Beirut, Lebanon – The 10-nation US-led coalition is unlikely to be able to prevent Yemen’s Houthi rebels from attacking ships in the Red Sea, but both sides have an interest in avoiding an escalation that could spiral out of control, analysts told Al Jazeera. .
Their attacks on commercial and military ships potentially linked to Israel, according to Houthi officials, aim to pressure Israel to end its war on Gaza. Houthi attacks have been popular locally in Yemen, allowing the group to recruit new fighters.
“The Houthis will not stop what they are doing until the Israeli attack on Gaza ends, and even then they are likely to continue for some time,” Gregory Brough, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera. after.”
Israeli bombing and artillery shelling have killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7.
On November 19, the Houthis seized an Israel-linked cargo ship called the Galaxy Leader and shortly after released a Spot video From seizing the ship. It has since been transformed into Tourist attraction For Yemenis. The group then attacked several ships that were passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a narrow passage that leads into the Red Sea and connects to the Suez Canal.
Represents the Red Sea and the Suez Canal 30 percent of container ship traffic in the world.
“The Houthis’ location in northern Yemen has put them at a critical geopolitical choke point,” Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “The international community has downplayed this over the past few years.”
No injuries or deaths have been reported as a result of Houthi attacks so far. But the ramifications are still huge for global shipping. At least 12 shipping companies halted transit through the Red Sea due to the attacks, including some of the world’s largest: Italian-Swiss giant Mediterranean Shipping, France’s CMA CGM, and Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk.
About 12 percent of the world’s seaborne oil and 8 percent of liquefied natural gas pass through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, most of which is headed to Europe. But other commodities such as grains, palm oil and manufactured goods were also affected by the attacks. Instead, many companies fly around the southern tip of Africa, extending their trip by about nine days and at a cost of at least 15 percent.
In response, the United States imposed Penalties On 13 alleged Houthi financiers. It has formed a 10-nation naval coalition to try to deter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Other members include the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Seychelles and Bahrain.
The internationally recognized Yemeni government, which operates from Aden after nine years of devastating war launched by the Houthis, condemned the Red Sea attacks as a usurpation of its sovereignty. Nicholas Broomfield, a Yemeni researcher, told Al Jazeera that she is in a difficult situation because she does not want to be seen as supportive of Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran, the Houthis’ main backer, has remained wary of taking steps that could expand the war in Gaza to the broader region. However, experts said there are limits to the influence Iran exerts on the Houthis.
“They have some common goals with Tehran, but we should not overestimate the influence that Iran has over the Houthis,” Eleonora Ardimani, a senior associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told Al Jazeera. “They have their own agenda.”
Palestinian support and mobilization
Before October 7, the Houthis were under internal pressure on issues such as: Unpopular government reforms and failure to pay salaries. But their support for the people of Gaza was very popular among Yemenis.
“They have been ideologically opposed to Israel for a long time,” Vakil said of the Houthis. “In particular, they are trying to demonstrate the transnational implications of their views and demonstrate their power and position.”
Houthi state media have announced more than 1,000 protests, boycotts or recruitment campaigns since the beginning of the war, according to Broomfield. Many in Yemen are tired of the fighting, after less than a decade of civil war. But support for Palestine proved so popular that the Houthis were able to recruit new fighters – and then deploy them to fight the internal war.
“They recruited a group of fighters with the promise that they would go fight in Palestine,” Bromfield said. “They said: You will go to fight in Palestine, and then they deployed those forces against the stronghold of the Yemeni government in Marib.”
The attacks in the Red Sea may also be partly a diplomatic strategy, according to some analysts. In recent months, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a dialogue aimed at a long-term ceasefire, following a UN-brokered truce in 2022 that largely brought the fighting to a halt. Saudi Arabia supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Tensions in the Red Sea and potential disruptions to oil trade are hurting most regional economies, the largest of which is Saudi Arabia.
“From where they sit, [the attack on shipping vessels] “It is an opportunity to raise the stakes against Saudi Arabia,” Vakil said. “What we could see is some kind of renegotiation.”
Red lines in the Red Sea
The impact on global shipping through Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea has prompted action by the United States and other allies. But so far, that does not appear to have deterred the Houthis.
We have assured everyone of that [the Houthi] Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam said in statements to Al Jazeera on Monday that the operations are to support the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and we cannot stand idly by in the face of aggression and siege. As for naval operations, they are taking place in full swing, and perhaps 12 hours will not pass without an operation.”
But despite the rhetoric, both the Houthis and the United States have maintained some restraint so far.
The Houthis on November 26 Disqualified Two ballistic missiles landed near an American warship. Bromfield believes the Houthis deliberately missed the warship.
Currently, the US coalition is more focused on defending ships passing through the Red Sea by intercepting Houthi attacks. “The United States does not want to escalate this crisis,” said Brough, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. The United States has not yet responded to the firing towards Yemen, despite the missiles fired by the Houthis towards the Red Sea.
Changing that equation is not in the Houthis’ interest. “They know not to cross that line,” he said. The Houthis do not want a scenario in which “the United States stops thinking of the Houthis as the hateful but acceptable rulers of northern Yemen, and perhaps actually commits to overthrowing them.”
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