Consequences of the Houthi Attack

Despite months of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to head off any escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the US and the UK late last week launched an attack on Yemen’s Houthi militia using aircraft and cruise missiles. The military action was in response to the ongoing attacks by the Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea and was designed to deter them from further maritime strikes. The initial indicators are that this is unlikely to succeed, leaving the US and the region trapped in the very cycle of military escalation that Washington claimed it was trying to avoid.

On Nov. 19, 2023, the Houthi militia began attacking vessels it deemed to be affiliated with Israel that were transiting shipping lanes in the Red Sea. The Houthis claimed that their actions were conducted out of solidarity with the Palestinian people, and to protest the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza from Israeli military action. Since then, the Houthis have carried out at least 27 attacks, including their largest ever, on Jan. 9, 2024, involving 18 drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile.

The economic impact of the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping are significant. Major shipping companies, including AP Moller-Maersk, which accounts for 15% of the global container freight market, have diverted their ships away from the Red Sea-Suez Canal route, opting instead to sail the longer (and more expensive) route around the Horn of Africa. All in all, it is estimated that some $200 billion in trade has been diverted due to the Houthi actions, disrupting global supply chains and placing severe economic stress on Israel, halting traffic into the Red Sea port of Eilat.

Deterrence Effort

In late December 2023, the US announced that it was forming a multination coalition designed to deter the Houthis from carrying out further attacks against shipping. The coalition, however, turned out to be illusory, with key Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt refusing to participate, and other nations, such as France, declining to operate under US command. In the end, this effort at deterrence failed, prompting the decision by President Joe Biden, together with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to launch action they described as “defensive” in nature involving “targeted strikes” designed to compel the Houthis to stop their attacks on Red Sea shipping.

The US and UK seemed to be hoping to repeat the experience of 2016, when the US launched strikes against the Houthis in response to attacks on US shipping which did, in fact, prompt the Houthis to back down. However, at that time the Houthis were engaged in a major conflict with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and had no appetite for a wider war involving the US. The initial Houthi response to the current attacks has been one of defiance, indicating that US expectations regarding a Houthi retreat will remain unfulfilled.

What Next?

Whatever their initial intent, the US and UK have kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest and will now be called upon to pay the price. There is virtually no chance that the Houthis will be deterred by the US-UK actions. As such, the impact on both the Israeli and global economy will continue unabated as shipping companies abandon the Red Sea transit routes. Having initiated military action that has no chance of achieving its stated military objective of deterrence, the US and UK will find themselves compelled to either escalate their attacks or back down. The former is unsustainable, while the latter would be tantamount to surrender. The reality is that the US and UK have backed themselves into a corner from which they now face a veritable Hobson’s choice regarding their next steps: being damned if they escalate and damned if they don’t.

Russia has already labeled the US-UK actions against the Houthis as a violation of Article 51 of the UN Charter, noting the lack of any Security Council mandate for military action or imminent threat to either the US or UK that would justify preemption. On the US domestic front, while there has been some vocal opposition from a few members of Congress, including Ro Khanna, a staunchly pro-Biden Democrat, the overall reception to Biden’s unilateral decision to attack the Houthis has been positive. This may change, however, if the US finds itself entangled in yet another war in the Middle East in which victory cannot be obtained, or the conflict expands into a broader Middle East conflagration for which the US has no viable military response.

The Houthis have been preparing for a potential US attack ever since the US formed its “coalition of the willing” in December. Moreover, the military challenges associated with the successful interdiction of mobile targets such as the Houthi missile and drone forces are many and, if history has anything to say about it, virtually impossible to overcome, especially with the correlation of forces that currently exists.

If the Houthis do not back down — and early indications are that they will not — then the US faces the prospect that it has insufficient forces assembled to achieve the desired military result. At a time when US military resources are strained around the world due to the crises in Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Middle East, the need to divert sufficient military resources to resolve the Houthi situation, or respond to an expanding conflict that draws in Iran, could prompt a severe international and domestic backlash at a time when the Biden administration is looking at a difficult presidential re-election campaign — and can ill afford such a reaction.

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