Joe Biden’s Air Strikes on Yemen Are Reckless and Wrong

The Biden administration has chosen to open up a new front in Yemen instead of pressuring Israel to stop its onslaught against Gaza. Air strikes are unlikely to deter attacks on Red Sea shipping, but they could undercut a deal to end Yemen’s bloody civil war.

Houthi followers rest ahead of taking part in a rally and parade against US-led aerial attacks launched on sites in Yemen, January 22, 2024, near Sana’a, Yemen. (Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images)

On January 11, after weeks of procrastination, US and UK forces launched a series of more than sixty air strikes against positions of the Ansar Allah movement, known as the Huthis, in Yemen. Officially intended to deter the Huthis from continuing their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, these and subsequent US strikes are a significant escalation in the current Middle East crisis, centered on Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza and its population.

Initially described as “one-off,” the strikes have been taking place almost daily and will continue. The US and UK governments claim that their campaign is designed to ensure internationally recognized freedom of navigation. Another justification, for the benefit of European public opinion, focuses on the potential impact of Huthi action in the Red Sea on inflation and delivery delays due to the diversion route around Africa.

The United States has stated that it is not conducting the strikes within the framework of the “Prosperity Guardian” task force it announced in mid-December, whose main characteristic is its insignificance. None of the states that border the Red Sea have joined, including Egypt, which is most affected by the loss of income from passages through the Suez Canal. Most major shipping lines are diverting their vessels around Africa, increasing costs and delays.

An Independent Actor

US and other Western officials refuse to acknowledge that the Huthis have explicitly declared that their actions are in support of the Palestinians in Gaza and will end as soon as Israel’s military onslaught and blockade of basic necessities stops. Ansar Allah has stated that it is only targeting ships with a connection to Israel, although it has extended its targeting list to US and UK shipping in the wake of the strikes. The movement has not attempted to impose a general blockade of the Red Sea.

Western media routinely and wrongly presents the Huthis, alongside a number of other movements in the region, as nothing more than Iranian proxies who take their orders from Tehran. The standard formulation refers to Ansar Allah as the “Iran-backed Huthis.” This allegation serves two main purposes.

First of all, it plays into the hands of US hawks whose main objective is to bring about a full-scale war against Iran, something that would have unimaginable consequences throughout the region and beyond. This meshes with the plans of Israel’s far-right government, whose most extreme figures have been working to push the United States into such a war. This outcome would certainly be detrimental to the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in particular, which are geographically (and to a lesser extent politically) situated between Israel and Iran.

Second, the charge of acting as Tehran’s proxy serves as an insult to an organization that has its own motivations and ideological position. The basic slogan of the Huthis, repeated daily, is as follows: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews,” inserted between its two positive elements “God is Great” and “Victory to Islam.”

The Huthi response to the Gaza massacres initially consisted of firing missiles and drones at southern Israel, which were unsurprisingly intercepted before reaching their target and proved to be largely ineffective. By contrast, their interventions in the Red Sea have had a real impact. The number of ships calling on Eilat port has dropped by 85 percent, and Israel had already suffered losses of US$3 billion by late December.

Intervention in the Red Sea has transformed the image of Ansar Allah from an obscure “rebel” movement in Yemen into a force praised as heroic throughout the world by thousands who didn’t even know about its existence a few months ago. At the same time, perceptions of the United States and the UK have become much more hostile due to their vital, unquestioning support for the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, which has now killed more than twenty-five thousand Palestinians.

In Yemen itself, views about the Huthis have also changed. Among the universally pro-Palestinian Yemeni population, they have gained support they did not previously enjoy as, in contrast with most states in the Arab and Muslim world, they have been taking action to help the Palestinians. Enormous crowds have attended the weekly pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Sana’a and other cities and towns.

The Red Sea campaign is also helping Ansar Allah recruit youths for its military. Elsewhere in Yemen, the striking contrast between Huthi actions and the lip service paid by the internationally recognized government (IRG) and its factions to the Palestinian cause also serves to increase the movement’s popularity.

Impact on Yemen

The US/UK air strikes against the Huthis and their classification as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” group by Washington on January 17 will have a significant impact on Yemen, beyond further improving their popular standing at home and abroad. Regardless of US statements to the contrary, the designation of the Huthis as terrorists is likely to significantly worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Such interventions have the most negative impact on the poor and ordinary citizens of Yemen. The main risks concern access to food supplies, which are already insufficient, and the difficulties that are likely to arise in receiving remittances at a time when the latter are essential to keep thousands of households afloat.

With respect to the impact of the strikes on the so-called Yemeni peace process, let’s begin with a reminder of the basic facts. First, who are the Huthis fighting? Their local opponents have been led by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) since April 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the UN-mediated truce that lasted till October of that year.

