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Will the US actually strike the Houthis militarily?

January 10, 2024 at 9:30 pm

Yemenis recently militarily trained by the Houthi movement march during an armed popular parade held in Al-Sabeen Square Sana’a, Yemen on December 02, 2023 [Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images]

Amid the aggressive Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, strongly supported by the US, the world has begun to look closely at Washington’s involvement in the military support for genocide crimes and displacement plans targeting the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, which violates all the rules and ethics of war. Meanwhile, attention is being diverted towards the vague military development in the southern Red Sea, in which Washington is the most prominent party.

We cannot underestimate the emerging military development in the southern Red Sea, which apparently came with different priorities and goals that are completely opposite to the goals of the American deterrence plans that had begun to be implemented on 6 August in the same region, which is only two months before the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Flood battle.

At that time, Washington sent “USS Bataan” and “USS Carter Hall” destroyers with 3,000 American soldiers on board to the area of operations of the US Central Command, which includes the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, in a practical translation of an American announcement to this effect that was made in July. This was preceded by American action, which included sending planes to the region in March.

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During that time, those observing the American moves saw them as a reflection of the American dissatisfaction with the major developments in the relations of its traditional allies, led by the Saudis, towards the rising economic superpower, China. China had succeeded in achieving a historic reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on 10 March last year, meaning that the military move did not include any intentions to spread reassurance among the allies who had already failed them before that on important occasions, but rather to deter them as well and re-guide their behaviour to ensure it is consistent with American interests.

Today, there are those who believe, rightly so, that the US, aiming to stop the haemorrhaging international reputation of Israel, may have wanted to divert the world’s attention from the war crimes in the Gaza Strip to a hotbed of conflict that has dangerous implications for global trade, and which is fuelled by indiscriminate military behaviour by the Houthis in the south of the Red Sea. This is after the Houthis began to intercept and control ships and actually succeeded in seizing the “Galaxy Leader” cargo ship owned by an Israeli businessman and towing it to the Port of Salif in the Red Sea. The group’s military activity progressed to attempts, monitored by the US Navy, to intercept ships using boats carrying armed fighters and others with explosives, launching anti-ship ballistic missiles and carrying out attacks with drones.

Of course, Washington did not adopt the Houthis’ military activities, but it manoeuvres to manage that activity in a way that succeeds in diverting the world’s minds to another problem, instead of focusing on the Israeli crimes committed the Gaza Strip, as it does not seem that Washington’s vital interests are fundamentally affected by the Houthis’ military activity. The US Navy, along with the rest of the Western warships, can deal with the Houthi threats in a very efficient manner, as we have seen recently, with the Houthi threats, despite the navigation data and news indicating that several major international shipping lines have begun rerouting through the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the growing military risks in the Red Sea.

On 5 January, 12 countries that are allies of the US, including Japan, signed a statement described as a final warning to the Houthis to avoid international punitive action. This statement may have been considered compensation for the failure of the US to establish an international coalition to confront military threats in the Red Sea. However, the threat of directing a military strike against a group without a State will not have a real impact on the ground, even if this includes striking infrastructure in the territories controlled by the Houthis in northern Yemen.

The US has long been keen on the geopolitical empowerment of the Houthis in Yemen, and pressured, through the Stockholm Agreement, for them to maintain their control over the main Yemeni ports in the Red Sea. It also forced Saudi Arabia to reach direct understandings with the Houthis at the expense of its important geopolitical position in the region, so it will be difficult to be certain that Washington may make a radical change in its policies towards the Houthi group or harm it with a deadly military strike. If this happens, the strikes will be ineffective, and the Houthis will achieve what they want, as they will prove to others that they are in a state of real confrontation with the US.

There are American pressures regarding the situation in the southern Red Sea, to stop the move initiated by Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman to reach an agreement on a road map to end the conflict in Yemen, although the Biden administration has always boasted that the ceasefire and calm since April 2022 in Yemen are two of President Biden’s important diplomatic achievements in the conflict-ridden Middle East region.

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These pressures may be one of the tools to influence the behaviour of the Houthis, but that will certainly not limit their activity because Iran has already begun to invest in the Houthis’ military activity and the atmosphere of satisfaction that it has sparked in the Arab world, to redesign a more established position for the Houthis in Yemen and the region, and to enhance their influence in the international equation, as stated by the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This may encourage them to go bypass the understandings supervised by the UN and Washington and sponsored by regional countries in order to achieve peace in Yemen, and to abandon the commitments of the road map that seems to have faltered due to the fateful battle in Gaza and its repercussions in region.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21  on 7 January, 2024

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.