Will the ‘gates of hell’ open in the Middle East?
The first month of 2024, as well as the previous few years, were marked by further escalations in the Middle East. This time, on January 12, the US and the UK conducted a military operation against the Houthis in Yemen. Washington used fighter jets and Tomahawk cruise missiles to strike areas controlled by the movement, killing five Houthi fighters and injuring six.
US President Joe Biden said the operation was in response to "unprecedented attacks by the Houthis on international maritime vessels in the Red Sea," which included anti-ship ballistic missile strikes. The American leader said the strikes were defensive in nature.
The US-UK coalition attack was condemned by the Houthis, who vowed to retaliate. The movement's spokesman, Mohammed Abdulsalam, said the strikes were "blatant aggression" and would "not go unanswered." This also raised concerns about the potential for a wider regional conflict. The Houthis are backed by Iran, which has been accused of providing them with weapons and training. The US and its allies are concerned that the Houthis could use these weapons to attack American interests in the region.
One of the most important factors that led to the confrontation between the West and the Houthis is the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza. The Houthis declared their full support for the Palestinians back in the early days of the Israeli operation. The duration and intensity of the conflict with Hamas leads to the expansion of the geography of the conflict and the involvement of new participants – first proxy groups, and in the future possibly entire countries.
There are a number of other factors that could contribute to a wider regional conflict in the Middle East. One is the ongoing civil war in Yemen and Saudi-led intervention, which has dragged on for seven years and has caused a humanitarian crisis. Another is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are vying for influence in the region. Still, it is too early to say that a regional war in the Middle East is inevitable – but every regional escalation, including the US-UK strikes on the Houthis, could bring it another step closer.
Who are the Houthis and where did they come from?
The Houthis, or as they call themselves, the Ansar Allah movement, are a military-political group primarily based in northern Yemen. They appeared in 1994 and are named after the group's founder Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a politician, preacher, and field commander.
The Ansar Allah movement itself is a union of mountain tribes on the border with Saudi Arabia. They belong to the Zaydis, a Muslim Shiite minority. In Yemen, a third of the population identify as Zaydis, or almost 10 million people. But not all Zaydis are affiliated with the Houthis. Unlike "traditional" Shiites, the Zaydi sect does not believe in the "hidden Imam Mahdi" who is supposed to appear before the end of the world. The founder of the Houthi movement advocated for "religious revival" and "returning to the origins of Islam" through the Quran, which does not require interpretation. At the same time, the Houthis do not accept Wahhabism, a conservative current in Sunni Islam, which is practiced by their neighbors in Saudi Arabia.
By the time the Ansar Allah movement was created, al-Houthi was already involved in social and political activities and was a member of the Assembly of Representatives from the Marran district of the Saada province. In 2004, Al-Houthi sharply criticized the Yemeni authorities, who, in his opinion, sold out to the US, as they "turned a blind eye" to the actions of the Washington-led coalition in Iraq in 2003. Leaving the opposition, he proclaimed himself imam and announced the creation of an emirate on the territories controlled by the movement. Thus, the 2004 civil war began in Yemen. Shiites living in the north of the country demanded autonomy, claiming that they were fighting against the corrupt government of the Sunni majority. The rebels proclaimed their goal to recreate the theocratic state that was abolished as a result of the 1962 revolution.
In 2009, the Saudis helped the Yemeni authorities suppress the Houthi uprising. The ceasefire agreement was signed in 2010. Subsequently, the Yemeni government admitted that the bloody struggle with the Houthis had turned into a humanitarian catastrophe for the residents of northern Yemen. In 2012, Yemen’s first president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned during the Arab Spring revolutions. The Houthis tactically united with Saleh – this helped them capture the capital Sanaa in late 2014, starting the current civil war. They then overthrew the new president, Abd al-Rahman Mansour al-Hadi, who was placed under house arrest and then fled the country to Saudi Arabia.
Al-Hadi’s government in exile appealed to its allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – with a request to start a military operation against the Houthi rebels. The intervention of the Arab coalition (which also included Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Sudan, Senegal, Egypt, Qatar, and Morocco) with the support of the US, the UK, and Pakistan lasted from March 2015 to April 2022.
A crippling blockade of Yemen began in 2015 when Saudi Arabian warships encircled the country as part of their military intervention. Initially, after a Houthi missile threat towards Saudi Arabia, coalition forces closed all borders in 2017, sparking international outcry. They soon partially reopened ports under UN pressure, allowing some humanitarian aid, while denying a formal blockade continued.
Despite this claim, UN-approved ships still faced delays from Saudi vessels. This restricted flow of essential goods has fueled the world's worst ongoing famine, potentially even the deadliest in recent history. The humanitarian crisis is stark: the WHO reported nearly 500,000 suspected cholera cases in 2017, and Save the Children estimated 85,000 children died from starvation between 2015 and 2018.
The conflict settlement process was launched in 2022, but only in April 2023, after long negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which took place in Oman, was it possible to agree on a "long-term ceasefire" and the beginning of political settlement under the auspices of the UN. The agreements implied the unblocking of roads and the lifting of restrictions on the passage of ships to the port of Hodeidah.
