Airstrikes in Yemen Won’t Stop Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

The United States and the United Kingdom have launched missile strikes in Yemen against Houthi targets responsible for attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. This is precisely the kind of major regional escalation of the Gaza conflict that the Biden administration has been seeking to avoid. And according to one of America’s leading experts on Yemen, the attacks will not amount to much—and definitely not deter the Houthis.

I interviewed Gregory D Johnsen on Thursday afternoon, January 11 not long after it became clear that the U.S. and U.K. were readying to strike. He is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and also the associate director of the Institute for Future Conflict at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (He stresses the views he expresses are his own). Gregory D Johnsen is a longtime Yemen watcher who I got to know when he served on the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen.

Our full podcast conversation will be published in the coming days, and includes some really important background information about the Houthis and their role Yemen’s civil wars and politics. For now, I wanted to share with you some key insights Gregory D. Johnsen shared with me.

This includes:

  • Why the Houthis decided to attack commercial ships in the Red Sea
  • Why the Houthis may actually benefit from being attacked by the US and UK
  • Why military action is not likely to deter the Houthis from further attacks in the Red Sea
  • Even if there were a ceasefire in Gaza tomorrow, these attacks on commercial shipping would probably still continue

This is an excerpt from our interview, edited for clarity.

How the Houthis benefit from goading the U.S. and U.K. into bombing Yemen

Gregory D Johnsen: War is good for the Houthis. It’s good both from a regional perspective as well as from a domestic perspective. First, on the regional side, the Houthis are very closely tied to Iran. Over the past decade, the Iranian-Houthi relationship has grown very, very close. By carrying out attacks against shipping in the Red Sea, the Houthis are able to give Iran a bit of a plausible deniability. That is, the Houthis can carry out attacks and Iran can be encouraging them, supporting them, giving intelligence to them, while Iran can publicly say, “look, we have no control. The Houthis are the authorities. They’re in Yemen. They’re making this decision on their own.”

So it’s a way for Iran to basically have its cake and eat it, too. Iran can escalate against the U.S. and push back against the US and Israel, while maintaining that Iran is not actually behind it.

That’s on the regional side. On the domestic side, the Houthis are in a strong position when they’re under attack. The Houthis gained the most popular support within Yemen when Saudi Arabia and the UAE were carrying out airstrikes [from 2015-2022] because many of these airstrikes, whether from incompetence or unprofessionalism, did not hit Houthi targets and instead killed civilians. So there was a rally-around-the-flag effect when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were carrying out airstrikes over the course of this war.

That war has largely ended over the past couple of years. But the Houthis are now being held to account in northern Yemen [which contains 80% of the population and which is under Houthi control]. And they’re being forced to govern in a way that they were never forced to govern previously. The Houthis have bitten off more than they can chew. As fighting has has dwindled over the past couple of years, they’ve found that there’s been more domestic unrest and more domestic challenges now than there were during the height of the war. So if the Houthis can both for rhetorical purposes as well as well as ideological and religious purposes say that they’re defending Palestinians by carrying out attacks on shipping in the Red Sea — but also bait the United States, Israel, the U.K., anybody into firing airstrikes into Yemen — then the Houthis think that they can come out as victors.

They think they will gain a lot of domestic support and there will be another rally-around-the-flag effect. The Houthis will get a pass on governance. And so for the Houthis, this is good. They’re also banking on the fact that any U.S. or U.K. military airstrikes are not really going to do that much damage. Remember: the Houthis are an organization that survived nearly a decade of war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They’re still around. They’ve survived airstrikes in the past. And in fact, as bad as airstrikes have been for the country of Yemen, politically, they’ve been pretty good for the Houthis.

More of this interview is immediately available to newsletter subscribers. Full podcast episode will be released in the coming days.