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Future of US campaign against Houthis uncertain as Red Sea attacks resume

Observers say Iran was an intended target audience of last week’s strikes; Egypt’s Suez Canal records major drop in sea traffic and revenue.

The “USS Carter Hall” dock landing ship and “USS Bataan” amphibious assault ship in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Aug. 29, 2023. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Moises Sandoval/U.S. Navy.
The “USS Carter Hall” dock landing ship and “USS Bataan” amphibious assault ship in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Aug. 29, 2023. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Moises Sandoval/U.S. Navy.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

After a series of American and British strikes on dozens of Houthi targets in Yemen on Jan. 11 and 12, the Iranian-backed terror force renewed attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea on Tuesday, damaging a Malta-flagged Greek-managed container vessel. 

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that its Navy SEALS had seized Iran-produced missile parts and other weapons found aboard ship intercepted en route to Yemen last Thursday. Two SEAL team members went missing during the operation and are presumed dead.

The economic cost of the ongoing Houthi attacks became clear when Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, stated on Jan. 13 that the Canal saw a 40% decline in revenue in the first 11 days of January compared to the same period last year. 

Rabi, who made the remarks on Egyptian television according to Egypt Today, said that the number of ships transiting the canal had decreased by 30%, down to 544 ships, and that there had been a 41% drop in tonnage compared to 2023.  

The Far East trade accounts for 25% of Israeli exports and imports, of which 7% passes through Eilat Port on the Red Sea, with the remainder passing through the Suez to Haifa and Ashdod ports on the Mediterranean Sea. 

Last week’s airstrikes left the Houthis with around three-quarters of their missile and drone capabilities, according to American assessments cited by the New York Times on Jan. 13.

Michael Allen, former senior director at the U.S. National Security Council and former staff director of the House Intel Committee, noted that “for weeks, the Houthis had engaged in an escalated campaign of missile, drone and surface attacks against shipping in the region,” adding that the military aircraft and ships, including submarines, had targeted Houthi air defenses, radars, storage and launch installations for drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. 

“We are yet to understand how comprehensive or how successive the initial strikes have been. And we are yet to see whether this is a one off, or part of a much broader campaign against the Houthis,” Allen stated on Jan. 12. 

While the strikes “will have had an impact on the Houthi missile capability, including their ability to collect intelligence and targeting data,” he continued, “it is very unlikely that a single strike will significantly change the situation. While battle damage assessment will already be underway by the U.S. military, we should assume that follow up strikes will be needed.”

The question of “whether this is just a few limited strikes in the hope the Houthis negotiate and stop the strikes, or a longer series of strikes or part of something more significant, is pertinent,” Allen stated. “The answer will provide insights into the strategic aims of the U.S.”

He added that undoubtedly, “Part of the rationale for the strikes is also sending a message to Iran. Iran is the backer for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, and the U.S. will also be hoping that these strikes send a message to Iran to back off. However, this is unlikely. Recent U.S. strikes across the region against other Iranian proxies have not had a major impact on Iranian operations to support its terrorist brothers and their operations across the region.”

At some point, he added, “the West may have to address the Iran threat directly rather than attacking its proxies. While this is not an immediate prospect, Iran may actually force the West into a confrontation if it continues its support for enhanced attacks by its proxy forces against Israel, the U.S. and other nations.”

How will the Houthis react? It is probably unlikely that these strikes will cause them to back down, at least immediately. They might respond by further attacks against civilian and military vessels, expand the attacks (for example by using sea mines as well as missiles and drones) or even conduct attacks against Saudi oil infrastructure, as they have in the past. 

According to former Israeli intelligence official and regional analyst Avi Melamed, the strikes on the Houthis have challenged the Iranian regime’s hegemonic aspirations, as well as the Iranian regime’s long-term assumptions that have driven its strategies and tactics.

“The U.S.-U.K. attack is addressing the mullahs’ regime in Iran. The essence of the message is that holding the world hostage is a red line. The Red Sea will not be your playground,” Melamed told JNS.

“The decision is made in Tehran. It’s highly likely that Iran does not want to see further escalation in the Red Sea. Thus, it is possible that Houthis will ‘divert’ their focus, resuming attacks on Israel as a way to save face,” he added. 

“Within the context of how Tehran is pulling the strings surrounding the war in Gaza, the Houthis are an integral, if not the most integral, component of the Iranian tactic of using proxies to manipulate the U.S. to pressure Israel to halt its progress in Gaza,” said Melamed. 

“While until last night the major question reverberating throughout the region was focused on whether the United States would meaningfully defend its interests, today that question focuses on Tehran—will Tehran escalate and order its proxies to ramp up their efforts against Israel and the United States, or will it protect those proxies by de-escalating at the cost of Hamas and PIJ in Gaza?”

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