Israel’s unrelenting assault on the Gaza Strip is beginning to tip the Middle East into a wider regional conflict. In the past week, the Houthis in Yemen emerged as an unlikely power player, successfully disrupting global shipping in the name of Palestinians in Gaza and goading the U.S. into launching a series of airstrikes in a failed bid at deterrence.
Over the past three months, the Houthis have attacked merchant ships passing through the Red Sea, an unexpected military intervention aimed at forcing Israel to end its U.S.-backed offensive in Gaza and allow aid into the besieged territory.
The Houthis’ squeeze on the critical trade route is already impacting the global economy: Spooked shipping companies have diverted vessels toward more costly routes, with risk insurance premiums and global shipping prices rising. The effects of the attempted blockade could soon be seen in the costs of oil and consumer goods worldwide.
The U.S. Navy, considered the security guarantor of maritime shipping routes across much of the world, was eventually pressured into action. Since last week, the U.S. launched five airstrikes on Houthi positions. The Houthis doubled down. They fired at passing ships with several more rounds of missiles and drones. The targets included U.S. commercial vessels and a U.S. Navy warship — signs that the rebels were only emboldened by the U.S. volley.
During a White House press briefing on Thursday, President Joe Biden acknowledged that the airstrikes were not stopping the Houthis but said the U.S. would keep targeting the group anyway.
With its decision to attack, the Biden administration appears to have opened itself up to a geopolitical checkmate by the Houthis. Escalating the strikes against the rebels will likely bring more shipping disruptions — potentially counterproductive to mitigating economic consequences — and risk a full-blown regional war. Negotiating or submitting to the demands of a nonstate militia group from one of the poorest countries in the world would be seen by many as a U.S. surrender and would boost the Houthis’ newfound popularity.
Battle-hardened in a brutal civil war with a Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile, the Houthis look unready to back down, even inviting the wider conflict.
“The Houthis absolutely want this conflict,” said Iona Craig, a journalist and political specialist focused on Yemen. “It is part of their ideology, whose anti-American element was formed during the period of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They now very much see themselves as the defenders of Palestinians and the people of Gaza.”
“The Houthis absolutely want this conflict. … They now very much see themselves as the defenders of Palestinians and the people of Gaza.”
With the Houthis undeterred, the U.S. State Department took a different approach on Wednesday, designating the militia as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, a partial reversal of its decision in 2021 to remove the Houthis from the more stringent Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The new designation makes the Houthis subject to economic and political sanctions but avoids the stricter rules of the FTO list. Humanitarian groups said harsher measures would impede aid to areas of Yemen that Houthis came to control during the civil war.
Two hours after being redesignated as a terror group in the U.S., the Houthis targeted a U.S. carrier ship, and the U.S. responded with another round of strikes.
“The Biden administration seems to be hoping that degrading Houthi capabilities will coerce them to stop, but that doesn’t appear to be working,” Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington, told The Intercept. “Everyone is deterrable, and the Houthis are not lunatics. But the problem when dealing with nonstate actors is that it requires more force to get them to change their strategic calculus.”
He added, “The Saudis also thought that they could beat the Houthis militarily without having to address any of the political demands that they were making.”
Ragtag Rebels to Regional Aspirations
Once a small, ragtag army, the Houthis learned to hit back against much more powerful militaries over years of civil war and foreign intervention — acquiring knowledge they appear to be putting into practice against the U.S.
The Houthis, officially known as Ansarallah, emerged decades ago as a movement opposed to the perceived corruption of the Yemeni government. For the past several years, the group has been at war with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and are currently in peace negotiations to end the conflict. The U.S. played a key role in the civil war, heavily arming — and for a time giving direct assistance to — an air campaign by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that inflicted huge civilian casualties. The onslaught failed to defeat the Houthis.
The civil war became a training ground where the Houthis learned to outmaneuver vastly superior U.S.-made weapons — especially air power — in its current operation in the Red Sea. The rebels use inexpensive anti-ship missiles and small boats to attack the shipping vessels, utilizing the advantage of light and mobile forces that drive up costs and weaken the effectiveness of enemies’ attacks from the air.
