US & UK strikes on Houthi Rebels: adding fuel to the fire?

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On Thursday 11th January, US and UK forces launched combined air strikes on dozens of sites across Yemen controlled by the Houthi rebel group. This was followed by another US attack on Tuesday 16th, which destroyed four Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles. These moves, coming in response to what the White House called “unprecedented Houthi attacks” on ships travelling through the Red Sea, represents the West’s first direct involvement in Yemen, as well as a significant intervention in a geopolitically tense region.

The Iranian-backed Houthis began firing on commercial ships in the Red Sea following their hijacking of a partially Israeli-owned car transporter on 19th November. A spokesperson for the group declared that their aim was to target all ships operated or owned by Israeli companies or carrying the Israeli flag. However, many sceptics have argued that this has ceased to be the case, with numerous non-Israeli vessels also being attacked.

The impact of the attacks has been seismic

These attacks were intended as retaliation against Israel for its invasion of Gaza following Hamas’ terrorist attack on 7th October. The Houthis, a Shi’a militia group who control Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and the majority of its population, are backed by Iran, the most persistently supportive ally of Hamas. The impact of the attacks has been seismic. Hundreds of ships have chosen to reroute their journeys around the African continent rather than risk a potential attack, a decision which elongates ships’ journey times by an average of 10 days. This has colossal financial implications, increasing shipping costs by an estimated 80%, according to Sunil K Vaswani, the Executive Director of the Container Shipping Lines Association. Inevitably, much of this will end up being shouldered by consumers, putting further strain on pockets that may already be feeling uncomfortably tight. Furthermore, Africa’s deep-sea ports are ill-equipped for the increased traffic, with South Africa’s major ports of Durban, Cape Town and Ngqura being among the worst-performing globally, according to a World Bank index.

The full impact of the strikes is yet to be seen, however global reactions show that the situation is far from concluded

It is in this context that Britain and the US have chosen to act. In a statement to the House of Commons on 15th January, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak justified the air strikes as protecting freedom of navigation and the global economy, while also stating that they were intended as a “limited, single action”. Labour supported the action, however some MPs such as SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn criticised the Prime Minister’s failure to allow for a Commons debate and vote prior to authorising military intervention. Parliament does not technically have to vote for military action, however a Commons vote on the Iraq War in 2003 appeared to establish a precedent for it doing so, even if this was forgone in 2018 when the government unilaterally carried out airstrikes on Syria.

The full impact of the strikes, however global reactions show that the situation is far from concluded. Statements from the Houthis declared that “this aggression will not go unpunished,” adding that “all American-British interests are now legitimate targets,” and warning against “all Arab regimes – especially neighbouring countries” who might support the US and UK’s actions. Iran also strongly condemned the airstrikes, with Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani calling the attacks “a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a breach of international laws.” While the US and UK may have intended the strikes as a show of force, they seem to have done little to deter either the Houthis or their backers, and regional tensions remain sky-high.

Statements from the Houthis declared that… “all American-British interests are now legitimate targets”

Yemen’s struggles have long been on the verge of spilling out into the international arena. Embroiled in a destructive multilateral civil war since 2014 between various foreign-backed factions, the country has seen itself slide down global development and safety indicators, currently being the only non-African country to rank in the 10 lowest countries on the Human Development Index. Saudi Arabian support of the official Yemeni government which has been exiled in Aden since 2015, has allowed an effective proxy war between them and Iran to spring up through the latter’s backing of the Houthis, making Yemen an important chess piece in the Middle East’s overarching power game. The wider attention afforded by the West’s airstrikes will do little to diminish its critical role in the region.

What next for Yemen and the Red Sea? Houthi responses have given little indication that the West’s strikes will stop their targeting of commercial vessels, making the route towards a freely navigable Red Sea hard to visualise. This has raised fears of more direct military confrontation with the rebels by Western-backed factions or perhaps even the West itself, disintegrating the precarious truce that has been in place since April 2022. With the World Food Programme estimating 17 million people to be ‘food insecure’ in Yemen, such conflict could be catastrophic. However, the West will be wary of becoming bogged down in another potentially lengthy Middle Eastern war, having learnt painful lessons from the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As it stands, the situation remains tentatively balanced; only time will tell how it will end.

Image: Fahd Sadi via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “US & UK strikes on Houthi Rebels: adding fuel to the fire?

  • Have the Houthis killed anybody? It seems our leaders value commerce more highly than dead babies in Gaza.

    Reply

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