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Why Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea Are Likely to Persist: They're Popular

Houthi
A well-attended rally and parade for Houthi missile and drone units in Sana'a, Yemen (Houthi Military Media)

Published Mar 21, 2024 7:11 PM by Bilal Sabbagh

 

Since mid-November 2023 the shipping route through the Red Sea has been disrupted by a series of attacks on vessels by Yemen’s Houthi movement, recently designated as a terrorist organisation by the US government. The Houthis have presented their attacks as retaliation for Israel’s military assault in Gaza. Although this undoubtedly is one of the motivations for the Houthis’ activities they are also driven by more long-standing domestic political considerations. These dynamics may propel the Red Sea crisis forward for the foreseeable future, especially if U.S. and U.K. forces are unable to hobble the Houthis’ offensive capabilities.

The most dramatic result of the Houthi attacks has been an 80% drop in the volume of freight passing through the Red Sea since late November. Insurance costs have soared for those ships still attempting the passage. Roughly 45% of lost traffic now detours around the Cape of Good Hope, lengthening journey time by an average of 30% and adding significant extra costs. Freight rates, especially, have skyrocketed. Despite the raised insurance premiums and increased costs for the rerouted voyages, the overall economic impact of the disruption to shipping will be limited if the situation continues as it is for a relatively contained period, perhaps adding up to 0.7% to core goods inflation globally in the first half of 2024. That said, there appears to be no end in sight to Houthi attacks.

Having framed their actions in the Red Sea as a response to Israel’s actions in Gaza, it might not be unreasonable to believe the Houthis would cease their attacks in response to a ceasefire in Gaza. The Houthis could claim such a ceasefire as a major victory. Ongoing multilateral diplomatic efforts to secure one could, therefore, resolve the crisis in the Red Sea. There are two problems with this position: firstly, the likelihood of a lasting ceasefire being agreed soon is low due to the uncompromising negotiating position of the Israeli government, an apparent lack of US political will or ability to soften Israel’s stance, and the unrealistic demands of Hamas. Secondly, even if a Gaza ceasefire were to be signed, there is a substantial likelihood that the Houthis would continue their attacks in the Red Sea in any case due to domestic political incentives to do so. They may attempt to justify such a continuation of attacks in terms of the Palestinian cause in general, beyond the current military campaign in Gaza.

Prior to the conflict in Gaza the Houthis had suffered a decline in public support due to poor governance. Now, however, the Houthis have successfully leveraged strong local pro-Palestinian sentiment to reverse this decline and boost their support. Appearing to take action in support of the Palestinian cause, the Houthis can now credibly present themselves in Yemen as the true representatives of the popular will both there and across the broader region. Moreover, long-standing Yemeni hostility to foreign military intervention has meant that US and UK missile attacks on Houthi positions – and Houthi retaliatory attacks on US and UK shipping – have only bolstered the Houthis' domestic popularity. The Houthis can now claim to be making good on their long-stated goal of militarily confronting the US and its allies.  Domestic rivals of the Houthis are loathe to move against them for fear of appearing to undermine this ‘resistance’, and some traditional rivals have even started to provide material support to the Houthis. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, the Houthis’ old regional foe, is especially keen to avoid any confrontation that might harm the progress of its Vision 2030 and, to this end, is anxious to complete paused bilateral peace talks in Yemen. Beyond the Middle East, the Houthis can even claim political gains at the global level, having recently reached an agreement with the Russian and Chinese governments to guarantee safe passage for Russian and Chinese shipping in exchange for increased political support for the Houthi cause from those countries on the world stage. Indeed, the Houthi-Russian-Chinese trilateral talks in themselves are emblematic of the Houthis’ now greatly enhanced political stature.   

With a cessation of attacks in the Red Sea unlikely to be forthcoming from the Houthis, the future security of Red Sea shipping relies on the effectiveness of the US-led military response. So far, however, the US-led mission in the Red Sea has largely failed to achieve its objectives, raising questions about the prospect for future success.

The sizeable US-led naval task force is stretched thin, and is widely regarded as too small to effectively guard the entirety of the vast area of water within which the Houthis can strike. A January attack on two Maersk-operated US Merchant Navy ships, despite a naval escort, highlighted the challenges facing the task force. Moreover, the Houthis possess a potent anti-ship missile arsenal that is comparable to many state armies and includes sophisticated missile types alongside low-cost but effective Iranian-supplied UAVs. Recently, the Houthis reported to have acquired advanced hypersonic missiles (most likely via Iran) and claimed to have established a production facility to manufacture more of these missiles domestically. This formidable arsenal poses a serious challenge to the high-tech but overstretched resources of the US-led coalition, exacerbating the difficulty of protecting shipping routes.

Successive waves of US and UK missile strikes have not stopped Houthi attacks. This has been partly due to the group's expertise in concealing assets, in addition to US and UK’s relative lack of detailed intelligence on Houthi military assets resulting principally from a lack of intelligence focus on Yemen in recent years. Furthermore, depleting the Houthis’ munitions stockpiles in the long term is difficult as the group possess efficient resupply channels that combine domestic production with reliable sea smuggling routes from Iran. While it has been argued that the reduced frequency of Houthi attacks since 26 January indicates that airstrikes are working, this trend is equally attributable to Israeli, US and UK ships avoiding the Red Sea. Indeed, the recent attacks on the Rubymar, which has now sunk, and the True Confidence, which lost three sailors to a Houthi strike, demonstrates the continued potency of Houthi missile capabilities.

With a comprehensive ceasefire in Gaza not imminent and the Houthis making large political gains, the route to quick de-escalation in the Red Sea therefore lies in either an increased naval presence or expanded airstrikes. The US remains unwilling, however, to reduce its naval presence elsewhere to expand its forces further in the Red Sea. The EU has recently launched a small supporting naval mission, but its impact remains uncertain. The US also appears reluctant to substantially expand its aerial campaign, as suggested, for example, by US efforts to rein in the Houthis via Omani and Chinese diplomatic intercession with Iran, the Houthis’ primary state backer.  The Red Sea crisis may therefore persist unchanged in the short-to-medium term, and may even deepen as the EU naval mission brings EU merchant shipping into the Houthis’ crosshairs. Indeed, the group has recently declared its intention to expand the geographical reach of its attacks to the Indian Ocean. Houthi coordination with other members of the Iran-aligned ‘Axis of Resistance’ in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon may also increase, potentially raising the risk of further escalation of the conflict within the region. Indeed, there are already suggestions that moves toward greater coordination may already be underway.

Bilal Sabbagh is a director at risk management consultancy K2 Integrity. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.