Can We Demystify Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea?

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The crisis in the Red Sea has been unfolding since late 2023 when the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen began a relentless campaign of missile and drone attacks targeting commercial vessels transiting this vital maritime chokepoint. What started as sporadic strikes quickly escalated into a sustained barrage, endangering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and a key artery for global trade. However, the Houthis initially claimed their attacks were acts of solidarity with Palestinians facing Israeli bombardment in Gaza, drawing an explicit link between their actions in the Red Sea and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as the strikes persisted and the economic disruptions mounted, it became clear that the Houthi motivations extended beyond just expressing support for the Palestinian cause.

The November 19, 2023 seizure of the Israel-affiliated Galaxy Leader cargo ship by Houthi forces marked a dramatic escalation, prompting the United States to establish a multinational maritime security coalition dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian in mid-December. Comprising over 20 nations, the coalition aimed to deter and degrade the Houthi’s ability to conduct attacks on commercial shipping. However, the Houthi rebels remained undeterred, continuing their barrage of missile and drone strikes despite the international presence. By early 2024, major shipping firms like BP, Shell, and Trafigura had suspended transits through the Red Sea entirely due to the heightened risks and costs.

In a bid to compel the Houthis to cease their attacks, the United States and the United Kingdom launched air strikes in mid-January 2024, targeting Houthi missile and drone launch sites, radars, and associated infrastructure within Yemen. Dubbed “Operation Poseidon Archer,” this bombing campaign was initially billed as a “one-off” but quickly escalated into a near-daily bombardment, with over 230 sites struck by late February. The situation further deteriorated on February 18, when a Houthi strike forced the crew of the UK-registered vessel M/K Rubymar to abandon ship after sustaining damage, leaving the vessel adrift and leaking oil into the Red Sea – underscoring the grave environmental risks posed by the crisis.

As the attacks persisted and the humanitarian and economic toll mounted, divisions emerged within the international community over the appropriate response. Some advocated for continued diplomatic efforts and a negotiated settlement, while others called for a significant military escalation—potentially including ground operations against the Houthis or even direct strikes on their Iranian backers. With no clear resolution in sight, the crisis in the Red Sea has highlighted the fragility of global maritime trade routes and the challenges posed by non-state actors wielding increasingly sophisticated weaponry. It has also thrown into sharp relief the complex web of regional rivalries, proxy conflicts, and great power competition that has ensnared the troubled nation of Yemen.

Houthi Motivations and Objectives

The Houthi movement, officially known as Ansar Allah, is a Shia Islamist group that has been engaged in a protracted conflict with the internationally recognized government of Yemen since 2014. Initially, the Houthis presented their attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea as an act of solidarity with Palestinians facing Israeli bombardments in Gaza. However, their motivations and objectives appear to be more complex and multifaceted. One of the primary motivations behind the Houthi attacks is their desire to assert control over critical maritime chokepoints and gain leverage in the ongoing conflict. By disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, a vital waterway for global trade, the Houthis aim to pressure the international community and regional powers to intervene in the Yemen conflict on terms favorable to their cause.

Also, the attacks serve as a retaliatory measure against the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, which has supported the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels. Furthermore, the Houthi movement has portrayed itself as a resistance force against foreign interference and as a defender of Palestinian rights. By aligning themselves with the Palestinian cause, the Houthis hope to garner support from sympathetic groups and individuals across the Arab and Muslim world, potentially bolstering their legitimacy and regional influence. It is also worth noting that the Houthis have received significant military and financial support from Iran, their primary patron. While the extent of Tehran’s direct control over the Houthi operations remains unclear, the attacks in the Red Sea align with Iran’s broader strategic objectives of projecting power and challenging the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Houthis’ Caliber and the Nature of the Attacks

The Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have been characterized by a range of tactics and weaponry, ranging from rudimentary to sophisticated. Initially, the Houthis resorted to boarding and seizing commercial vessels, as exemplified by the takeover of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in November 2023. However, the Houthis have increasingly employed more advanced weaponry, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), armed drones, and uncrewed waterborne vessels. The Asef ASBM, with a range of 400 km and a 500 kg warhead, and the Al-Mandeb 2 ASCM, with a range of 120 km and a 165 kg warhead, are among the most potent weapons in the Houthi arsenal.

Despite arguably possessing advanced capabilities, the Houthis’ targeting infrastructure and accuracy have been relatively limited. They have relied heavily on intelligence from Iranian surveillance ships, coastal radars (some of which have been destroyed by U.S. strikes), and open-source data to triangulate the positions of target vessels. While the Houthis have successfully struck and damaged some commercial ships, many of their missile and drone attacks have been intercepted or have missed their targets by wide margins, suggesting challenges in effectively employing their weaponry against moving vessels.

