The Houthis’ defiant escalation

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

The Houthis have extended their attacks on Israeli ships beyond the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean, reports Ahmed Mustafa


As the war on the Palestinians in Gaza continues and many who have survived the relentless bombing die of famine, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militias vowed to expand attacks on Israel-linked ships beyond the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, unconfirmed media reports have speculated that the Houthis and Palestinians might be coordinating resistance methods and the Houthis are now testing a “supersonic missile”.

The last few days have seen Yemen dominating the news. In a televised speech on Thursday, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi announced widening operations by targeting vessels that will prevent Israeli-linked ships from even going through the Indian Ocean towards the Cape of Good Hope.

Since the Houthis began attacking ships linked to Israel last November, almost half of the maritime going passing through Bab Al-Mandeb, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal is now using the longer and far more costly route circling around the southern tip of Africa. “Our main battle is to prevent ships linked to the Israeli enemy not only from passing through the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but also the Indian Ocean towards the Cape of Good Hope. This is a major step and we have begun to implement operations related to it,” Al-Houthi said.

The escalation coincided with news reports about a meeting in Beirut between Houthi and Hamas officials to coordinate efforts towards facing the Israeli aggression in Gaza. Some reports even claimed that the Houthis handed over a ship they captured a few months ago to the Hamas military wing. According to a CNN news report this week, Houthi Spokesman Nasreddin Amer said, “the ship and its crew are in the hands of the brothers in the Hamas resistance movement and the Al-Qassam Brigades.”

Some analysts think that the Houthis warning of expanding the scope of their attacks on Israel-linked ships is viable. Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told Al-Ahram Weekly, “I think it’ll escalate unless Americans end the Gaza war.” He added that, “based on past performance, it will worry Americans that it’s possible” for Houthis to disrupt shipping through the Cape of Good Hope route as well.

The escalation coincides with revelations of indirect US messages to Iran asking it to use its influence on the Yemeni rebels to stop their attacks in the Red Sea. Even though the US and the UK continue their bombardment of Houthis sites in Yemen in an attempt to weaken their military capabilities, it seems those attacks have not deterred the Houthis. The Financial Times reported this week that American officials met secretly with Iranian officials in the Omani capital Muscat in an effort to convince Tehran to exert pressure on the Houthis to stop their attacks on maritime shipping.

The Iranians acknowledged the meeting in January, but insisted that “discussions were limited to the lifting of US sanctions on Tehran,” according to an “informed source” quoted by the Iranian news agency IRNA. Iran has repeatedly said that it only has a form of “spiritual influence” on the Houthis, and “can’t dictate to the Houthis what to do,” though the Americans accuse Iran of supplying them with arms and helping them identify ships to target.

The Biden administration is under pressure to deal more effectively with the threat from Yemen in the context of preventing the conflict from expanding to the wider region. The White House is also involved in efforts to prevent a full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon triggered by daily attacks from Hizbullah and Israel. Neither the US nor Iran want the Gaza war to turn into a wider regional conflict. Yet, it seems that is proving more difficult as Iranian-linked proxies in Lebanon and Yemen are defiant while Israeli massacres in Gaza continue.

“The US administration is quite desperate to calm things down now. The last thing they need is for this to escalate in an election year. The Houthis have shown they have the will and capacity to continue with their attacks while the Gaza massacre continues. So it’s telling that the Americans are reaching out to the Iranians. Whether it works isn’t so clear — given the suffering in Gaza. Why would the Iranians want to press them and why would the Houthis accede? If anyone should ease pressure, they would say it should be Netanyahu,” Andrew Hammond said.

With the possibility of further escalation by the defiant Houthis as the war on Gaza continues, America and its Western allies like the UK might increase their involvement in Yemen. This could risk reigniting a Civil War that has already left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. Hammond notes, “they would have to go after the Houthi leadership, which they’ve not done yet. What they’ll end up doing is funding the various militias in Yemen who face off against the Houthis, effectively restarting the war.” Though Saudi Arabia might not be in favour of more fighting between Yemeni factions, it might not resist Western support to the legitimate government forces.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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