“The Houthis have a big force, but they rely on distributing their power broadly across the territory that they control. They rely more on being mobile than on heavy infrastructure,” said Baraa Shiban, a political analyst on Yemen and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “They have survived a long air campaign by two of the stronger militaries in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and have adapted how to move and operate their forces accordingly.”
The Houthis are often dismissed as mere proxies of Iran, part of a nexus of groups referred to as the “Axis of Resistance,” which includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian militants of Hamas. Analysts, however, say that while Iran does provide the Houthis with money, weapons, and military training, the Houthis operate with relative political independence.
“It is robbing them of their agency when we say that the Houthis are merely stooges of Iran,” Hisham Al-Omeisy, senior adviser on Yemen with the European Institute of Peace, told The Intercept. “They have their own mindset, agenda, and ideology.”
The civil war became a training ground where the Houthis learned to outmaneuver vastly superior U.S.-made weapons.
In its most dramatic display of independence, the Houthis reportedly rebuffed Iranian efforts to stop them from taking the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2015, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
The Houthis have long made confrontation with the U.S. and Israel a major plank of their ideology, expressed as a blend of Islamism, anti-imperialism, and overt antisemitism. Along with other Iran-backed groups, the Houthis reject most aspects of the U.S.-backed political order in the region and have made serious threats to the stability of U.S.-allied regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“One of the main things people miss about the Houthis is that their end goal is not just Yemen. This is an expansionist group with regional ambitions,” said Al-Omeisy. “This conflict is a perfect opportunity for them to say that they are the real vanguard of the Arab nation, while other leaders are complicit in the suffering of the Palestinians.”
Winning Hearts and Minds
At the center of the unrest in the Red Sea is the crisis in Gaza, which has been devastated by Israeli attacks since the October 7 offensive by Hamas. Though Israeli troops are carrying out the war that has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians, the U.S. is the patron and enabler. The Biden administration continues to offer unblinking financial and diplomatic support to Israel, despite mounting accusations against the U.S. of complicity in genocide.
The Houthis entered the fray almost immediately. In the days after Israel launched its retaliatory assault, the Houthis sent ballistic missiles toward Israel and began its attacks on the Red Sea shipping lanes.
The Houthis have long been a polarizing force in Yemeni politics, but they have seized on anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and the seeming indifference of pro-U.S. regimes to the suffering in Gaza to elevate their geopolitical status. Not only are the Houthis distinguishing themselves as champions of the Palestinian cause, but they are also rehabilitating their reputation at home, where they have struggled to set up a functional government amid civil war. Houthi spokespeople have become fixtures on Arabic-language television stations, where they relish their role challenging the West over the plight of the Palestinians.
Not only are the Houthis distinguishing themselves as champions of the Palestinian cause, but they are also rehabilitating their reputation at home.
Anger toward the U.S. seems likely to grow in the region, as the Biden administration appears to be putting the global economy over Palestinian lives in its strikes on the Houthis.
“The U.S. should consider that these actions in Gaza are enraging people throughout the region,” said Al-Omeisy. “The local perception is that when Palestinian blood was being shed the last three months, no one was bothered, but when the economic interests of the West were threatened, they immediately acted. This message fits right into Houthi rhetoric and is resonating very strongly in the region.”
Their bid is working. Rather than weakening the Houthis, the U.S. airstrikes seem to be boosting the Houthis’ political standing throughout the Middle East, where analysts say public opinion of the U.S. has reached lows not seen since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Polls taken among Arabs in the region show widespread anger and disillusionment toward the U.S. since the start of the Gaza war, with far more favorable views of rival countries like China and Russia.
“The Biden administration and U.S. policymakers have not yet grasped how high anti-Americanism is in the region, where it is at a level that we have not seen since the war in Iraq,” Shiban, of Royal United Services Institute, said. “Even if they claim that this is an Israeli operation and we have nothing to do with it, the Arab public does not buy it.”
With the U.S. military now stuck in an exchange of attacks with the Houthis, experts say the Biden administration has no good options.
“I don’t think that the U.S. is trying to engage in regime change in Yemen,” said DePetris, the Defense Priorities fellow, “but if this continues to snowball, that may end up being something that the administration may try to consider.”