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Houthis are playing with fire. But who gets burned?

Houthis are playing with fire. But who gets burned?

Any retaliatory attacks by the US or Israel on targets in Yemen will likely be viewed as victory within the militant leadership.

Analysis | Middle East

Since the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea last week, the Houthis reportedly fired ballistic missiles that landed within ten nautical miles of the USS Mason on Sunday. The missile launch followed the U.S. Navy destroyer’s intervention in the attempted hijacking of another ship, a tanker named the Central Park, in the Gulf of Aden. The Houthis denied responsibility for this hijacking which appears to have been carried out by Somali pirates.

The Houthis, who control most of northwest Yemen, also continue to launch cruise missiles and armed drones toward Israel.

There are few good options when it comes to dealing with the Houthis. They are a formidable near-state organization that has evolved and been repeatedly tested during nearly two decades of war. From 2014, when they seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, the Houthis systematically vetted and incorporated many of Yemen’s best engineers, technicians, and officers from the Yemeni military and intelligence services into its own organization.

This incorporation, combined with assistance from Iran, has transformed the Houthis from a hardened guerrilla force into a militarily sophisticated group that is now, at least at a low level, an important regional actor.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which launched an intervention in Yemen in 2015, are learning just how dogged and determined the Houthis are as an enemy. After repeated border incursions by the Houthis as well as missile and drone strikes on its territory, Saudi Arabia pivoted from war to negotiations.

Rather than continue to pursue a policy modeled on a kinetic American approach, the Saudis returned to the careful and measured foreign policy that had served them well for decades. Since late 2022, the Saudis have been engaged in unilateral talks with the Houthis, part of a well-designed effort to de-escalate tensions and stabilize areas along the more than 800-mile-long Saudi-Yemeni border.

These talks, which have been aided by China and Iran, were nearing a conclusion before the Houthis effectively declared war on Israel. Now, provocative actions by the Houthis are in danger of derailing those talks.

The U.S. has indicated that the Biden Administration is considering re-designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Trump administration previously designated the Houthis as an FTO in January 2021, which the Biden administration subsequently revoked. While the designation is more justifiable now than when it was first imposed, it will have little or no impact on the Houthis or their leadership.

Senior Houthi members do not leave Yemen and do not have foreign assets that would be subject to seizure. In fact, the designation will be celebrated in Sana’a as proof that the Houthis are “winning.” However, the FTO designation will negatively impact the NGOs providing humanitarian assistance that must deal with the Houthis.

Military strikes, which are undoubtedly at an advanced planning stage, are an equally poor option for dealing with the Houthis. The militant group has not only survived years of strikes carried out by Saudi Arabia and the UAE during their intervention in Yemen, but they thrived militarily and politically. The Saudi and Emirati-led airstrikes stoked public anger and acted as a glue that kept the broader Houthi organization together.

During that time, the group refined its ability to hide weapons and facilities within northwest Yemen’s maze of mountains and narrow valleys and within densely-populated urban areas. At the same time, they continued to launch cross-border attacks with men, drones, and missiles deep into Saudi territory.

Much like the imposition of an FTO designation, attacks by the U.S .or Israel on targets in Yemen will be viewed as a victory by many within the Houthis’ leadership. This is especially the case with the hardliners who are ascendant. Strikes are also likely to bolster support for the Houthis among Yemenis. Military strikes, which will likely be limited in nature, will do little to degrade the Houthis’ ability to carry out strikes in the Red Sea or elsewhere.

More worryingly, such U.S. or Israeli strikes, even if they are limited, are likely to set off an escalatory loop that could have regional and even global implications. The Houthis have the ability to impede shipping in the Red Sea, at least for short periods. They can also target vital energy-producing infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Such attacks, even if only modestly successful, can materially move global energy prices.

It must also be noted that the Houthis still control the replacement tanker for the FSO Safer, which is anchored near the port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea. The UN successfully transferred over a million barrels of degraded crude from the rusting tanker to a new tanker, MOST Yemen, in August of this year. The Houthi leadership has an innate understanding of asymmetric warfare and, if cornered, they might well damage or blow up the tanker to cause havoc in the Red Sea.

While the Houthis’ missiles and drones have all been intercepted, the Houthis are viewed by many in Yemen and in the larger Muslim world, as “fighting back” against perceived Israeli aggression. The attacks, including the recent hijacking of the Galaxy Leader, which is partly owned by Israeli billionaire Abraham Ungar, have also demonstrated the group’s military reach. Most importantly for the Houthis, the attacks on Israel-linked targets have, just as they were intended to, bolstered support for them among many Yemenis.

Before the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, the Houthis’ were facing headwinds with respect to internal support. Unemployment, a profound lack of economic opportunity, rising food and energy prices, and the Houthis’ brutal suppression of dissent were beginning to erode support for the group, especially among some key tribes. This is not to argue that the Houthis were in danger of losing control of northwest Yemen. They were not. But the fissures were growing.

Now, even old enemies of the Houthis are signaling support for their attacks on Israel. Prominent members of Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is aligned with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, recently met with Houthi officials in Sana’a. This is noteworthy given that Islah has been engaged in deadly fighting with the Houthis since 2015. Attacks on the Houthis, even if justified, will only reinforce this trend and further bolster support for the group.

But this support will be short-lived. Due to the Houthis’ hijacking of the Galaxy Leader and their ongoing threats, insurance rates for ships transiting the Red Sea, and especially for any ships docking at the Houthi controlled port of Hodeidah, have soared. There are indications that some ships that were due to dock in Hodeidah have altered course as a result of Houthi actions. If there are further provocations, it is possible that the port, through which most of Yemen’s food flows, will be closed to international shipping.

This will put immense pressure on the Yemeni people who are already suffering from ever-increasing levels of food insecurity.

There are no good options for dealing with the Houthis. But the simple fact is that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and they will not be defeated by military means alone.

Saudi Arabia, which has recast itself as a valuable mediator in a number of conflicts, including Yemen, is best placed to try to moderate Houthi behavior through continued hard nosed negotiations. Saudi officials understand that there are moderates within the Houthi leadership who have more interest in business and development than in war. Even Houthi hardliners now have fortunes and legacies that they want to protect and pass on. There are also technocrats within the Houthi organization who understand that Houthi control of northwest Yemen cannot easily weather continued economic decline.

Saudi officials are betting that an approach that fosters moderates through development and reconstruction efforts will be more successful over the medium and long-term than a return to war. The Houthis thrive on war, but peace is far more of a challenge for them. However, the Houthis’ escalating provocations are all but guaranteeing a kinetic response from the U.S. and its allies. Such a response is justified, but it will be giving the Houthis, or at least the hardliners among them, exactly what they want, war.

Houthi fighters open the door of the cockpit on the ship's deck in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY

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