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Iran-backed Houthis prepare for long Red Sea battle with US

Students recruited into the ranks of Yemen's Houthi rebel group hold up automatic rifles as they shout slogans in support of the Palestinians and against the U.S., Britain and Israel during a rally at a university campus in Sanaa on Feb. 21, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas movement in Gaza.    (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By Sam Dagher and Mohammed Hatem Bloomberg News

Houthi militants and their Iranian backers are preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the U.S. and allies around the Red Sea regardless of how the Israel-Hamas war plays out.

The Yemen-based group is shoring up military and defense capabilities to continue attacking ships around the vital waterway, according to several people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. Steps include fortifying mountain hideouts for more secure and effective missile launches and testing unmanned vessels above and below water, they said.

Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen and has fought the Houthis for most of the past decade, is specifically concerned the group may attempt to sabotage major internet cables running along the seabed, according to an adviser to the Saudi leadership, who didn’t want to be named. There are no suggestions yet of a plan of that nature or that the Houthis have the means to carry one out.

The Houthis started attacking Red Sea shipping in November, ostensibly as a means of pressuring Israel to end its war in Gaza against Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. At first, they said only vessels with ties to Israel would be targeted, though it wasn’t long before ships with only tenuous connections to the Jewish state were also hit.

The assaults have helped push oil prices up more than 8% this year, with Brent nearing $85 a barrel, and upended trade through the southern Red Sea. The waterway normally handles about 30% of global container traffic and sees more then $1 trillion worth of goods pass through each year.

The U.S. and U.K. have responded since mid-January with airstrikes against the Houthis’ military assets — including missile launchers, air-defense systems and radars. The Pentagon says the group’s capabilities have weakened as a result. A U.S.-led maritime operation to patrol and secure the Red Sea started in December and was bolstered this week by a Greek-led European Union mission.

Evacuation first

Yet a foiled attempt to attack a U.S. warship in the Red Sea on Saturday was followed by a strike on a U.K.-owned cargo vessel the next day, causing damage and forcing the crew to be taken ashore. It was the first such evacuation since the Houthis started their attacks. A cargo ship then caught fire after being attacked by two missiles in the Gulf of Aden, the U.K. Navy said on Thursday.

While Israel is stoking fears in the international community over plans to attack the Palestinian refugee haven of Rafah, the Houthis and Iran are seeking to extract Western concessions that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Hamas conflict, said Rashad Al-Alimi, who heads Yemen’s internationally recognized government opposed by the Houthis. Sanctions relief for Iran and political recognition for the militant group may be among these demands, he suggested.

“This is a strategic dream for Iran,” Alimi said during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

The Houthis took control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in 2014 at the start of the country’s devastating civil war. They hold much of the north-west of Yemen, including the key port of Hodeida, and withstood a massive bombing campaign from a Saudi-led coalition that began a year later.

There’s been a tentative truce since 2022, but U.N.-mediated talks involving the Saudis are yet to result in a formal peace deal. Most Arab and Western countries don’t formally recognize the Houthis as a governing power.

The Houthis and Iranians have “exercised a certain leverage over international trade” and “have realized the power of this tool,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center think tank in Beirut, said in an interview. That means they won’t give up easily, she added.

U.S. humiliation

In a speech last week, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi suggested humiliating the U.S. and driving its military forces out of the Middle East is a key motive. That’s also one of Tehran’s main long-term objectives.

“We are witnessing strategic failure when it comes to American influence and control in the region,” he said. The Houthis are people who “don’t submit to America.”

To this end the Houthis have over the past few weeks buttressed their positions in three mountainous areas, said the people, who shared this information with Bloomberg based on intelligence gathered mainly from individuals on the ground.

They’ve dug more trenches and tunnels in the mountains of the Hajjah governorate northwest of Sanaa, located at the Saudi border and overlooking the Red Sea, as well as around peaks inland, they said.

These remote and rugged locations are being used to hide stockpiles of missiles, while mountainous heights of over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) allow for the targeting of ships further out to sea — including in the Gulf of Aden and even the Arabian Sea, according to four people informed about the Houthis’ latest moves.

Yemen’s Alimi believes the only way to restore security to the Red Sea is for the West to get tougher with Iran and support anti-Houthi factions to oust them from Sanaa — a goal that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates failed to achieve with their direct military involvement.

“Diplomacy and soft approaches do not work with Iran,” Alimi said in Munich.

Iranian help

The U.S. has repeatedly said the Houthis — who were added to Washington’s list of terrorist organizations last month — would not have been able to carry out and sustain their attacks in the Red Sea without technical, military and intelligence support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose operatives are present in Yemen.

Hundreds of operatives and experts from the IRGC and allied militias are working with the Houthis on their Red Sea attacks, according to Saudi and Yemeni security sources, and some have been killed in the recent U.S. and U.K. strikes. Iran has denied any involvement in the shipping assaults but has praised the Houthis for acting in solidarity with Hamas.

President Joe Biden has signaled the U..S will keep striking the Houthis for as long as it takes to end their grip on Red Sea shipping. It won’t be easy to achieve that without provoking the group into even more aggressive action — including attacking Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as it did before the truce — or risking a direct confrontation with Iran.

The U.S. has a duty to defend the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea but shouldn’t get into a wider conflict with the Houthis and Iran, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said at the Munich Security Conference.

“The U.S. obviously has important interests in the Middle East but that does not mean every problem in the Middle East is a U.S. problem,” he said.