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Red Sea Crisis: US Strike Falls Short, Unraveling Houthi Forces’ Origin and Outcomes

Red Sea crisis

The U.S. attack on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen enters its 10th day. U.S. officials admit that so far, the Houthis still have certain offensive capabilities. What kind of organization are the Houthis? How will the Red Sea crisis end?

The U.S. and U.K. strikes have not yet succeeded in destroying the offensive capabilities of the Houthi armed forces.
At 4 a.m. local time on January 20 (Saturday), the US military launched a new round of strikes against the Houthi armed forces. U.S. Central Command wrote that air strikes were conducted with Houthi anti-ship missiles aimed at the Gulf of Aden and prepared for launch.”

Since the United States and Britain launched the first round of strikes against the Houthi armed forces on January 11, this is the seventh round of strikes launched by the US military against the Houthi armed forces. In the first round of strikes, the United States and Britain hit more than 60 targets, including command and control nodes, ammunition depots, launch systems, and production facilities, killing five Houthi armed personnel and injuring six others.

However, such strikes have not been able to completely destroy the offensive capabilities of the Houthis. U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged when answering reporters’ questions in Washington on Thursday (January 18): “You are asking whether it is effective; will they (the strikes) stop the Houthis?” “No. It will continue. ? Yes.”

Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi also said in a televised speech Thursday that U.S. strikes would not stop the group from continuing to attack ships and confront the United States. He also threatened: “It is a great honor and blessing to be able to directly confront the United States.”

John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the White House National Security Council, also said on Friday that previous U.S. attacks “have had a good effect on weakening some of the capabilities of the Houthis. They still have some offensive capabilities, and we will continue to take the actions we believe are needed to defend ourselves.”

In order to restore freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and protect civilians from terrorist attacks in international waters, in addition to military strikes, the United States also uses other means, such as economic and diplomatic means.

On January 17 the Houthi armed forces held a funeral in Sanaa for combatants killed in US led air strikes
On January 17, the Houthi armed forces held a funeral in Sana’a for combatants killed in US-led air strikes.

On Wednesday (January 17), the United States once again listed the Houthis as a “specially designated global terrorist organization.” This designation will help prevent terrorists from providing funds to the Houthis and restrict their access to financial markets.

On December 18, last year, the United States also announced the establishment of the multinational task force “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” which includes more than 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, Bahrain, and Canada, to protect Red Sea shipping.

Washington may consider new action plan

The Washington Post quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying on Saturday that the Biden administration was formulating a plan for continued military operations against the Houthis because the previous 10 days of strikes failed to prevent the Houthis from attacking merchant ships at sea. But some officials worry that unrestricted action could undermine the fragile peace in the war-torn country of Yemen and drag Washington into another unpredictable Middle East conflict.

The Washington Post reported that the White House convened senior officials on Wednesday to discuss how to combat the Houthis in the future. The report quoted officials as saying they did not expect the operation to last for years like previous U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, but acknowledged they could not set an end date or estimate what Yemen’s military capabilities would be. will be sufficiently weakened.

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The Houthi armed forces, often presented as the “Middle East Slipper Army,” possess a large number of missiles, about 200,000 armed personnel under their command, and have rich actual combat experience. Iran, also a Shiite, has been providing funding, equipment, training, and other support to the Houthi armed forces.

Michael DiMino, public policy manager and researcher at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank, believes that more U.S. air and sea strikes will not be enough to deter the Houthis.

He told the media, “Rather than strike in Yemen, that would not change the Houthis’ strategy or materially reduce their anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and one-way attack (OWA) drone supply.”

He suggested that the United States should refocus on regional defense and prevent enemy forces from entering designated areas within a specific period of time, rather than completely destroying the enemy. He worries that more airstrikes could put the United States in trouble in Yemen. He said this could not be solved by a single military operation. The United States must work with partners and allies to seek diplomatic or other balancing capabilities. He also mentioned that, given that the disruption of the Red Sea Passage will have a more major economic impact on Europe and China, “European partners should play a more active role.” DiMino said.

