The Red Sea remains a major focal point in West Asia following multiple U.S.-led military operations against the Yemen-based Houthi Movement—raising fears of an expanded regional war as Israel continues to prosecute its war in Gaza. In this context, the U.S.- and British-led strikes on the Houthis are likely to have a minimal impact on the Houthis’ willingness and capacity to fight, especially relative to the risks they are fostering.
The Ansarullah movement, more widely recognized as the Houthis, persistently adopts a militaristic stance in regional politics. They have leveraged Yemen’s crucial location along the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, orchestrating attacks on ships as a supposed act of solidarity with the Gaza populace. However, this seems to be a strategic move to bolster their image among Yemeni and Arab public opinion enraged by continued Gaza war without an end in sight.
After the United States conducted its first strikes on the evening of January 12, the Houthis promised to respond and pledged their readiness for a fight with the United States—a scenario that runs the risk of expanding the war in Gaza into a disastrous regional conflict. This scenario speaks to the folly of Washington’s “deterrence” and “credibility” arguments justifying the strikes on Yemen. Indeed, the bombing campaign against the Houthis simply marks the latest iteration of the United States’ deficient strategy in West Asia, focusing on military solutions to problems that require much more complex and creative approaches.
The Red Sea Front
On the evening of January 12, the U.S.-UK-led coalition known as Task Force 153 bombed Houthi positions for the first time since the group initiated its attacks on maritime shipping via the Bab el-Mandeb. For weeks before the strike, major Western capitals had released statements warning the Houthis of a military response to its actions and calling on the group to respect the internationally agreed upon laws of the sea. The operation targeted 28 Houthi military sites, including military camps and radar used to identify ships, and killed or injured roughly 10-12 Houthi fighters.
As the first strikes took place, the United States released a joint statement with multiple members of the Task Force, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Bahrain. In the statement, the countries highlighted the operation’s reasoning, claiming self-defense to legally justify the strikes. The Houthis quickly released a similar statement, stating, “The American and British enemy bears full responsibility for its criminal aggression against our Yemeni people. This aggression will not go unanswered. The Yemeni armed forces will not hesitate to target sources of threat and all hostile targets—on land and at sea—in defense of Yemen, its sovereignty and independence.”
Unsurprisingly, and judging from official Houthi rhetoric, the Task Force operation failed to foster a much-needed calm in the Red Sea and broader region. Instead, the U.S.-led airstrikes appeared to simply spur additional and stronger attacks on international trade flowing past Yemen. The Houthis responded to the January 12 strikes by launching an expanded barrage of drones and missiles, targeting passing ships without regard for their nationality or destination. On January 14, the Houthis unsuccessfully targeted the USS Laboon, a U.S. Navy destroyer; on January 15 and 18, they struck U.S.-owned cargo ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb. In response to these attacks, the United States conducted additional strikes on Houthi positions in northern Yemen, where the Houthis are based, on January 16, 17, and 18.
The Houthis have now targeted maritime shipping and military ships in the Red Sea roughly 30 times, reflecting another front in the broader regional conflict underway because of Israel’s war against Hamas and Gaza. Indeed, the scale of disruption occurring along one of the world’s most important trade routes reflects this reality, alongside the risks of continued escalation in this theater—an option all immediate parties seem to be directly or indirectly supportive of in order to achieve their geopolitical goals.
The Geopolitical Map
The firsthand parties to the current conflict—Israel, Hamas, and the Houthis, with Hezbollah and Iran poised to join in—have rigid geopolitical goals, with serious implications for regional security. While Yemen remains one of the poorest countries in the world, it continues to play an outsized role in West Asia’s geopolitical makeup, given the strategic location of the Bab el-Mandeb. All parties involved in the Yemen conflict understand this fact, and have hoped to use it to their advantage. This was one of the foremost reasons for the internationalization of the war in Yemen, at the expense of the Yemeni people. Although the violence has subsided since the peak of the country’s civil war, the risk of escalation remains high, threatening ongoing peace efforts underway in Yemen and elsewhere.
The effects of an ever-expanding conflict in the Red Sea cast doubt on efforts to limit the Israel-Hamas war to Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories. The Houthis are likely to follow the lead of other Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in raising the costs of Israel’s continued military operations in Gaza. The group knows that disrupting international trade through the Red Sea, where roughly 12 percent of all global trade transits, will draw the United States deeper into the conflict while bolstering domestic calls for a ceasefire as the risk of a broader war expands and the cost of goods increases.
