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Will Biden drag Sunak into Houthi quagmire as Bin Salman struggles to break free?

February 28, 2024 at 10:48 am

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the US President Joe Biden arrive for an official meeting at the Downing Street in London, United Kingdom on July 10, 2023 [Raşid Necati Aslım – Anadolu Agency]

The US and the UK launched a fourth wave of joint air strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on 24 February with the intention to degrade the movement’s capabilities and thereby deter what they have called illegal aggression against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The previous round of strikes came on 3 February, one night after the US launched air strikes against Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for a drone attack that killed three US soldiers in Jordan on 28 January.

The timing of the joint strikes has masked the fact that the US has increasingly been compelled to take military action unilaterally despite leading the anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq and Syria. While UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, have both stressed repeatedly that their air strikes have substantially degraded the Houthis’ capabilities, the latter have pressed ahead defiantly with their attacks on shipping linked to Israel, calling into question the effectiveness of US and UK air strikes. In one of the most damaging Houthi attacks on 18 February, the crew had to abandon their UK-registered ship.

Unlike the US, which has conducted ongoing attacks since the first wave of joint US-UK air strikes on 12 January, the UK has refrained from taking part. This is despite the stern warning issued by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 15 January that, “We will not hesitate to ensure the security and safety of British people, our interests and our assets.”

As a result, the US has found itself in the unenviable position of appearing isolated.

It had no option but to take on the Houthis without the participation of the much-touted coalition code-named “Prosperity Guardian”. Without a doubt, the inexplicable absence of the UK has emboldened the Houthis and their supporters in Iran. Against this backdrop, US President Joe Biden has sought to ramp up the pressure on the Houthis by re-designating the movement as a global terrorist organisation, a move which came into effect on 16 February, while also underscoring Washington’s unyielding resolve by declaring on 18 January that, even though the strikes have not stopped the Houthi attacks on shipping, “They are going to continue.”

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The Houthis have doubled down on their confrontational strategy after concluding that both the US and, to a larger extent, the UK have absolutely no appetite for taking limited action, let alone engaging in a full-blown conflict. For Sunak, the overriding priority has always been domestic politics, as he has limited experience in foreign affairs. Given that his own survival as prime minister relies heavily on narrowing the opposition Labour Party’s strong lead in the polls, Sunak appointed David Cameron as foreign secretary. Cameron’s main priority when he was prime minister was preserving the US-UK “special relationship”. To this end, he pushed hard for Sunak to launch the first wave of joint air strikes, thus sending the unmistakable message that the US is not alone. Cameron has argued persistently that the UK needs to be “prepared to back our words with actions,” prompting Sunak on 22 January to launch a second round of joint US-UK strikes.

All along, the US and UK have shown a genuine desire to avoid getting embroiled in a military confrontation with the Houthis, not least because they have failed to convince not only their closest NATO allies such as France and Spain to join the US-led alliance in the Red Sea, but also, and even more damaging, their spectacular failure to gain the ringing endorsement of their staunchest ally in the Arab-Muslim world, Saudi Arabia. This has doubtlessly stripped the US-UK of desperately needed legitimacy to target yet another Arab-Muslim country.

Unsurprisingly, the main priority of Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler — who plunged Riyadh into a futile war against the Houthis ostensibly aiming to protect the kingdom’s national security while in reality seeking to shore up his position as the indisputable heir to the throne — has shifted to free his country from the quagmire in Yemen by ensuring that ending the war there is at the heart of a China-brokered reconciliation deal with its arch-rival Iran.

Moreover, Washington and London recognise that relying solely on air strikes without any boots on the ground will not work, particularly given that the Saudi-led coalition has failed to break the Houthis’ resolve or capabilities over the past nine years. The two Western allies are also mindful that the internationally-recognised government in Yemen sitting in exile in Riyadh has all along been utterly dysfunctional and unreliable, and is incapable of challenging the Houthis.

Biden and Sunak fear that attacking the Houthis would not only fatally undermine their justification for dispatching their armies to the Middle East to prevent Israel’s war against the-Palestinians in Gaza from spreading, but would also be perceived as taking Israel’s side. They both know that their concerted efforts to disentangle any military action against the Houthis from the Israeli offensive would fall on deaf ears.

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Furthermore, they fear that the Houthis would capitalise on such strikes by showcasing their unwavering support for Gaza, thus boosting their popularity domestically and around the Arab-Muslim world. This would allow Russia to accuse the West of hypocrisy for standing firmly behind Israel, and deflect their attention away from what they perceive as Russia’s existential threat.

US-UK retaliation in great force against the Houthis would ultimately fuel an all-out conflict with Iran. While such a nightmare scenario might not materialise, though, US-UK air strikes have already broadened the conflict, by provoking the Houthis to target American and British vessels as well as those linked to Israel.

The Houthi action in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza has effectively led to a 29 per cent surge in the number of ships avoiding the Red Sea altogether and taking the longer and more expensive route around the tip of South Africa. Global trade has thus been seriously threatened, which will inevitably have an adverse impact on inflation in the West. With both Biden and Sunak trailing in the polls in the run-up to decisive elections in their respective countries, deteriorating economic conditions will unquestionably derail their hopes of a resurgence in fortunes triggered by an economic revival.

Ever since the 7 October Hamas cross-border attack on Israel, the Iran-backed groups in the so-called axis of resistance have been working tirelessly to ease the growing pressure on Gaza. Although Hezbollah has managed to steer a significant portion of Israel’s forces away from Gaza while also ratcheting up the economic burden on Israel by keeping Israelis away from border towns, it has deliberately limited its involvement to avoid antagonising Saudi-backed Lebanese factions opposing its intervention.

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The Iraqi Islamic Resistance, meanwhile, has also been targeting US military bases in Iraq and Syria, seeking to push Washington to press Israel to end its offensive in Gaza and withdraw its own troops from Iraq. The group has, however, been calibrating its strikes carefully to avoid destabilising Iraq’s government, which enjoys the backing of its members’ political wings.

The Houthis, by contrast, have pulled no punches in targeting US-UK interests, drawing strength from rock-solid support at home and spurred on by the undeniable fact that the cost of targeting US-UK vessels is far lower than that incurred by the West. On that basis, the Houthis have spearheaded the resistance against the wholehearted support given to Israel by Biden and Sunak.

According to the Chilcot Inquiry into the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s handling of the 2003 Iraq invasion and war, the US-UK special relationship does not require the UK to head blindly to war alongside the US. Apparently, though, David Cameron has found that interpretation unacceptable, and it was left to the parliament in Westminster to scupper his plans to join the US attack on Syria in 2013.

At a time when Sunak’s popularity has hit rock bottom, the ruling Conservative Party factions are at each other’s throats and the economy is sliding into recession. It would be indefensible, therefore, for Sunak to embrace Blair’s or Cameron’s discredited interpretation of the special relationship and pave the way for Biden to drag the UK into the quagmire in Yemen.

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