Houthi Attacks on the Rise; Gaza War Expands Across the Middle East

Written by Harshitha Paderu

يناير 18, 2024

Affaires | Safety | Situation Room | Travel

On January 14, 2024, the Gaza conflict reached its 100th day with a death toll of 24,447 Palestinians and approximately 1,139 Israelis since October 7, 2023. However, as this milestone approached, global attention shifted more than 250 miles away to Yemen. On January 12, British and U.S. forces conducted 73 airstrikes on positions associated with Yemen’s Houthi rebel militia, resulting in at least five casualties. This response was prompted by the Houthis’ heightened attacks since November, targeting ships in the Red Sea in retaliation for the Israeli invasion of Gaza. The following day, the U.S. army carried out a smaller strike near the Sana’a airport, a Houthi launch point for projectiles against merchant ships, with no reported injuries.

These two attacks expanded the conflict’s geographic reach and increased the number of involved parties, intensifying an already volatile situation. This development aligns with the Houthis’ narrative, positioning them as challengers to the West and genuine supporters of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world. Their strategic disruption of a vital global maritime trade route, necessitating ship circumnavigation around Africa, strengthens this message. Additionally, the situation benefits Israel, as its primary ally, the United States, is directly engaged in countering the Houthis, a group backed by Iran— a common adversary. The Red Sea escalation has also diverted attention from Gaza, leading to a decrease in the intensity of Israel’s bombings in that region.

Nasruldeen Amer, the spokesperson for the Houthis, conveyed to Al Jazeera television that the recent attack would elicit a resolute and effective response. Meanwhile, Hans Grundberg, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, where 80% of the population requires humanitarian aid, expressed grave concern over the increasingly precarious regional situation. He urged all parties involved to refrain from actions that could worsen the situation in Yemen, escalate threats to maritime trade routes, or further heighten regional tensions during this critical time.

Contrary to the Houthi stance, Washington maintains its stance of avoiding an open confrontation with the Houthis, let alone with Iran. Kirsten Fontenrose, affiliated with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative think tank, explains that Tehran also has no motivation to emphasize its involvement in the conflict or with the Houthis currently. According to Fontenrose, Iran is achieving its strategic objectives without direct intervention, as evidenced by the declining global popularity of the United States and the slowed momentum for normalizing relations between Israel and new Arab countries.

According to Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio, an expert in the Middle East and professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, Israel is perceived to have drawn the U.S. into the conflict. Álvarez-Ossorio suggests that Israel achieved this by initiating attacks on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria and targeting Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, aiming to “open a new front.”

The Houthi attacks commenced in November, with the rebel group theoretically focusing on Israeli-owned or Israeli-flagged merchant ships and vessels destined for or leaving Israel. However, in practice, they have not only mistakenly attacked non-related ships but have also engaged in conflicts with other vessels. Consequently, major shipping companies now avoid the passage through the Red Sea. In the final two months of 2023, the daily number of containers crossing the Red Sea plummeted by 66%, from 500,000 to 200,000, accounting for 30% of the world’s container traffic. Ships now opt to circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of New Hope, resulting in a 170% increase in shipping costs.

Following weeks of escalating tension, January 9 marked a pivotal moment as the Yemeni movement launched its most significant attack to date. The U.N. Security Council responded by passing a resolution condemning the Houthi assault, while the White House had been urging the rebel group to cease its hostile actions. In the early hours of January 12, U.S. and British forces targeted anti-aircraft surveillance systems, radar, and arsenals containing drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles at various locations in Yemen under Houthi rebel control.

Gerald M. Feierstein, a former U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert at the Middle East Institute think tank, concurs with the view that the Houthis’ attempt to involve themselves in the Gaza conflict aims to strengthen their support base and solidify their position within the ‘axis of resistance,’ a group that includes Hezbollah and Hamas. The Houthis have gained support, even from their detractors, especially as the internationally recognized government of Yemen, their adversary, focuses more on the Red Sea shipping attacks than the civilian casualties in Gaza. On January 12, hundreds of thousands of people in the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a demonstrated against the U.S. and U.K. airstrikes.

On January 10, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Qatar, released an analysis of Arab public opinion regarding the Israeli war in Gaza. The survey, conducted in 16 Arab countries, revealed that 69% expressed solidarity with the Palestinians and support for Hamas. Another 23% exclusively support the people of Gaza but reject the Islamist movement responsible for the October attack on Israel, resulting in approximately 1,200 casualties. In contrast, 94% criticize the position of the United States in the crisis, accusing it of vetoing a ceasefire and providing financial and military support to Israel, with 82% categorizing this stance as “very bad.” Regarding Iran, despite regional rivalries and differences between the Sunni and Shiite axes, 37% favour the country’s position, while 48% oppose it.

The intervention of the U.S. military has sparked concern among other Middle Eastern nations hosting pro-Iranian militias with a hostile stance towards Israel. These nations fear the potential spread of the conflict to their borders. Iraqi President Abdellatif Rashid strongly condemned any efforts to broaden the conflict, emphasizing the detrimental impact it could have on everyone. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lebanon, where clashes between Hezbollah militia and the Israeli army occur regularly in the south, expressed significant worry about the escalation and military actions in the Red Sea, along with airstrikes on Yemeni territory.

In the United States, there is a growing unease about the possibility of the conflict intensifying. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, expressed concerns about regional escalation in a post on X, formerly Twitter. She highlighted Iran’s use of groups like the Houthis to conduct battles, maintain plausible deniability, and avoid direct conflicts with the U.S. or others. Slotkin emphasized the need for this to cease, expressing hope that the message had been received.

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