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The Houthis Red Sea Gambit: A New Front of the Gaza War

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its third month, an actor with a previously peripheral impact on the conflict is playing an increasingly important role—the Houthis in Yemen. Indeed, as many analysts have looked instead to Lebanon and Iraq as key flashpoints for the potential expansion of the conflict in Gaza, the Houthis have made their presence known in recent weeks, attempting to strike both Israel and international commerce—and carrying out a successful ship hijacking in the Red Sea in late November. In confronting the Houthis, world leaders face a short list of bad options—highlighting the extent to which the group has risen to prominence in Yemen’s north during the country’s post-Arab Spring conflict and established itself as a major powerbroker in the region.

Opening a New Front

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), have long held anti-Israel views in alignment with Iran and the Axis of Resistance. This is outlined first and foremost in the group’s slogan, which states, “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews and victory to Islam.” Houthi leaders regularly use anti-Semitic tropes in public statements and actions, exemplified in rhetoric found in one of leader Abdul-Malek Al-Houthi’s 2022 television addresses: “When the Prophet Muhammad commanded the Muslims to clean their courtyards, he said to them: ‘Do not be like the Jews.'”  Without question, anti-Semitism functions as a core pillar of Houthi ideology, and the group is firmly opposed to the State of Israel as a result.

Yet, when observing anti-Semitic Houthi views in relation to Israel, a question of geography rather than ideology has typically underpinned analyses observing the group’s real threat. Ultimately, the roughly 1,000 miles between Yemen and Israel diminishes  threats from a pseudo-political armed group that has long been embroiled in a devastating war for control of its country. In Yemen, world leaders and analysts have mostly considered the Houthi threat to global maritime shipping lanes and wealthy Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the Houthis are utilizing their strategic geographical location on the Red Sea and near the Bab al-Mandab strait in a show of solidarity with Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza. The group has launched missile strikes towards Israel, U.S. ships, and any maritime shipping unfortunate enough to land in their crosshairs on October 20, October 31, November 6, November 13-14, November 15, November 26, December 6, December 1011, and December 12-13 as of this writing. They also successfully hijacked the Galaxy Leader, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, on November 19. Through these actions, the Houthis are making a powerful statement: while attempted strikes on Israel are likely to fail given the sweeping defense mechanisms in place from the Red Sea to Israel itself, it is difficult to view the group’s actions as anything short of another front in the Gaza war.

Houthi leaders are confirming this position in their public statements, in which they have ‘declared war’ on Israel and Israeli-owned ships (including the Galaxy Leader) passing through the Red Sea. The group expanded its list of possible targets on December 9 to include any ships headed to Israeli ports, although they continue to attack ships indiscriminately. After they hijacked the Galaxy Leader, Houthi military spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said, “The detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs. This is just the beginning.” Leaders should take these threats seriously, even if the potential impact on Israeli security remains relatively low given the Houthis’ geographic constraints.

Risking Saudi-Houthi Peace Talks

Amidst the growing regional escalation, a potentially greater threat stemming from the Houthi attacks is their impact on peace talks with Saudi Arabia. The talks aim to permanently end the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign against the Houthi movement in Yemen and eventually produce intra-Yemeni peace talks. The two camps have made notable progress in negotiations since establishing a truce in April 2022, which officially expired in October 2022 but has continued to exist informally as neither side has wished to renew the fighting.

These talks are fragile and have not progressed easily. Oman’s role as a central mediator is critical, as it is the only side that the Houthis are willing to trust in negotiations. Riyadh has expressed its support for ongoing talks as it hopes to remove itself from the war in Yemen, a conflict that quickly grew into a quagmire for the Kingdom and a personal embarrassment for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as he brutally consolidated power to become the country’s head of state.

Yet the Saudi position is why talks with the Houthis are likely not at risk now. Riyadh can ill-afford renewed fighting with the group, as the latter would resume missile strikes on Saudi territory at a time of major—perhaps generational—regional and global upheaval. The Kingdom is undergoing an extensive transformation under MbS through his Vision 2030” economic plan, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and fundamentally transform the Kingdom’s society. This prioritization drives MbS’s efforts towards diplomacy and pragmatic cooperation in the region, best exemplified in the March 10 China-sponsored Iran-Saudi renormalization agreement and Riyadh’s overtures to major “Axis of Resistance” members like the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed, from the Saudi perspective, regional stability is not only necessary for the survival and advancement of the state; it must be paramount in its international relations. As such, MbS called Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on October 11, only four days after Hamas’s attack on Israel, in a clear attempt to establish an understanding and avoid broader instability. This call was the first the two leaders publicized since renormalizing relations, speaking to the enormity of the situation and value placed on the conversation.