China called on Friday (January 19) to stop “harassing” civilian ships. China’s Ministry of Commerce issued a similar call on January 18, but officials have yet to take any substantive action. In China’s social media and news media, there are many voices that portray the Houthis as anti-American warriors.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that he had previously refrained from participating in U.S. and British air strikes to prevent the situation from escalating and that France was taking a defensive approach in the Red Sea.

Greg Roman, director of the U.S. think tank Middle East Forum (MEF), told the media that although the Houthis’ military capabilities have improved significantly over the years, especially through unconventional warfare tactics that may make direct military engagements more complicated,. But allies such as the United States and Britain do have the capabilities, resources, and mechanisms to significantly deter the Houthis, including superior naval power, surveillance systems, and strategic military bases in the region.

“Effective actions (the United States and allies) should take immediately include increased maritime patrols, enhanced surveillance and intelligence collection, targeted strikes against Houthi military infrastructure, and strengthening the defense capabilities of regional allies. Equally important is the implementation of stronger international diplomatic efforts to isolate the Houthis and cut off their support network,” he recommended.

Roman believes that the reason why the Houthis are still acting unscrupulously is because they have not paid a heavy enough price. The United States needs to adjust its military tactics and unite all countries with important maritime capabilities and maritime interests in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Bab el-Mandeb Strait to provide a “strong, overwhelming, and decisive response to the Houthi armed forces.”

“I think now is the time to go after the Houthi military leadership. Unless the United States is willing to go after not just those who fired the rockets but also those who ordered the rockets, there will not be a more significant deterrent delivered to Sana’a and Aden.” He said.

Roman also suggested that the United States should be committed to completely destroying the ability of the Houthis to launch attacks on any route, not just retaliating for missile attacks, and transforming from a defensive war to an offensive war.

Why are the Houthis causing trouble in the Red Sea?

After Hamas, a terrorist organization designated by the United States, launched a terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 last year, the Houthi armed forces launched more than 30 drone and missile attacks on Israel and international shipping vessels passing through the Red Sea. The group says the attacks are aimed at supporting Hamas and Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip, but they often target ships with no clear link to Israel.

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But the Middle East Forum’s (MEF) Roman said that the Houthi armed forces’ statement is just a kind of hypocritical political propaganda. “If the Houthis cared about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, they would have called their friend Hamas and said, ‘You should surrender; there will be thousands of you hiding in tunnels and using Palestinians as human shields. Tens of thousands of Palestinians died.'”

Roman said that the Houthis have nothing to do with the lives of civilians, let alone Palestinians. They care about their ideological goals and their status in the Middle East. “If you look at the losses that the Houthis have suffered in their war with Saudi Arabia, they are not pursuing diplomatic channels despite the civil war in Yemen that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and their own brethren on both sides,” he said.

Roman believes that the Houthis are essentially targeting international shipping in the Red Sea as a means to exert influence in the region. He said, “This strategy aims to disrupt global trade routes and put pressure on the world’s major powers and neighbors. The Houthis are hostile to the United States and Israel and can be seen as part of a broader ideological position against Western influence and what they see as Western interference in the region.”

Map of the Middle East and Africa including the Red Sea Israel and Yemen
Map of the Middle East and Africa including the Red Sea, Israel and Yemen

The Red Sea route is a key shipping channel between Europe and Asia. About 15% of global shipping passes through the Red Sea. The Red Sea is connected to the Mediterranean Sea to the northwest through the Suez Canal and to the Gulf of Aden to the south through the Mandab Strait. The attacks forced many of the world’s largest shipping lines, oil producers, and other cargo owners to divert ships away from the region, including south around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, sending oil prices and insurance rates soaring.

Some analysts also say that flexing their muscles toward the United States and Israel can, to a certain extent, help the Houthis strengthen their legitimacy in Yemen and the Middle East, shift the contradictions of failed domestic governance, and enhance their own “resistance axis” led by Iran ( Axis of Resistance).

What is the origin of the Houthi armed forces?