This concrete reality makes Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s most recent regional tour, focused on preventing an expanded conflict, somewhat ironic. During the tour in early January, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of containing the Gaza conflict and working with regional leaders to find sustainable solutions towards such a goal. However, as the Secretary concluded his trip on January 11 with an idealistic speech about regional actors’ shared interests in maintaining stability in the Red Sea, Washington decided to unilaterally bomb the Houthis—directly contradicting this message while introducing greater uncertainty to the regional geopolitical context.
In the aftermath of the U.S. strikes, regional states with deep involvement in Yemen understandably expressed concern. An official statement issued by the Saudi Press Agency on January 12 read, “While the Kingdom emphasizes the importance of maintaining the security and stability of the Red Sea region, as the freedom of navigation in it is an international demand due to its impact on the interests of the entire world, it calls for restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing.”
While Saudi Arabia has a clear interest in Red Sea stability and has consistently opposed the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks on commerce prior to January 12, the statement reflects the Kingdom’s serious concerns about reigniting a war with the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen—initiated by then-Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, with the expectation that it would be concluded in a matter of weeks—turned into an eight-year quagmire from which Riyadh has only recently managed to extract itself. While negotiations with the Houthis continue to advance, as evidenced by the roadmap agreement announced on December 23, Riyadh likely views increased tensions and direct fighting as a threat to its stability and Vision 2030 economic diversification projects.
Still, both the Saudis and the Houthis appear committed to advancing peace talks independent of broader geopolitical issues—a promising sign for the region. Saudi and Iranian officials are reportedly passing messages regularly, with Riyadh sharing U.S. messages while also likely hoping to decrease misunderstandings with its regional rival. For their part, the Houthis could view the latest stage of the Yemen war and current geopolitical instability as reinforcing the importance of talks with Riyadh—at least for now—as they utilize fighting with the West to boost support inside.
Grasping at Straws
There is much less clarity surrounding President Joe Biden’s thought process in deciding to carry out the strike. While some will argue that striking the group was Washington’s least bad option, the details seem more complex and more concerning. Rather than reflecting a well-thought-out approach indicative of Biden’s national security priorities and stated interest in avoiding escalation, U.S. officials appear to be struggling to concoct real solutions to the ever-worsening situation in the region.
Recent comments from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan encapsulate this dynamic. During the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 16, Sullivan pushed back on criticism surrounding the strikes, explaining, “We did not say when we launched our attacks, [the Houthis] are gonna end [their attacks] once and for all.” Rather, the Biden administration expected Houthi strikes to continue in the Red Sea—as most analysts predicted they would.
Indeed, Sullivan appeared to downplay deterrence as a justification for the strikes, suggesting that the administration conducted the strike to retain credibility—or perhaps to prevent Israel from taking unilateral action, given Tel Aviv’s threats against the Houthis. Yet such credibility arguments make little sense, given that the decision to strike directly undermined Blinken’s call for regional calm the previous day. Regional actors already hedging their relationships with the great powers may understandably view these strikes as an extension of the long-running, disjointed, and self-contradictory U.S. foreign policy of the last several decades. Such uncertainty is poisonous for America’s foreign relations, as the Trump administration proved—and as then-presidential candidate Biden rightly condemned.
The unfortunate reality is that the Biden administration appears to be grasping at straws. Administration officials have made proposal after proposal to rein in the conflict, while refusing to consider the only realistic solution: a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and an explicit commitment to establish a Palestinian state. Task Force 153, while an understandable response to the Houthis’ actions in an effort to protect maritime shipping, is fundamentally a knee-jerk reaction aimed at solving a symptom instead of a root cause. Some would argue the Houthis are themselves the root cause, but the reality is much less simple when considering Arab solidarity with Palestine and the real or superficial actions of regional stakeholders operating within and around that solidarity to advance Palestinian interests or their own. This reality is either lost on officials in Washington or ignored, with potentially disastrous results.
Ultimately, U.S. policymakers must understand that the much-feared “regional escalation” is already here. As Iran begins directly bombing the Islamic State (IS) and alleged Israeli intelligence assets across the region for the first time since October 7 and following the worst terror attack against it since the 1979 revolution, the Middle East has been gripped with greater and greater uncertainty. Under these conditions, America’s credibility can and should be couched in soft power and the ability to create peace, not war. If Biden and his team continue to espouse outdated approaches to the region, he will simultaneously risk a brutal regional conflict and, in turn, his own re-election. He would be wise to consider these risks, especially given the high stakes of the 2024 election. If Donald Trump were re-elected as president, after all, the Middle East would be the least of America’s problems.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.