However, the Houthis, who are supported by Iran but not dependent on Tehran for their strategic decision-making, have emerged as a wildcard in the conflict. Recent strikes reflect an effort to improve their standing amongst the Yemen public, which has gradually worsened due to the humanitarian situation and their iron-fisted rule. The group continues to view its overall position as strong, reflected by public statements and negotiations. While it is aggressive by nature after over a decade of on-and-off warfare, the Houthis could assess that the Saudis value a peace deal with them above all else, even a cessation of strikes on maritime traffic and Israel.

For this reason, recent Houthi actions will probably not impact Saudi Arabia’s relations with the group in the near term. The floor for this is quite low, as relations between the Saudis and the Houthis have been terrible since 2014. International efforts to prevent spillover are already underway, as reflected by United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg’s recent meetings with states and actors engaged in Yemen to advance the peace process. As the Houthis prove and advance their capacity as an effective rogue actor adjacent to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes next to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s threat perception of the group could change if its actions continue or escalate, but it is hard to see such an outcome derailing negotiations with the Houthis at present or in the near-term.

No Good Answers

In such situations, proactive action is required—especially diplomacy. Multiple states certainly have a role to play, not limited to regional mediators like Oman and Qatar, whom the Houthis view favorably. However, Qatar is currently bogged down in mediation efforts between Hamas and Israel, as witnessed by ongoing hostage negotiations and their efforts to help advance a ceasefire. Each state should yield their access and influence carefully, while also considering the political capital available to address issues as they arise—particularly considering the risk of Israel expanding the war north or Hezbollah joining the conflict, which would further strain Qatar’s ability to negotiate an end to the conflict.

As such, Oman is the natural choice for talks with the Houthis to rein in the latter’s malign actions and prevent a collapse of peace talks with Saudi Arabia. However, Muscat’s odds of influencing the group outside of the peace talks are low; to a significant extent, they depend on Riyadh’s actions, especially as the Houthis have said that any actor working against their efforts to support the resistance will be deemed hostile. Oman would be wise to de-escalate the situation while disconnecting the Saudis from Israel’s actions—although the Houthis have good reason to be skeptical on this point, given that Riyadh and Tel Aviv were deeply involved in normalization talks prior to the October 7 attack and are reportedly and quietly hoping to continue them.

The United States can play a positive or negative complementary role in this regard. Indeed, American and Saudi forces have countered Houthi strikes on multiple occasions, with some concern that at least two of those strikes were targeted at U.S. naval ships in response to their defense of Israel and maritime shipping. Washington’s unique capacity to create coalitions is critical in this context, and appears to already be a focus of President Joe Biden’s administration, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stating on December 4 that Washington would “take appropriate action in consultation with others … at a time and place of our choosing.” Such efforts, coupled with global concerns for the free flow of goods, could make similar efforts via Combined Task Force 150 in the Persian Gulf easy to replicate. Ultimately, maritime security is a shared responsibility, and one that states should be able to support for the right reasons.

However, U.S. officials should also recognize their extremely limited capacity to realistically influence Houthi behavior. The group is already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its leaders do not have international bank accounts, making a renewed designation on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) largely pointless. U.S. Treasury officials announced additional sanctions against the Houthi financial system on December 7, which could have a limited short-term impact as the group and Iran reorganize fundraising efforts. Washington also lacks a Congressional authorization for the use of military force against the Houthis, which—while not strictly prohibiting a military operation of some form—sharply limits the Biden administration’s options amidst widespread frustration in the American public with “forever wars” and spending on military aid to Ukraine and Israel.

Israel does not face the constraints that the United States does in this regard, and it could play that role if needed. In fact, a mysterious explosion in Houthi-controlled Sana’a on November 30, which targeted a Houthi arms depot, has all the hallmarks of an operation by the Israeli clandestine services, which have already had extensive experience against Iranian and Iranian-backed targets in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran proper. Ultimately, Tel Aviv is not concerned with the politics or legal niceties of state borders when it comes to externalizing its security.

Still, U.S. officials have reportedly advised the Israelis to hold off on targeting the Houthis, saying that it will address the issue. Washington, in turn, is unlikely to launch military actions in Yemen, as doing so could inadvertently collapse talks with Saudi Arabia and even lead to a renewal of the Saudi-Yemen conflict—a point U.S. officials have noted. Oman will try to keep peace efforts with the Saudis alive while tempering the group as best it can. These are not good options for any party involved—especially amidst a highly unstable regional situation and a war in Gaza that could spiral out of control into a regional conflict at any moment. But they are the best options available to world leaders to contain the Houthis and prevent further carnage.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: Yemen

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