The Biden administration’s naive approach to the Houthis

The Biden administration’s naive approach to the Houthis

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The Red Sea has been under scrutiny for months now, ever since the Houthi militia started threatening maritime navigation in this critical waterway. The continuous targeting of Israeli vessels or those heading to Israel caused much panic, leading many vessel operators to shun the waterway and decide to opt for the more time-consuming and costly option of navigating around the Cape of Good Hope.

Given this development and the disruptions to global supplies, it was inevitable that there would be a reaction from the West, particularly by the major powers, given the strategic nature of the waterway and the growing panic in global markets. The recent US-UK strikes have added more fuel to the existing fire and there is now much debate on what turn the Red Sea crisis will take and whether the strikes will be successful in decapitating the Houthis’ military capabilities. In addition, debates are rife on wider related issues such as the impact of the Houthi escalation on the Gaza conflict, the Yemen talks and the Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement deal.

Before delving into the crux of the issue, it is important to mention that, in the Western media, there has been something of a mischaracterization or misinterpretation of the motivations behind the Houthis’ targeting of maritime traffic in the Red Sea. They have been characterized as primarily driven by the Israeli aggression in Gaza and the Western failure to force a ceasefire. The Houthis are presented as championing an Arab and Islamic cause and taking direct action. However, anyone from the region who understands the Houthis will realize that regional calculations are far from the real motivations behind their actions.

There are regional concerns about the Iranians changing their calculations and throwing more weight behind the Houthis

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The Houthis have been having a torrid time domestically, with the Yemeni populace under its rule angered by the continuous deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the failure of the Houthis to introduce good governance practices. Given this reality, along with a desire to project itself as a legitimate political actor and to carve out more leverage in the Yemen peace talks, the Houthis found it apt to spring into motion the Red Sea crisis and to justify it based on the Gaza crisis. It can be said that the Gaza crisis, despite its horrendous and bloody nature, happened at a good time for the Houthis, as they were able to ride on the back of it to justify their actions in the Red Sea.

Having discussed the true Houthi motivations, it is now necessary to look at the impact of their actions on the various issues mentioned previously.

The Houthi belligerency in the Red Sea is unlikely to force the Netanyahu government to change course in the Gaza conflict. We have seen Israel continue unabated in its aggression and violation of sanctities since the Houthis started their attacks and violations in the Red Sea, with no wavering or hesitation.

The Biden administration has drawn a line between the Gaza crisis and the Red Sea escalation, with its intent on keeping the two files separate. Some argue this is virtually impossible given that the Houthis have amplified the Gaza crisis in their narrative and discourse. However, the Biden administration, by separating the two files, aims to dampen regional and global concerns of the Gaza crisis spreading.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to the Middle East reflected this US approach, which has raised the ire of some regional countries, as they believe that the White House is burying its head in the sand and adopting a naive approach. They say that settling the Gaza crisis would no doubt help in isolating the Houthis immediately, as their narrative and discourse would fall flat and their true motivations and intentions would be exposed.

There is regional concern that the Biden administration is following the same course as other US administrations in not considering regional voices and pursuing a not well-thought-out approach, while overlooking the reconciliation processes contributing to stability and security in the region.

Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of initiating and leading reconciliation processes like the one with Iran, with some successes, such as the exchange of ambassadors and opening of consulates despite Riyadh’s concerns and demand that the Iranians do more to overcome trust deficit issues. The Kingdom does not want to see its efforts wasted and the region left to pick up the pieces after the recent US-UK military operations in Yemen. There are regional concerns about the Iranians changing their calculations and throwing more weight behind the Houthis, especially if the strikes continue and the Iranians sense a real decapitation of Houthi military capabilities that would set back Tehran’s forward defense strategy in Yemen.

To date, the Iranians have criticized the US-UK strikes, presenting them as a continuation of colonial aggression and violation of Yemeni sovereignty, while the Kingdom has urged all parties to show restraint at a tense time. The Biden administration needs to understand that it has fallen for the Houthi bait and the US-UK strikes, in fact, strengthen their arm and leverage at the domestic and regional levels.

One would have expected more shrewdness from the Biden administration, but it seems like it is completely out of touch with the reality and is shut off from regional voices, especially those of the Gulf states, which have been dealing with Yemen and the Houthis for many years.

At the moment, there is no likelihood that the Yemen peace and Saudi-Iran talks are likely to be derailed, but if the US-UK strikes continue, there is no doubt that more regional and global concerns will grow over their rupture. Given this possibility, there is a need for the West to get on with the main business of ending the Gaza crisis through exerting real pressure on the Israelis, while leaving regional actors to help Yemen in not only in dealing with the Houthis but also in settling the Red Sea crisis.

The West needs to get on with the main business of ending the Gaza crisis through exerting real pressure on Israel

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

In addition to the lack of US-UK strategy toward the Houthis, the Biden administration has adopted a somewhat soft approach toward Iran and has been unwilling to engage in any form of confrontation with Tehran. Hence, any actions against the Houthis are somewhat meaningless unless Iran is addressed, given its firm support for the Yemeni militia.

What is more puzzling when looking at the US approach is that, according to Sky News Arabia, the US informed the Houthis of the airstrikes in advance, allowing them time to shift munitions, equipment and technology. There could be different interpretations of this US move, but what is clear is that Washington lacks a strategy regarding the Houthis and its present approach is unlikely to impact or deter the group from destabilizing the Red Sea.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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