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Between Autonomy and Allegiance

The Houthis' Strategic Play in the Red Sea

29 March 2024

For a long time, many in the Arab world viewed the Houthi rebels as tools of Iranian ambition and agents of disruption. However, some international observers chose to overlook this prevailing sentiment and instead held a more lenient view of the group. Numerous policymakers and humanitarians, perhaps seduced by the veneer of the Houthis' claimed nationalism and their fight for sovereignty, failed to fully recognize the group's broader regional menace and warnings of destabilizing influence.

However, the recent brazen actions of the Houthis in the Red Sea against Western targets have shifted the narrative, compelling the international community to confront the stark reality of the Houthis' role in the region. The Houthis aggressive maneuvers in the Red Sea, which involve targeting vessels and disrupting vital trade routes, not only challenge the group's fight for sovereignty but also reveal their strategic alignment with Iran's broader regional ambitions. This confrontation has peeled back layers of misconception about the group, revealing the Houthis' commitment to a disruptive agenda that aligns with Tehran's geopolitical interests.

Delayed Global Reactions and the Houthi Strategy

The Biden Administration's delayed reassessment of the Houthis as a terrorist group, prompted by concerns over disrupting maritime and global shipping, reflects a focus on the impact on international trade rather than the immediate upheaval in Yemen. The new international momentum against the Houthis, which comes after substantial failed diplomacy efforts and peace talks, is attributed to their attacks on oil tankers and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Since October 19, 2023, the Houthi militia targeted several ships, including the destroyer Carney, an American MQ-9 Reaper, the destroyer Thomas Hudner, an Israeli-affiliated ship, civilian-owned commercial ships, the Genco Picardy, a US-owned bulk carrier, and the M/V Gibraltar Eagle, a US-owned and-operated bulk carrier flagged by the Marshall Islands among others. Notably, in January 2024, the Houthis asserted responsibility for assaulting the British-linked tanker Marlin Luanda in the Gulf of Aden, sparking considerable alarm within the global shipping sector. Furthermore, in February 2024, the sinking of the Rubymar, which was carrying a cargo of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, amplified the peril to one of the world's most crucial maritime corridors. This prompted major shipping firms and oil traders to reevaluate their navigational routes and operational tactics.

Yet, despite efforts by the United States and the United Kingdom to curb the Houthi insurgents by directly targeting their capabilities in Yemen, the assaults by the Houthis persist, highlighting a deliberate disregard for international condemnation. In fact, the Houthi attacks are likely to continue to escalate due to several factors. First, the Houthis strive to assert their regional dominance and gain leverage in future negotiations. Second, these attacks disrupt the economies of opposing nations and exert pressure on the international community. Lastly, the Houthis may also aim to draw attention to their cause and garner domestic and international support. Moreover, such actions may be an attempt to amplify their plight and garner broader support. Yet, this escalation carries substantial risks, as continuous attacks on commercial shipping heighten the possibility of eliciting a more forceful international reaction.

However, it is important to note that the ongoing airstrike campaign against the Houthis during the current turmoil and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, as well as Gulf initiatives to de-escalate with the Houthis, raises critical concerns. These military actions by the US and the UK are widely viewed as prioritizing the security of Israel and the Red Sea while neglecting the broader regional turmoil and the acute repercussions of Houthi conduct in Yemen itself. This perception severely erodes the US's credibility among Yemenis and countries in the Gulf, who view the airstrikes as misaligned with the region's urgent security needs and the immediate peril Houthi activities pose in Yemen. By narrowly focusing on a subset of interests, this strategy risks alienating vital regional allies and complicates the task of rallying support for a holistic approach that tackles the underlying drivers of instability in the Middle East.

