Seeing Red: Towards a diplomatic solution to Houthi attacks

Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the U.S. and the U.K. strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

In the latest regional escalation sparked by the Israel-Gaza war, the United States and United Kingdom struck Houthi targets in Yemen on Friday. Washington and London have framed their military action as a “limited act” to protect maritime lanes critical to the global economy in response to increasing Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. The Yemeni group have said they are targeting Israeli-linked vessels in retaliation for actions in Gaza, but their attacks appear to be largely indiscriminate.

So far, US-UK action has done little to deter the Houthis. In response, the group has now also threatened UK and US vessels, hitting a US-owned ship off the Yemeni coast on Monday. The air strikes on Yemen did degrade some of the Houthis’ military capabilities, but they will not be sufficient to sustainably secure the Red Sea and encourage a return of international shipping – which has largely diverted around southern Africa. Nor will the strikes reduce insurance premiums driving up the cost of commodities. Moreover, the Houthis are using the Western military operation to bolster their growing popularity amongst Arab publics. And, even though the group represents a limited threat, its continued attacks may embroil the US and UK in an escalating crisis – risking a fragile UN-led political process to end Yemen’s long civil war.

A multi-track European approach

There is a clear European interest in protecting Red Sea shipping lanes that connect the continent to key markets in Asia and Africa, hence why countries such as Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands are supporting UK-US military operations. The European Union and its member states should instead learn from the fallout of such engagement and carve out their own role to support freedom of navigation. Member states are discussing the creation of a new EU maritime operation modelled on Operation Atalanta which it set up to protect ships from pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia. A better model would be the French-led maritime awareness mission, EMASoH, in the adjacent strait of Hormuz which combines the escorting of maritime shipping with a focus on diplomatic engagement with coastal states, including Iran.         

Ultimately, military action will not work without a sustained diplomatic track. Europeans should work to preserve the diplomatic détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This has acted as one of the few restraints on the Iranian-backed Houthis given Tehran’s desire to maintain its bilateral engagement with Riyadh. Crucially, the Houthis have also made it clear that their actions are directly related to the ongoing war in Gaza. The US and the EU, together with the UK, must urgently press for a ceasefire to prevent a broader regional conflagration.

Houthi calculations

The Houthis may relish the prospect of further confrontation. The battle-hardened group has been fighting a bloody civil war in Yemen since 2014 during which it withstood an intense campaign of Saudi airstrikes – ultimately forcing Riyadh into peace talks. As it now seeks to consolidate its status as Yemen’s de facto government, the group is likely to use escalation to energise local support and regional standing as an integral part of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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