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Analyzing the Implications of the Houthis’ Expansion of Attacks into the Indian Ocean

28 March 2024

The Houthi group has emerged as a significant threat to navigation freedom in the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait since November 19, 2023. This development came in the aftermath of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, known as "Operation Al-Aqsa Flood," which took place on October 7, 2023. Initially targeting ships bound for Israel, the group expanded its attacks to include American and British vessels after the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a joint effort by the United States and Britain to deter Houthi threats to navigation freedom. While the group claimed to be "supporting and defending Gaza" as part of the principle of "unity of arenas" advocated by Iran-allied militias in the region, it was the regional countries, particularly those bordering the Red Sea, that suffered the most from these threats.

At the beginning of the fifth month of confrontation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the Houthi group has threatened to expand their maritime attacks to the Indian Ocean. Additionally, in mid-March 2024, an announcement was made about a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon between Hamas and Houthi leaders. The purpose of this meeting is to coordinate attacks against Israel. These recent developments indicate that the level of the Houthi threat is poised for further "calculated" escalation. This article aims to shed light on these developments and elucidate the Houthi threat.

Houthi Threat to Navigation

Since November 19, 2023, the Houthis have announced attacks on sites in Israel, American drones, and commercial ships. According to Houthi statements, they have targeted up to 75 ships, hitting at least 16 of them. The rebel group also seized the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, and its crew is still being held. On February 18, the Houthis attacked the British ship Rubymar, which sank in the Red Sea on March 2. Additionally, on March 6, 2024, a Houthi missile attack on a Liberian cargo ship resulted in the deaths of three sailors and the injury of four others. Despite the United States' announcement on December 19, 2023, of forming the multinational alliance Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect trade in the region, the attacks by the pro-Iranian group continue. The group has even promised to expand their scope, showing no signs of being deterred.

While initially aimed at deterring and forcing Israel to halt its war on Gaza, the Houthi attacks have not succeeded so far. Instead, they have had a greater impact on the economic interests of regional countries and on international shipping movements across the Red Sea. Global trade data indicates that goods and commodities worth $2.5 trillion pass through the Red Sea annually, representing 13% of global trade and about 30% of global container traffic. Some estimates show a 1.3% decline in global trade from November to December 2023 due to Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, resulting in a decrease in the volume of cargo transported through this vital waterway.

These disruptions in the region have forced shipping companies to redirect their ships away from the Suez Canal, through which 15% of global maritime trade volume passes annually, impacting the economies of many countries. This has led to increased shipping costs and prolonged delivery times, raising concerns of a supply chain crisis similar to what occurred after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Implications of Houthi Escalation

Following threats by Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi to expand their group's operations in the Indian Ocean, the Houthis announced on March 15 that they had carried out three operations against Israeli and American ships using naval missiles and drones. These threats to obstruct navigation through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait have several important implications, including the following:

1. The recent threats from the Houthi group align with their strategy of engaging in a tug-of-war and attempting to increase pressure. Their goal is to demonstrate their capability and have a greater impact on global trade. The Houthis aim to exert more pressure on countries that oppose them and on members of the Prosperity Guardian alliance, in order to halt attacks against their group. This may also result in increased pressure on Israel to prevent a potential attack on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

2. The Houthi group's ability to pose a threat to navigation in the Indian Ocean is not as significant as their threat in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea. However, if the Houthis do possess weapons and tools that could pose a significant threat, the impact on international trade would be more severe. This would also endanger alternative trade routes to the Red Sea, leading to a greater impact on global supply chains, especially for food commodities.

3. If the Houthi group follows through with its threats to target trade movements in the Indian Ocean, it risks drawing more countries into the conflict and escalating hostilities. This is particularly concerning because there are several countries, including India, that are actively working to secure navigation in this region. India is increasing its security measures and military presence in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the pressure on Iran, the main supporter of the Houthi group, would intensify. Iran may be compelled to urge the group to cease its attacks, especially if maritime trade for these countries is affected.

Beirut Meeting

The meeting, scheduled for mid-March 2024, between leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Houthi group in Beirut, Lebanon, marks an important development in Hamas' strategy against Israel. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss "mechanisms for coordinating resistance activities" against Israel. This strategy, known as the "unity of arenas," is a key approach employed by Hamas in its confrontation with Israel. The term "unity of arenas" refers to various groups and forces that identify themselves as "resistance." These groups and militias operate independently from the states in which they are based. Examples include Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) and 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. All of these groups are engaged in proxy wars on behalf of Iran.

However, the "unity of arenas" military doctrine that Hamas relied on proved to be mere illusions. The involvement of other arenas in this conflict continues to be minimal since the Gaza war broke out. Lebanon's Hezbollah adopted a policy of carefully targeted military strikes to avoid a full-scale war with Israel. Various Iraqi factions carried out strikes that had no impact on the course of the "inhuman war" on Gaza. Tensions reached a level threatening a real confrontation between Iran and the United States after a drone attack on an American military base in Jordan resulted in the killing of three American soldiers and the injury of over 30 others. The attack was claimed by the Iran-backed Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, prompting Iran to pressure the Iraqi groups to halt their attacks. As a result, these groups suspended their operations. Iran itself disavowed these attacks, stating that the militants carrying out attacks in the region do not take orders from Tehran.

The Houthi group remains Iran's most successful card in the game of interests, possibly due to its imposition during the Gaza war. This group is not only suitable for confronting Israel and the United States, but also for conducting military operations that threaten navigation freedom in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and potentially the Indian Ocean. These operations may also harm Iran's competitors. The recent Beirut meeting between the Houthis and Palestinian factions indicates that this front will continue to be the most active in the proxy war fought on behalf of Iran.

However, the results of the Beitute meeting may not benefit the Palestinian cause or Hamas. Instead, they may add pressure on the group. This is because the meeting has once again caused political polarization in Lebanon and discussions about the limits of Lebanese state authority. Additionally, the Houthis' escalation of attacks, or even the threat of escalation, may not deter Israel from continuing its war on Gaza or even launching a full-scale military incursion into Rafah.

The only way to stop this escalation and achieve a peaceful settlement that ends the war and the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza is through efforts made by regional countries, led by the Gulf states and Egypt. These countries need to exert pressure on the US and Israeli governments. These efforts have already started to show results through ongoing humanitarian aid campaigns delivered by land, sea, and air to Palestinians in Gaza. They have also persuaded the US administration to change its supportive stance towards the Israeli war, particularly regarding an incursion into Rafah. This was evident on March 25 when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It was the first time since the start of the Gaza war five months ago that the United States refrained from using its veto power to block a resolution.

In conclusion, the responsibility for finding practical solutions that benefit the people of the region lies with rational states, governments, and policies, rather than militias. This is the key lesson learned from the conflicts in the region, including the recent war in Gaza.