January 18, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

US vs Houthis: New stage of Red Sea threats emerges

What is clear now is that these attacks are not only increasing but settling into a new type of routine.
January 18, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

US vs Houthis: New stage of Red Sea threats emerges

What is clear now is that these attacks are not only increasing but settling into a new type of routine.

A new phase has begun in attempts to stop the Iran-backed Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and off the coast of Aden.

The US re-designated the Houthis as terrorists on January 17, an important step to provide the framework and legal means to confront the group. The re-designation also illustrates why the Houthis should never have been taken off the list in the first place – it has never shown any intention to stop the previous activity it was engaged in and it has only been emboldened by appeasement.

Now, the Houthis are continuing to increase and widen their attacks in the Red Sea and areas off the coast of Aden. According to a Wednesday report, the Houthis have moved some of their missiles and drones, potentially increasing the areas they will target. The US, at the same time, is also increasing its strikes on the Houthis – leading to questions about what may come next. The Houthis have shown that they will not be deterred and that they will continue to attack targets of opportunity near the Red Sea.

US Central Command said overnight Wednesday that “in the context of ongoing multi-national efforts to protect freedom of navigation and prevent attacks on US and partner maritime traffic in the Red Sea, on Wednesday, US Central Command forces conducted strikes on 14 Iran-backed Houthi missiles that were loaded to be fired in Houthi controlled areas in Yemen.”

Why is this important?

Striking the Houthi missiles and their launch sites can help to stop attacks on shipping. However, the Houthi storage facilities will also need to be eliminated. The Houthis have spent the last seven years stockpiling missiles. They have also been aided by Iran in this effort. They have a large arsenal of various types of drones and missiles, but they likely do not have enough precision missiles for anti-ship missions. They will rely on cheaper kamikaze drones for these attacks.

The US says that the recent strikes “along with other actions we have taken, will degrade the Houthi’s capabilities to continue their reckless attacks on international and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden.” This follows the decision on Wednesday to designate the Houthis as terrorists, something that happened already during the Trump administration, which the Biden administration chose to end apparently as part of a push for a ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudis.

In a strange twist of fate, the Saudis have now reconciled with Iran, and it is Riyadh that is now more cautious on the Houthi issue. Saudi Arabia has backed the Yemen government against the Houthis since 2015. The Iran-backed Houthis took advantage of the ceasefire and Iran-Saudi deal to focus attacks on the Red Sea. Iran is also pushing the Yemeni group to carry out more attacks.

Ostensibly, the Houthis claim they began their attacks due to the Israel-Hamas war. However, the larger context is that they want to show they have the impunity to close the Red Sea to shipping and endangering the global economy.

On Wednesday, the Houthis attacked a ship called the Genco Pircardy using a drone. US Central Command noted that “at approximately 8:30 p.m., an assessed one-way attack UAS was launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen and struck M/V Genco Picardy in the Gulf of Aden. M/V Genco Picardy is a Marshall Islands-flagged, US-owned and operated bulk carrier ship.”

That attack followed US strikes on Tuesday, and the Houthis targeted a ship called the Zografia. “US Forces struck and destroyed four Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles prepared to launch from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen,” the US said on Tuesday.

What is clear now is that these attacks are not only increasing but settling into a new type of routine. The US has now carried out at least three rounds of attacks, while the Houthis are attacking ships daily. So far, despite the important decisions by the US Central Command, the Yemeni group can continue dangerous operations against shipping. A new phase has been entered in the war over the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The question now is whether the US can stop the Houthi attacks.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy