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How to Counter the Houthi Threat from Yemen

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently announced the establishment of a 10-country force in Bahrain to fight and protect against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who in the past few weeks have been threatening and attacking ships near Yemen in protest of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

As CNN notes, the Houthis “are stepping up their strikes on ships in the Red Sea, which they say are revenge against Israel for its military campaign in Gaza. The Houthis are believed to have been armed and trained by Iran, and there are fears that their attacks could escalate Israel’s war against Hamas into a wider regional conflict.”

Iran is widely accused of backing the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, started attacking Israel by launching missiles and drones on its southern region including the port city of Eilat, in October soon after the war started. However, most of the missiles and drones were intercepted by Israeli and U.S. forces or fell short of their mark.

In light of these failures, the Houthis changed tactics, instead focusing on ships near Yemen’s shores. They have been firing missiles and launching attack drones at commercial ships that they claim are linked to Israel and seized a vessel last month that they are still holding in a Yemeni port.

The attacks have forced some of the world’s biggest shipping and oil companies, such as BP and Maersk, to suspend transit through one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes, which may have a drastic effect on global shipping as well as the global economy.

The global economy has been served a series of painful reminders of the importance of this narrow stretch of sea, which runs from the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen to the Suez Canal in northern Egypt – and through which 12% of global trade flows, including 30% of global container traffic.

This is why the United States and other countries have decided to take action. In addition to Bahrain, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles, and Spain have agreed to join Washington in the new mission.

The initiative is aimed at ensuring ships can pass by Yemen safely and to prevent the Houthis from targeting vessels. U.S. State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller made clear on Tuesday during a press conference that attacks on ships in the Red Sea “are not just attacks on those ships, are not just attacks on those crew, are not just attacks on the country from which those ships hail; they’re an attack on international commerce. So, it’s something that affects not just the countries in the region, not just the parties who are affected directly by the attacks, but it affects the entire global economy. So, it is in the interest of everyone in the region and everyone in the world to deter these attacks and to respond to them.”

The U.S.-led force may be an auspicious start but it may prove to be insufficient. The Houthis are backed by Iran and have a significant amount of funding and support behind them. The Houthi administration now controls most of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a, and the key Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah. This makes it difficult for any international force to act within Yemen itself. The large amount of Houthi fighters and long borders on the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea make it difficult to police and control the group, let alone prevent it from carrying out attacks. But if the U.S. wants to counter the Houthi threat, it will need to operate within Yemen where it can hit the Houthis at the source.

The Houthi problem comes against the backdrop of regional efforts to reduce tensions. Saudi Arabia is set to sign a peace deal with the Houthis by the end of the year, the Lebanese-based Al Akhbar reported recently. The daily paper, which is affiliated with the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, said the agreement, negotiated under the auspices of the UN is in its final stages while the U.S. is pressuring Riyadh to join the coalition against the Houthis amid its attacks in the Red Sea.

But while the Saudis may have managed to quell the violence it has seen over the last few years, in large part due to its recent deal with Iran, other nations will not be able to get the Houthis to the negotiating table. This means the international community will need to step up and enlarge military forces on global shipping lanes to deter Houthi fighters and ensure the safe passage of all ships. More warships will be needed as well as helicopter and fighter jet patrols. The Houthi must be made to understand that any effort to attack naval vessels, civilian or military, will be met with full force and with zero tolerance.

No terror group should ever be allowed to threaten international shipping lanes or the global economy. Only the use of force will create deterrence. Anything else will spell disaster for the region and the world at large. Austin’s initiative is good, but he will need to green-light operations inside Yemen to hit the Houthi rebels where it hurts them the most.