Houthi attacks in Red Sea unlikely to stop without ceasefire in Gaza

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America and Britain were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

In the end, the Western allies decided that the risk from inaction – allowing the Houthi militants in Yemen to go on attacking ships with no reprisals – was worse than the threat of escalation in a Middle East already teetering on the brink due to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

By terrorising the Red Sea’s vital shipping lane, the Houthis have already disrupted world trade.

This will have a knock-on effect that will have on the prices of transport and goods, as vessels are forced to take a 3,500-mile detour around the Cape of Good Hope, rather than use the Suez Canal.

US President Joe Biden is staring down the barrel of new inflationary pressures in an election year. The White House will be desperate to see a resumption of shipping.

Most security analysts think that with the West having threatened military retaliation if the piracy continued, failure to act would have been seen as sign of weakness.

Kirsten Fontenrose of the Snowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, says inaction would only “encourage further attacks on global shipping”. She adds that the strikes “could deplete Houthi capabilities to extend or intensify their military actions”.

An aircraft takes off to join the US-led coalition to conduct air strikes against military targets in Yemen (Photo: US Central Command via X/Reuters)

This sounds optimistic given that the Houthis (with Iranian help) were able to weather years of carpet bombing by Saudi Arabia (with Western help).

Her colleague at the Washington think-tank, Daniel Mouton, concedes that the West’s strikes in Yemen are “unlikely to immediately halt Houthi aggression in the Red Sea”. Instead, he thinks the goal is “to restore deterrence as soon as possible…that will almost certainly mean having to continue to respond to Houthi strikes, and potentially with increasing aggression”.

So, a spiral of violence is not out of the question.

Since Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the Houthis have launched 27 different attacks on vessels transiting the southern Red Sea, according to the Pentagon.

Despite the Houthis’ claim that they are attacking Israeli interests in revenge for the bombardment of Gaza, many of the attacked vessels, including Greek and Indian ships, have no links to Israel – or America.

Huthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following US and British forces strikes, in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 12, 2024 amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. US and British forces struck rebel-held Yemen early on January 12, after weeks of disruptive attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed Huthis who say they act in solidarity with Gaza. The pre-dawn air strikes add to escalating fears of wider conflict in the region, where violence involving Tehran-aligned groups in Yemen as well as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria has surged since the Israel-Hamas was began in early October. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following US and British air strikes (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

It might seem strange the big Arab states aren’t doing more to contain the Shia rebel group in their own back yard.

Saudi Arabia is probably enjoying a moment of Schadenfreude, having been (rightly) pilloried for years for its brutal war on the Houthis that contributed greatly to the humanitarian disaster now gripping Yemen.

Given its thawing relations with the Houthi leadership, Riyadh might be expected to lead diplomatic efforts to stop the their attacks on shipping. But it doesn’t appear to be. Egypt’s income from the Suez traffic has plunged. But it has hardly been outspoken on the Houthi attacks on shipping.

Apart from Bahrain, Gulf states have been reluctant to back the multinational US-led operation in the Red Sea announced last month to protect shipping.

Even if states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt were inclined to help, such action might not play with their public.

The fact that Houthi piracy is supposedly carried out in support of Gaza means many Arabs oppose intervention.

A quicker way to quell Houthi aggression in the Red Sea would be to obtain a ceasefire in Gaza.

This wouldn’t see the instant transformation of Houthi into Red Crescent workers, but it would remove any justification for the group’s piracy and make it reconsider the wisdom of inviting further US missile strikes.

Despite America acting as Israel’s lawyer and arms supplier, rather than an impartial broker in the interminable dispute with Palestinans, Washington’s influence over events in Gaza has proven woefully limited. One per cent of Gazans have been killed. The Strip is a giant bomb site. But the Israeli government seems impervious to Washington’s pleas for restraint, let alone those from other allies or the international community.

The festering sore that is the Israeli-Palestine conflict has been ignored for decades – its temporary eruptions dismissed as unfortunate but localised acts of violence.

But with the latest explosion of violence now threatening a larger conflagration in the Middle East, another global economic crisis and even another oil shock that could sink the incumbent US president and allow his indicted opponent back into power, the local dispute is having global repercussions.

And bombing some Houthi missile sites will not make it go away.

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