The predecessor of the Houthi armed forces was the “Young Believers” (Ansar Allah), a religious revival movement organization of the Zaidis, a branch of Yemen’s Shiite sect, founded in 1992. In September 2004, after the founder Hussein al-Houthi was killed by government forces, the “Young Believers” were renamed “Houthi.” After the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, with the collapse of the Saleh regime in Yemen and the intensification of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Houthi armed forces developed and expanded in terms of military capabilities, territorial control scope, political power, and their strategic relationship with Iran The demand is also deepening.

In 2014, the Houthi armed forces launched a coup and subsequently established the so-called “National Salvation Government” in the capital Sanaa and controlled large areas of western Yemen. However, it has not been generally recognized by the international community. The legitimate government of Yemen was forced to move to the temporary capital, Aden.

Since then, Yemen has been plunged into a nearly decade-long civil war, with 80% of the population reliant on humanitarian aid. In January 2021, the Trump administration in the United States listed the Houthis as a terrorist organization. More than a month later, the new Biden administration removed it from the list of terrorist organizations due to humanitarian considerations. Under the mediation of the United States and the United Nations, the Yemeni government has been conducting constructive negotiations with the Houthi armed forces in recent years. However, the Israel-Kazakhstan war has disrupted the reconciliation process, and the Houthi armed forces’ attacks on Red Sea shipping have made peace mediation more difficult.

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Similar to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia, the Houthis are often regarded as regional proxies supported by Iran. The organizational slogan put forward by the Houthis, “God is great, die to the United States, die to Israel, curse the Jews, and Islam wins” is consistent with Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israel policies.

Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, told the media, “The Houthis have long been hostile to Israel and the United States. I’m not sure whether to call it hatred. The Houthis have certainly been negotiating with the United States about the future of Yemen.”

In an interview published on Friday, a senior Houthi official promised the safe passage of Russian and Chinese ships through the Red Sea. Roman, director of the Middle East Forum (MEF), reminded us that the Houthis are by no means a group that should receive heroic praise and are at a disadvantage (possible counterattack): “For most of the past 20 years, the Houthis have been killing. Other groups are killed and hunted in an attempt to pursue an ultimate Islamism, a caliphate, a world based on religion rather than freedom. In Yemen, women are second-class citizens, and minorities are persecuted.”

Containment Will Iran stop the Houthis?

Many national security experts believe that the Houthi armed forces’ unbridled maritime offensive is the result of the widespread breakdown of U.S. deterrence against the Iranian regime.

On January 11, the US military seized missile components and other weapons manufactured in Iran and destined for the Houthi armed forces in Yemen on a ship in the Arabian Sea. Two SEALs were missing during this operation. Iran-backed militia groups have also launched more than 100 attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since October. But so far, the United States has not taken forceful military action against Iran.

Matthew Kroenig, vice president and senior director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, suggested on social media It’s embarrassing. There’s no reason to let a weak country like Iran and a ragtag group of terrorists hold the global economy hostage. Hit them hard, and they’ll stop. If they don’t stop, hit them harder. We have an escalation advantage.”

Defense Focus’ DiMino worries that a large-scale attack on Iran is likely to trigger a full-scale regional war. “Resolving the Houthi issue can proceed without taking this step, especially given the U.S. presence in Yemen.”The interests are very limited.”

Roman, of the Middle East Forum, pointed out that Iran not only directly or indirectly provided weapons, training, strategic guidance, and other support to the Houthi armed forces but also played a role in some of the more complex attacks carried out by the Houthi armed forces. He suggested that the United States should consider taking a firmer stance to contain Iran, including targeted military operations, tightening sanctions on Iranian assets that support the Houthis, and increasing international diplomatic pressure.

However, he believes that the United States is not yet ready militarily and politically for a head-on conflict with Iran.

He said, “You have to have submarines, guided missile frigates, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. You have to have some advanced American systems or increase the deployment and infrastructure of the United States and the Gulf countries. If the United States decides to launch an attack on Iran, it must be a comprehensive strike. You must attack Iran’s nuclear program and military assets, and you must persist in the purpose of disrupting the situation in Iran until the regime changes.”

Roman said the U.S. has so far refrained from taking more direct action against Iran because of complex political factors, including the complexity of regional geopolitics, the possibility of escalation into a broader conflict, and ongoing efforts to negotiate with Iran on other issues such as the nuclear issue.

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