The Houthis and Iran: Strategic Alignments and Regional Impact

The Houthis' maritime tactics, marked by audacity and precision, demonstrate their growing clout within the Axis of Resistance and their deepening control over Yemen's Northern territory. The group has strategically leveraged the conflict between Israel and Hamas to justify their disruptive actions in the Red Sea, aligning themselves with a broader resistance narrative that resonates with many in the Arab world. Embodying their slogan, "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam," the Houthis view themselves as pivotal players in the regional struggle against Western and Israeli influences. This slogan, while powerfully resonating with their base, primarily amplifies their perceived legitimacy and commitment to a broader cause.

In reality, their antagonism towards the US and Israel is essentially a reflection of the ideological and strategic alignment with the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than stemming from direct confrontations or historical grievances. Through this slogan, the Houthis not only assert their stance in the regional narrative but also mask the underlying dynamics of their alliance with Iran, presenting their actions as part of a principled struggle, while obscuring the more pragmatic underpinnings of their relationship with Tehran.

The Houthis' receipt of accolades from Arab sympathizers, including highlights and features of Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s speeches in support of Gaza on the al-Jazeera channel, is casting a complex shadow over regional perceptions. A growing faction now views the Houthis not merely as protagonists but as saviors and survivors in a turbulent landscape. As the Houthis are increasingly idolized, they gain a potent platform to mobilize support and resources in the name of solidarity with Gaza, which further entrenches their position and influence in the regional narrative.

These strategies amplify their strategic reach and boost their appeal, solidifying their role in regional politics. By linking their political aims with emotional and ethical appeals, the Houthis strengthen their identity and influence in the Middle East.

Evidently, the Houthis' strategic expansion beyond Yemen's borders reflects the broader ambitions of their Iranian benefactors, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has seen its influence in the Middle East grow since the Arab Spring. Iran's strategy, characterized by its adept navigation through regional chaos, has involved cultivating alliances with various groups. It serves a dual purpose: extending Tehran's regional reach and fostering a state of global and regional flux. Reuters' sources in Iran reported that the IRGC have been aiding the Houthis with military training on advanced weapons, and the IRGC have established a command center in Sanaa for Red Sea operations, overseen by a senior IRGC commander. These developments suggest that the Houthis are not merely local actors but rather integral components of Iran's broader geopolitical playbook. They are instrumental in advancing Iran’s regional destabilization and influence expansion agenda. Through this lens, the Houthis' actions are a manifestation of a larger Iranian strategy to reshape Middle Eastern dynamics in its favor, leveraging proxy groups to sow instability and challenge the status quo.

The Houthis' Strategic Positioning within the Axis of Resistance

Neither Iran, Hezbollah, nor the Houthis deny their interconnected roles within the Axis of Resistance. However, they strive to maintain a semblance of independence to uphold some degree of domestic legitimacy. Their open acknowledgment of this alliance and their efforts to assert autonomy unveil a strategic endeavor to disrupt regional stability. The media outlets affiliated with the Axis of Resistance network robustly support the Houthis. with Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, frequently commends their actions, particularly their resilience in the Red Sea. Nasrallah lauded the Houthi’s resilience in a March 13th address, highlighting their defiance against pressures from the US and the UK. Furthermore, both Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian’s staunch praise of the Houthis' contributions to the Axis further illustrates a unified attempt to strengthen their collective narrative while projecting an image of sovereign agency. This intricate maneuver between demonstrating alliance unity and maintaining a veneer of independence showcased a nuanced approach to regional politics, where it emphasizes the importance of public perception and perceived autonomy in establishing influence and legitimacy.

Undoubtedly, alongside Hamas, the Houthis have assumed a pivotal role in the regional conflict, positioning themselves as key figures within the Axis of Resistance. Their prominence, arguably surpassing that of Hezbollah or certain Iraqi militias, can be attributed to two critical factors. Firstly, the Houthis have assumed control over most of Yemen, which was a consequence of the overthrow of the nation's transitional government and the ongoing absence of a political resolution. This control grants them a strategic advantage and a tangible base of power, setting them apart in their role within the Axis. Secondly, other actors within the Axis of Resistance exhibit caution and are mindful of the potential domestic repercussions of their actions. However, this constraint seems to have less impact on the Houthis' strategic calculations. This unique positioning enhances the Houthis' influence and underscores their significance in shaping the dynamics of regional conflicts.