The PLC is composed of eight men representing different geographical areas and political factions within Yemen, as well as the rival interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that created it in the first place. In this context, it is less than surprising that internal rivalries and competition between their external sponsors have taken precedence over the struggle against the Huthis.

By contrast, thanks to their structure, the Huthis present a united front. While there are differences within the movement, they have been kept under control in this highly centralized government. Since 2015, Ansar Allah has ruled over approximately two-thirds of the Yemeni population and one-third of the country’s territory.

Its governing system is highly authoritarian and repressive. Respect for human rights, including freedom of expression and equal rights for women, are not among the movement’s operational principles.

In financial terms, the Huthis are largely dependent on heavy taxation of anything and everything in their zone of control. Over the past year, port and customs income from Hodeida’s ports has increased thanks to the partial lifting of the blockade on Hodeida, which enabled them to force ships to divert away from Aden.

The collapse of the economy and insufficient humanitarian support have seriously worsened poverty throughout what is the poorest country in the region. In the course of a civil war that has now lasted for almost nine years, Huthi military capacities and strength have increased. Were it not for aerial strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, they would probably have made more territorial gains, in particular the Mareb oil- and gas-producing sites.

Stop-Start Negotiations

To add to this already complex situation, since late 2022, there have been direct, open negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis. These negotiations have been the main plank of an attempt to end the war within Yemen.

Having long since abandoned the belief that victory over the Huthis would be quick and easy, the de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman has for some years wanted to extricate his country from the Yemeni quagmire. For their part, the Huthis insist that they are at war with Saudi Arabia, implying that the Saudi-backed IRG is little more than a puppet, so direct negotiations are an essential element to bring Saudi involvement to a close.

Throughout 2023, there was a widespread belief that an agreement was close. This would involve the agreement of solutions on several major issues, including Saudi financing of government salaries for a year, a full end to the blockade on Hodeida’s ports, and an extension of the destinations from Sana’a airport. First and foremost, it would mean a permanent cease-fire and secure borders.

A major sticking point was the official Saudi status in any agreement. The Huthis insisted that they had to sign as “participants,” leaving Saudi authorities liable to accusations of war crimes for their past military actions. For their part, the Saudis wanted to sign as “mediators” to avoid such a risk and improve their image.

By December of last year, there were indications that the Huthis had compromised on this issue. Reports indicated that the Huthis and the PLC would formally sign the agreement with the Saudis as mediators in early January.

However, all that emerged was a statement by the UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, who had been left in the dark during the Saudi-Huthi negotiations. Grundberg said that he was proceeding with the preparation of a road map for intra-Yemeni negotiations that would lead to a peace agreement to solve the Yemeni civil war.

PLC members were merely “informed” by the Saudis of the contents of the agreement. Along with the special envoy, they had neither been consulted nor given any opportunity to have their views taken into consideration.

If this agreement had come to fruition, it would have formally freed the GCC from involvement in the Yemeni civil war, although there is little doubt that GCC states would have continued supporting the factions that are dependent on them both financially and politically.

A Threatened Deal

While this agreement would not have brought an end to the Yemeni civil war, it would have been a welcome step toward a solution. With the balance of power significantly in favor of the Huthis, negotiations to establish a viable democratic state in Yemen would have been extremely difficult and demanding. Some of the political elements of which the IRG is comprised, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Tareq Saleh’s National Resistance forces, are as authoritarian and repressive as the Huthis, while others like Islah represent a rival Islamist ideology.

Huthi intervention in the Gaza war has posed a challenge to this prospect. Initially, the Saudis and the United States hoped the deal might be signed before the situation deteriorated beyond repair. This hope helps explain Saudi silence about Ansar Allah’s moves in the Red Sea, along with the fact that it is difficult for any government in the Middle East to oppose active support for Palestine during the current genocide, particularly in view of the Saudi kingdom’s own inaction. Riyadh’s response to the US strikes on Yemen has been to call for “restraint and avoiding escalation.”

For the United States, an end to the war in Yemen was one of the few potential foreign policy successes that Biden set out at the beginning of his presidency. By attacking the Huthis and designating them as terrorists, Biden has most likely put paid to this ambition.

The STC is one of a number of southern separatist factions, and its leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi is one of the PLC’s seven vice-presidents. Al-Zoubaidi is the only one to have openly called for more direct US and UK military action. The STC is particularly close to the UAE leadership, and observers often describe it as no more than an Emirati client force.

The terrorist designation fits in with the IRG’s strategy and its lasting demand that the Huthis be described as terrorists. Given the popularity of support for Palestine in Yemen, it is difficult for the PLC to loudly proclaim its satisfaction at the new situation, although there is little doubt that the prospect of expanded US and UK attacks against the Huthis has raised PLC hopes that the group might be militarily defeated. Yet those supporting this military escalation all appear to be in denial of history, which has demonstrated that such actions lead to disaster.