Members of the Yemeni Coast Guard affiliated with the Houthi group patrol the sea as demonstrators march through the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in solidarity with the people of Gaza on Jan. 4, 2024, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza.

Members of the Yemeni Coast Guard affiliated with the Houthi group patrol the sea as demonstrators march through the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in solidarity with the people of Gaza on Jan. 4, 2024, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. (AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — President Joe Biden’s administration has spent the last three months trying to prevent the war in Gaza from spreading to other regions in the Middle East. Yet the Houthis, who in 2014 overthrew the internationally recognized government in Yemen and have been acting as the country’s de facto authorities ever since, have other ideas. The Yemeni group-turned-rebel army is increasingly treating the Red Sea as an area of active hostilities, forcing the United States into debating a number of policy options, including the use of military force, to keep the waterway open to global commerce.

Armed in part by Iran and well stocked after overrunning the Yemeni army’s weapons depots, the Houthis have launched numerous drone and ballistic missile attacks toward civilian ships sailing through the Bab el-Mandeb into the Red Sea. On Dec. 20, the USS Carney, a U.S. warship in the region, shot down 14 drones launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. On New Year’s Eve, U.S. helicopters destroyed three small Houthi boats that were attempting to attack another civilian vessel in the area, killing at least 10 Houthi militants in the process.

These incidents have caused some of the world’s biggest shipping and energy companies, including BP, to suspend operations in the Red Sea, through which 12% of the world’s trade passes. The Houthis have demonstrated no willingness at this stage to stop these attacks, which they have vowed to continue as long as Israel proceeds with its war against Hamas in Gaza.

Thus far, the U.S. has taken a two-track approach to the crisis: using backchannel diplomacy to demand the Houthis cease these unwarranted strikes and organizing a multinational naval task force that aims to protect civilian cargo vessels as they move toward the Suez Canal. The administration hopes that by internationalizing the problem and bringing more stakeholders into the game, the Houthis will become more restrained, lest they bring about a global military response. In case the Houthis missed the message, the U.S. and other nations published a joint statement on Jan. 3 that sounded like a final warning to the group: Stop the attacks or face the consequences.

Ultimately, the U.S. and its European and Arab partners hope the maritime coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, will be sufficient enough to bring the Houthis down to size. Yet it’s also possible the Houthis are fully committed to elevating their stature in the so-called axis of resistance against Israel and may even relish a fight with the U.S. The Houthis may also be betting that, were the U.S. to act militarily, Iran would become far more involved on its behalf. Such a scenario is not out of the question. While Iran has demonstrated no interest in getting into a direct conflict with the U.S., the Houthis have been an effective asset for Tehran over the last eight years by bogging down Saudi Arabia, which backs Yemen’s recognized government, in an unwinnable war.

Some U.S. officials are frustrated about the Biden administration’s policy to date, which is limited to rhetorical warnings and defensive measures taken at sea. Proponents of a more aggressive U.S. response argue that greater force against Houthi-controlled Yemen is the only policy that will scare the group straight and deter it from conducting similar attacks against civilian ships in the future.

There is some merit to this argument. Unlike the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that the U.S. has periodically bombed over the last several months, the Houthis control territory, administer services, seek to control the whole country and thus have more to protect.

But the U.S. can’t bank on deterrence working quickly — if it works at all. This isn’t because the Houthis are suicidal maniacs with a death wish, but rather because it will likely take a significant amount of military force in Yemen to establish deterrence in the first place. This itself is a problem. The more force the U.S. uses, the more likely the Houthis will retaliate in some way — if not against U.S. warships stationed a few dozen miles off the Yemeni coastline, then against U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, all of which the Houthis have already targeted with ballistic missiles.

For the Saudis in particular, who are trying to negotiate their way out of an eight-year conflict in Yemen they can’t win militarily, renewed hostilities against the Houthis are the last thing they want to see. Riyadh seeks to uphold a 20-month-long truce with the Houthis and are counseling the Biden administration to practice restraint. U.S. strikes in Yemen could very well tear apart the fragile truce, result in renewed Houthi missile fire against the kingdom and force the Saudis to escalate their own military operations to save face. It would also put the U.S. in the strange position of watching one policy goal — deterring the Houthis — destroy another — establishing a peaceful political settlement to the nearly decadelong civil war in Yemen.

Advocates of U.S. military action point to October 2016, when Barack Obama’s administration authorized cruise missile attacks against three Houthi-operated radar sites along Yemen’s coast in retaliation for attempting to attack a U.S. warship. The group stopped messing around with U.S. assets after those airstrikes. But those strikes were limited to facilities that didn’t threaten the Houthis’ military or political power. In a potentially wider military operation, the U.S. can’t assume the Houthis would react with similar caution.

Thus far, the U.S. has been able to avert wider escalation even as it deploys more warships and fighter aircraft to the Middle East. Events in the Red Sea will test this balance now more than ever.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

©2024 Chicago Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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