Houthi, the force challenging US power in the Middle East

Continuously attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea, the Houthis are creating a major challenge to US power, forcing Washington to find a response.

When Iranian-backed militia groups repeatedly attacked US forces in Syria and Iraq recently, President Joe Biden’s administration responded strongly with force. On December 25, the Pentagon announced that it had deployed “necessary and proportionate” airstrikes against three facilities used by the Kataib Hezbollah armed group in Iraq, killing many gunmen.

But when the Houthi group in Yemen conducted more than 100 attacks with missiles and drones (UAVs) on a series of ships in the Red Sea, including US warships, Washington has so far not launched a decisive response. 

The shipping raids are part of a growing regional confrontation between Iran’s allies and the United States and Israel. A declassified document from the US Department of Defense shows that Houthi attacks in the first half of December were 8, while in the second half of November, there were only 3.

The Houthi group’s move has opened a new front in the region, while the conflict between Israel and Hamas remains tense. This is also the latest test of America’s ability to continue supporting Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, while also preventing the conflict from spreading into a regional war.

“Every side, including Iran, is trying to avoid escalating the conflict and falling into a dangerous situation,” said Andrew Tabler, former director for the Middle East at the US National Security Council.

Yemen has been mired in civil war for nearly 10 years, in which Iran backs the Houthis, who control the capital and large areas in the west of the country, confronting the internationally recognized government of President Abd- Rabbu Mansour Hadi is living in exile.

After fighting broke out in Gaza, the Houthis expressed support for Hamas by launching missiles into southern Israel. They vowed to attack all cargo ships “related to Tel Aviv” despite the warnings. US warning and deterrence. A series of large maritime companies have decided to send ships around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to avoid increasing risks in the Red Sea.

Continuous Houthi attacks forced the US and its allies to deploy warships to the area to ease the concerns of some shippers. The US destroyer USS Thomas Hudner on November 15 launched missiles to shoot down three UAVs launched by Houthi from Yemen through the Red Sea.

But this move did not stop the Houthis from continuing to attack cargo ships, while the US did not have enough resources to patrol too wide waters or intercept all UAVs and missiles launched by the armed group.

On December 15, the Ardmore Encounter ship registered in Bermuda was carrying fuel from India to West Africa when a small boat carrying an armed group appeared. One of the people who contacted the ship, claiming to be from the Yemeni navy, asked Ardmore Encounter to move to a storage facility controlled by Houthi if he did not want to be attacked.

“We did not follow suit and were immediately attacked,” the crew member said. The group of people on the boat launched two missiles towards the ship, but both failed to hit the target.

These types of attacks have prompted the US to rush to form a naval alliance of 20 countries to join hands to deal with the Houthis. The alliance will conduct Operation Protective Prosperity, in which the United States, along with Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and other allies, will conduct joint patrols in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, to prevent and respond to Houthi attacks.

On December 24, shipping and logistics company AP Moller-Maersk said that the US-led effort helped them feel secure in continuing to operate cargo ships in the Red Sea. But many other companies, such as Britain’s BP PLC or Norway’s Equinor, refused to resume operations in this area.

Houthis immediately warned of more attacks in response to the US and its allies sending warships to the area. “The threat to international maritime activities stems from the militarization of the Red Sea by the US and its allies,” Mohammed Abdul Salam, spokesman for the Houthi group, wrote on social network X.

Two days later, MSC Mediterranean Shipping said its United VIII ship was attacked while en route from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. The crew sent a distress signal to a warship of the US-led joint naval force in the area.

US fighters, warships and other assets then shot down 12 UAVs, three anti-ship missiles and two Houthi surface-to-surface missiles in the Red Sea within 10 hours. However, experts say that the US and its coalition will quickly run out of resources when they have to continuously launch expensive missiles to intercept the Houthi’s cheap UAVs.

This poses a huge challenge for the US in the context that Washington cannot use force to respond to the Houthis due to fear of sparking a direct conflict with Iran, the country that supports the armed group in Yemen.

The US is also increasingly concerned about Iran’s direct involvement in attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Washington said on December 22 that Iranian forces provided real-time intelligence information and weapons, such as UAVs and missiles, to the Houthis to target cargo ships passing through these waters.

However, the attacks also show tensions within the Iranian government. Iran’s military operations abroad are often conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is a paramilitary force that operates separately from the civilian government and often disagrees over diplomatic agendas.

The administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has tried to keep its distance from attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea. On December 24, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied information that Tehran was involved in attacks on Israeli targets, according to state television Press TV.

In mid-December, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bou Habib that he did not encourage Tehran’s allies to escalate tensions. However, the raids in the Red Sea still escalated, showing that the IRGC’s position seemed to disagree with President Raisi’s government.

US officials are urging Israel to end its campaign in Gaza quickly, hoping this move will help prevent attacks in the Red Sea. Iran’s foreign minister also said that the key to preventing attacks is a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

“If there is a ceasefire in Gaza, there will be a ceasefire throughout the region,” he said.