The risk of Western escalation in the Red Sea

Summary: Arab Digest’s resident Yemen expert drills down on the latest escalation in the Gaza war, examining the implications for the region and the world of the ongoing Red Sea air strikes and counter-strikes between the US, joined by the UK, and the Huthis.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A expert on Yemen, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Following Security Council Resolution 2722 condemning the Huthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, passed on 10 January, the US and UK wasted no time and launched more than 60 strikes on a wide range of sites throughout Yemen on the night of 11-12 January. The action was promptly condemned not only by Russia and China which had both abstained voting on the resolution, but by the UN’s Secretary General, his Special Envoy to Yemen and a specially convened UNSC meeting on 12 January which included a series of condemnations; as the Chinese delegate put it “The last thing we need at this stage is reckless military adventurism, and the first thing we need is calm and restraint.” Even Saudi Arabia expressed ‘great concern’ and called for ‘self restraint and avoiding escalation’. Oman, which has been deeply involved in mediation efforts to end the Yemen war, has strongly condemned the action. Major European states have disassociated themselves from these attacks, pointing out that they make diplomatic efforts more difficult. Even the Foreign Minister of Yemen’s Internationally Recognised Government reminded Britain of ‘the need for a cease fire in Gaza and allowing humanitarian aid to enter the besieged Strip without any conditions, warning that the ongoing and unjustified aggression against civilians in Gaza threatens to expand the scope of the conflict and endangers the security and stability of the region and the world.’ And on Saturday’s world wide demonstrations calling for a cease fire in Gaza, new calls for ending bombing on Yemen were added.

Both the US and UK justified their actions as necessary and proportionate and aimed to reduce Huthi capacity to disrupt shipping, claiming ‘self defence’, raising the issue of the definition of self defence when attacking sites thousands of miles away from their own territories! While initially stating that this was a one-off operation, further strikes were carried on the next day and more are to be expected as, according to the New York Times these have not seriously damaged Huthi military capacity. This was demonstrated in the last couple of days when the Huthis launched more projectiles proving that they had anticipated the strikes and moved their mobile launching sites. It is worth remembering that most of the positions attacked had been bombed on multiple occasions by the Saudi-led coalition in the past decade.

A rally in Sana’a in support of Hamas and in protest against recent US-UK air and missile strikes against the Huthis, Friday 12 January [photo credit: Ansar Allah]
The Huthis have explicitly stated that their actions are in support of Palestine and will cease as soon as the war and the blockade on supplies to Gaza end. Their attacks were exclusively directed at ships with an Israeli connection, whether destination or other. They have also said that any ships which explicitly state that they have no Israeli connections are welcome to use the Red Sea, and pointed out that such a statement is ‘a low cost solution that will incur no financial expenditures for any business. This measure does not need the militarisation of the Red Sea and will not jeopardise international navigation.’ While traffic in the Red Sea has reduced, it remains considerable. Of course, having been targeted by the US and UK, the Huthis have now expanded their own target list to include US and UK naval forces. Later yesterday Qatar said it would not be sending LNG carriers into the Red Sea.

Huthi popularity which had already increased massively in recent months has further rocketed not only within Yemen but worldwide among all those opposing the genocide in Gaza, including among thousands who had previously never heard about them. Second, as has also been widely stated, anti-Israeli positions from Russia, China, Iran and many others are strengthening as an opinion piece in the Israeli  newspaper Haaretz pointed out. Third, the reputation of the US, UK and the west in general as upholders of international law, human rights, and values of basic morality is in tatters. Fourth these attacks confirm the extraordinary level of ‘double speak’ which the US and UK are practising in their current foreign policy. Contrary to their own statements and those of many others, rather than try to calm the situation in the Middle East, this action was an egregious case of serious escalation,

So what are the likely consequences of the new situation? Internationally, the risk of further escalation is high. Is the US willing to enter another ‘forever war’ in an election year, when Biden’s chances of re-election, weak at the best of times, have dramatically dropped as a result of his unquestioned support for Israel in Gaza? Iran has, to date, issued formal support for Huthi actions, after having withdrawn the ship it had sent to the Red Sea only weeks ago, giving the impression that it is willing to fight Israel and support Palestine ‘to the last Yemeni’. Despite media and other systematic accusations of being the ‘backers’ ‘sponsors’ etc of the Huthis, the Iranians are wary of getting involved directly. Besides it is important to remember that Ansar Allah’s own ideology is the reason for Huthi actions, not its relationship with Iran.  In the Red Sea area itself, the most significant impact will be on costs and delays for goods transiting from Asia to Europe which, although meaningful, are financially minor by comparison with any number of other crises. Finally, the Egyptian regime, already in a massive debt crisis, will suffer considerably by the loss of income from the Suez Canal.

For Yemen and Yemenis, the picture is far more serious. Given the current situation, the predicted ceremonial signature of the end of hostilities between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis, which would have taken the form of an agreement between the Internationally Recognised Government  (IRG) and the Huthis, with Saudi Arabia [and probably Oman] as mediators is, at best, indefinitely postponed. Despite this setback, the UN Special Envoy is still attempting to proceed with preparations and actions to get his ‘road map’ towards peace off the ground.

Increased Huthi strength resulting from the new developments automatically ensures further weakening of the divided IRG, meaning that UN mediation efforts are unlikely to help change the balance of forces between the factions, and possibly enabling the Huthis to expand their authoritarian and oppressive rule.

The humanitarian situation in Yemen, already disastrous (though by no means comparable to the horrors of Gaza) is seriously at risk of worsening. Financing of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan has dropped from 55% of requirement in 2022 to 38% in 2023 and it has not even been announced for 2024. Here two points are of concern: first most of Yemen’s imports come through Hodeida port [and remember that the country depends on imports for 90% of its basic staples], so should that port be struck and become inoperable, consequences would be severe. Second, in recent years, more than 50% of the funding has come from the US and most of this is needed in Huthi controlled areas, so is at risk of US retaliation by way of cuts to part or even all of the aid. Unless and until the Gaza war is de-escalated prospects for Yemenis in 2024 are at least as grim as elsewhere.

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