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Red Sea simmers as US-UK strikes spark Houthi vows of retaliation, shattering fragile Yemeni truce

26th Jan 2024
Red Sea simmers as US-UK strikes spark Houthi vows of retaliation, shattering fragile Yemeni truce

Mohammed Abdullah, Sana’a, Yemen

The dust hangs heavy over Yemen’s war-torn landscape, barely settled after the US and UK launched strikes on January 12 against Ansar Allah’s (Houthi) military installations in the north.

This swift escalation, a response to Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea that disrupted vital trade routes, raises chilling questions about the future of the region.

Analysts warn that the tinderbox of tensions could ignite as the once-vital trade artery might be pushed towards the brink of chaos.

Analysts warn that the fragile UN-led peace talks among warring parties hang by a thread as the once-vital trade artery teeters on the brink of chaos.

Houthi attacks, which the group says demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, have disrupted global trade, forcing over 2,000 ships to divert thousands of miles, while oil prices have also been impacted, edging higher in recent days.

US President Joe Biden said the strikes came “in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea,” adding he will “not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said the military action was “a direct response to the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping. The threats to shipping must cease. Illegally detained vessels and crews must be released. And we remain prepared to back our words with actions.”

The Houthi group promptly vowed to retaliate, with its Supreme Political Council declaring that all American and British interests had become “legitimate targets.” M

ohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a prominent Houthi leader, said, “This is the moment we eagerly awaited the battle to be direct with the Americans and the British.” The US and the UK are among the top donors to humanitarian aid for the most impoverished Arab nation.

 

Escalation continues

 

 

ANKARA, TURKIYE – JANUARY 12: An infographic titled “UK, US strike Houthis in Yemen” created in Ankara, Turkiye on January 12, 2024. ( Elmurod Usubaliev – Anadolu Agency )

Despite the UN resolution demanding an end to Houthi attacks on ships and the UK airstrikes, the Houthis show no signs of relenting. Just on January 16, they claimed responsibility for targeting a Greek ship flying the Maltese flag in the Red Sea, asserting it was heading to “occupied Palestine.”

On January 15, they hit a US-owned container ship sailing through Yemeni waters in the Gulf of Aden with a ballistic missile.

One day earlier, a fighter jet intercepted a Houthi-launched cruise missile targeting the USS Laboon in the southern Red Sea, Central Command said in a statement. Following such attacks, the media reported that the Biden administration is expected to soon announce plans to redesignate the Houthi group in Yemen as a specially designated global terrorist organisation.

The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, represent an Islamist political and militant force that launched its rebellion against the government in the early 2000s.

Over the subsequent years, the group has markedly expanded its territorial sway, reaching a pinnacle with the capture of Sana’a, the capital city, in 2014, as well as select western and northern regions proximate to Saudi Arabia. They are part of the “axis of resistance,” a network of Iran-aligned militant groups in the Middle East.

 

Motives

Houthis have plunged into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since its inception in October 2023. They initially targeted Israel with ballistic missiles and drones, which they called “the Battle of the Promised Conquest and Holy Jihad.” This strategy shifted weeks later, opting for long-range attacks on ships flying the Israeli flag, operated by Israeli companies, or even suspected of Israeli connections.

In December 2023, the group started targeting all ships en route to Israel, signifying a significant tactical shift in the volatile Red Sea region. They even seized the Galaxy Leader, a ship owned by an Israeli businessman, which remains in their custody with its 25-member crew. The Houthi attacks extended to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

According to the International Crisis Group, the Houthis may additionally have been motivated by the fact that, in aligning themselves with the Palestinian cause, they started to gain unprecedented popularity in Yemen and abroad amid a broader surge in solidarity with the Palestinians across Arab and Islamic societies.

“The Gaza war, moreover, provided the Houthis with an opportunity to deflect mounting public pressure over their governance practices in the areas under their control and enabled them to quell opposition to their rule by arresting opponents in those areas on charges of collusion with Israel and the US,” the group said.

The UN says that the crisis in Yemen remains severe, with more than 21 million people—two-thirds of the population — in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 80 per cent of the population struggles to access food, safe drinking water, and adequate health services.

The recent furrowing of brows in the Red Sea, coupled with Western military involvement in Yemen, threatens to engulf a flickering candle of hope for peace in war-torn Yemen. Despite progress towards a ceasefire and political solution in ongoing talks between warring parties, these escalations could plunge the fragile truce into utter darkness.

Photo: U.S. Central Command forces alongside UK Armed Forces, and with the support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, conducts strikes on 8 Houthi targets in Houthi areas of Yemen, on January 23, (Credit: CENTCOM / Handou/AA)

 

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