, he brokered the ‘Stockholm Agreement’, which stipulated that the Houthis and the Yemeni government would conduct an orderly redeployment of forces, with the UN sending monitors to oversee the process.

The financial gains that the Houthis made via Hodaidah did not encourage them to change their militant approach

The UK went so far as to introduce a Security Council resolution to bolster the UN-brokered agreement. The Houthis made a tactical decision to signal their approval of the UN-brokered deal while stalling the implementation of their side of the agreement. Despite clear signs of the Houthis fortifying their positions in Hodaidah and across the west coast, the UK continued to pressure the Yemeni government not to launch any attacks. The then UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, flew to Aden to meet the Yemeni government and delivered what he explained was a difficult message, urging them to pause any military plans against the port city of Hodaidah.

Jeremy Hunt did not continue in his post for long; he resigned after Boris Johnson’s appointment as prime minister. However, the impact of his foreign policy manoeuvres on Yemen would last for several years. The Houthis continued to entrench themselves across the west coast and continued receiving weapons from Iran. The financial gains that the Houthis made via Hodaidah did not encourage them to change their militant approach.

In short, the policy of appeasement and containment has backfired. Having built up their strength, the Houthis are now using the west coast as a launchpad to target commercial ships passing through the Red Sea.

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

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Baraa Shiban

Associate Fellow

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