Impact on Regional Security

The Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have had far-reaching implications for regional security and global trade. The Red Sea is a critical waterway for international maritime trade, accounting for approximately 15% of global shipping traffic. Disruptions to this vital route have forced numerous shipping companies to reroute their vessels, resulting in significant delays, increased costs, and supply chain disruptions. Major companies across various sectors, including automotive, energy, logistics, and retail, have experienced delays and higher freight rates due to the Red Sea crisis. For instance, BP and Shell have suspended shipments through the Red Sea, while companies like Adidas and Danone have reported impacts on their supply chains and gross margins.

Besides, the attacks have exacerbated tensions in the broader Middle East region, raising concerns about the potential for escalation and broader conflict. The involvement of external powers, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, in conducting airstrikes against Houthi targets, has further complicated the situation and heightened the risk of miscalculation or unintended consequences. The crisis has also highlighted the vulnerability of critical maritime chokepoints and the challenges of securing freedom of navigation in the face of non-state actors with advanced weaponry. This has implications for global energy security, as disruptions to vital energy trade routes could lead to price volatility and supply disruptions, affecting economies worldwide.

Broader Context and Conflict Dynamics

The Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea cannot be viewed in isolation but must be understood within the broader context of the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the complex regional dynamics at play. The conflict in Yemen, which began in 2014 when the Houthis seized control of the capital Sanaa, has been exacerbated by the intervention of regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign against the Houthis has resulted in a protracted and devastating conflict, causing widespread humanitarian suffering and deepening regional tensions.

The involvement of external factors, such as Iran’s support for the Houthis, has further complicated the conflict dynamics. While the extent of Tehran’s direct control over the Houthis remains debated, Iran’s provision of weapons, training, and financial support has undoubtedly strengthened the Houthi movement’s capabilities and emboldened their actions. In addition, the Red Sea crisis has intersected with other regional conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the tensions between Iran and its regional rivals. The Houthis’ claimed solidarity with the Palestinian cause in Gaza has added another layer of complexity, potentially drawing in other actors and broadening the scope of the conflict. Moreover, the fragmentation of Yemen’s political landscape and the competing interests of various factions within the country have made the prospect of a negotiated settlement increasingly challenging. The recent establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) by the internationally recognized government has further made the situation more intricate, as the council’s members have often disagreed on how to approach the Houthi threat.

International Response and Diplomatic Efforts

The international community has responded to the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea with a range of measures, including the establishment of maritime security operations, diplomatic efforts, and limited military strikes. In December 2023, the United States led the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a maritime security coalition involving more than 20 nations, intended to deter and degrade the Houthi attacks. However, this operation has thus far failed to halt the attacks effectively, prompting calls for a reassessment of the strategy.

The United States and the United Kingdom have also conducted airstrikes against Houthi missile and drone launch sites, as well as associated targets, in an effort to degrade the Houthis’ offensive capabilities. As of early February 2024, these strikes had reportedly destroyed over 100 missiles and launches, but the Houthi attacks continued unabated. On the diplomatic front, the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has been actively engaged in efforts to broker a political settlement to the Yemen conflict. In December 2023, Grundberg announced a roadmap towards peace, which included calls for a nationwide ceasefire, the payment of public sector salaries, the resumption of oil exports, and the easing of restrictions on the Sanaa airport and the Hudaydah port. However, these diplomatic efforts have been hampered by the escalating tensions in the Red Sea and the lack of progress in reaching a comprehensive agreement between the warring parties in Yemen.

As the crisis has persisted, there have been growing calls within the United States and the United Kingdom for a significant escalation of military action against the Houthis, including the provision of support for ground combat operations by the forces of the internationally recognized government of Yemen. Proponents of this approach argue that it is the only viable means of compelling the Houthis to halt their attacks on commercial shipping. However, the Red Sea crisis underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive, multilateral approach that addresses the root causes of the conflict while safeguarding the vital interests of the global maritime commons. Diplomatic efforts must be reinvigorated, with a renewed commitment to finding a durable political settlement in Yemen that addresses the grievances and aspirations of all parties involved. Simultaneously, the international community must work to strengthen maritime security protocols, enhance intelligence-sharing, and develop robust deterrence mechanisms to dissuade future acts of maritime disruption.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Modern Diplomacy [Link] and Observer BD [Link]