This sheds light on the Houthis' aversion to a diplomatic resolution in Yemen, underpinning a fundamental tension in their strategic calculus. A settlement would likely necessitate a division of power, which would hold the Houthis accountable and require them to moderate their regional ambitions. Such a scenario would compel them to recalibrate their priorities and place the needs and interests of the Yemeni populace at the forefront—a stance that starkly contrasts with their current trajectory. Their reluctance to engage in diplomatic channels is not merely a tactical decision; it reflects a deeper ideological commitment to their agenda, which prioritizes consolidating their influence over the potential for a more inclusive and peaceful governance structure in Yemen.

Through this reckless entanglement to support Hamas for Iran's strategic objectives, the Houthi group is less of a leader and more of a pawn in this game. Their strategic posturing and operations, especially in maritime aggression, are heavily influenced by Iranian intelligence and capability. This pattern has been evident prior to October 7 with notable incidents like the attacks on the "Front Altair" and "Kokuka Courageous" in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019. The Houthis' alignment with Iran's broader regional strategy casts them as mere pawns, drawing their territory into conflicts that Iran prefers to distance from its own borders. Iran leverages its influence through proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, while its strategic investments in these regions starkly contrast with its involvement in Yemen. This indicated that, despite Yemen's complex dynamics, the Houthis' role is paradoxically both vital and expendable in Iran's overarching regional strategy.

International Perspectives and Challenges

However, the current turmoil in the Red Sea reflects the international community's fragmented and inconsistent approach toward the Houthi militia and the overall Yemeni conflict. A prime illustration of this is the Stockholm Agreement of 2018, which, while aiming to halt hostilities in Hodeidah for humanitarian reasons, inadvertently allowed the Houthis to entrench their position in the port. Once the ceasefire was in place, Houthis shifted their focus and resources toward expanding their influence in Marib and Shabwa. This well-intentioned yet shortsighted strategy, centered on achieving a ceasefire at any cost, has led to dire repercussions for the residents of al-Jawf and Marib, triggering massive displacements and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in these regions, which were compounded during the global COVID-19 crisis. The Stockholm Agreement serves as a clear example of a worrying trend. It highlights how the pursuit of immediate diplomatic settlements without careful calculations risks, can overshadow the voices and plight of those most intimately affected by the conflict, and can embolden the control of the militias.

Moreover, the current airstrike campaign's perceived misalignment, which is predominantly viewed as safeguarding interests that are unrelated to the broader regional instability or Yemen's internal strife, exemplifies the challenges in forging a coherent strategy. This stance, deemed counterproductive by many, highlights the urgent need for a recalibrated response that aligns more closely with the region's comprehensive security needs and the intricate dynamics of Yemen's conflict.

Yet, the international community's approach to the Iranian dimension of the Yemen conflict remains tepid and disjointed, reflecting a broader malaise in global diplomacy. There seems to be an apparent reluctance to confront Iran's full spectrum of involvement, and this hesitation undercuts efforts to forge a cohesive and effective response. This lack of unity and resolve not only emboldens malign actors but also exacerbates the suffering of those caught in the conflict's crossfire. The multifaceted nature of the situation in the Red Sea calls for careful consideration. Far from being mere rebels, the Houthis are significant players in a broader geopolitical game. Their disruptive maritime tactics pose a direct threat not only to international trade but also to regional stability.

It is imperative that global actors reassess their strategies and commitments, moving beyond piecemeal approaches to embrace a more integrated and principled stance that recognizes the complexities of Iranian influence and its impacts on the Middle East. Only through a recalibrated, unified, and insightful response can the international community hope to address the underlying factors perpetuating the crisis and pave the way for a more stable and just regional order. The stakes are not merely diplomatic but profoundly human, underscoring the urgent need for a reinvigorated, nuanced, and empathetic engagement with the realities of the Middle East's volatile landscape.