Today, the Houthis control 14 of the 22 provinces of Yemen (mainly in the north and west), the Red Sea coast and major cities, and hold Sanaa. The internationally recognized government of Yemen, until recently, was located abroad in Riyadh. But members of the government and parliament have begun to return to Aden, the temporary capital in the south of Yemen.
It is noteworthy that a positive "tectonic shift" in the negotiations took place against the backdrop of agreements on the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which were implemented at the initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as with the mediation of Oman and Iraq. The Houthis call themselves part of the "axis of resistance" to Israel, the US, and the West in general. The head of the "axis" is Iran – it is considered the main military ally of the Houthis.
The West guards its prosperity
The escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict after October 7, 2023, led to another "mobilization" of the Ansar Allah movement as part of the "axis of resistance." The Houthis declared war on Israel and fired the first shots on October 19, 2023 – that day, US officials said that the USS Carney, a destroyer operating in the Red Sea, shot down three ground-based cruise missiles and several unmanned aerial vehicles heading towards Israel, launched from Yemen. Overall in the 100 days that have passed since the start of the conflict in Gaza, the Houthis have fired over 300 rockets and UAVs at Israel, most of which were shot down by US Navy forces deployed in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
In the early days of the escalation, the Houthis also said they were ready to send 40,000 volunteers to fight on the Palestinian side against Israel. However, it was obvious that these plans would not be realized, as the Houthis had no capability to transport the fighters. They would not have been allowed through the territory of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and their fleet's capacity would not have been enough; attempting to use sea routes would most likely cause a direct clash with US warships operating in the region.
On November 19, Ansar Allah captured the Galaxy Leader, an Israeli-affiliated cargo vessel with 25 people on board. Prior to the incident, Houthi spokesman Yahya Sarea announced the group's intention to attack ships owned and operated by Israeli companies or flying the Israeli flag. Sarea also called on countries to exclude their citizens from the crews of such ships. Earlier, al-Houthi threatened further attacks against Israeli interests, including potential targets in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. His speech emphasized the group's ability to track Israeli ships in these regions and attack them.
Assaults on ships and seizures began to have a significant impact on the profits of Western companies, insurance prices rose, and a number of carriers decided to switch to new routes around the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The threat to maritime security in the region and the limitation on supplies to Israel led to the initiation of the multinational Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea. In addition to the US, the operation initially included the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles, and Spain. The Pentagon later announced that more than 20 countries had joined the scheme, but a complete list with the names of the states was never published.
The operation entails patrolling the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden "to respond and provide the necessary assistance to commercial ships that transit through this vital international waterway. This is a defensive coalition designed to assure the world's shipping and sailors that the international community is ready to help with safe passage," according to General Pat Ryder of the Pentagon.
But this did not stop the Houthis, who launched new attacks with rockets and UAVs on ships in the Red Sea. From December 18 to 26, the Yemeni group attacked five more ships in the Red Sea with drones and ballistic missiles. International security forces did not intervene in any of these incidents. On December 31, US military helicopters in the Red Sea sank three Houthi boats that had attacked a Maersk Line container ship.
On January 3, the US and its allies issued an ultimatum to the Houthis, demanding that they cease activities that undermine freedom of navigation. However, on the night of January 9-10, the British destroyer HMS Diamond, together with American ships, repelled the largest attack by the Houthis in the waters of the Red Sea. On January 11, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the Houthis' aggression against ships in the region. Eleven members of the Security Council voted in favor, with no votes against. Four members, including China and Russia, abstained.
Are the ‘Gates of Hell’ opening?
The continued Houthi attacks on ships demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Operation Guardian of Prosperity. Clashes with American warships could not go unanswered, as this would undermine the image of the US Navy and create an unpleasant precedent. It is for this reason, most likely, that the decision was made to launch missile strikes on Ansar Allah positions in Yemen.
The coalition tried to intimidate the Houthis and stop their Red Sea attacks by demonstrating force, but it is already clear that this only further escalated the conflict in the region and the conflict in Gaza. Operation Guardian of Prosperity could have the opposite effect and expand the territory and participants of the conflict in the Middle East.
Even when announcing the start of the multinational operation, a number of participants discussed the possibility of a ground invasion of Yemen. Saudi Arabia, based on its bitter experience of involvement in the Yemeni civil war, warned against such actions, as an invasion would only exacerbate the situation. Riyadh, along with Abu Dhabi and Doha, which provided their airspace for US and British aircraft for the attacks on January 12, are concerned that the Houthis may begin to attack Western bases and oil depots on their territory.
The concerns of the Gulf monarchies are not unfounded, as this has happened before. The conflict could indeed expand and threaten the movement of oil and gas tankers in the Persian Gulf, through which more than 30% of the world's hydrocarbon exports are transported. Such a development would lead to a global recession and hit the economies of the Gulf states and most of the world.
It would be incorrect to say that the US-led attacks on the Houthis alone will provoke a large-scale regional conflict in the Middle East, but the continuation of such incidents could open the "gates of hell" and lead to a more intense involvement of the "axis of resistance" in different corners of the region in the fight against Israel and the West.
The situation cannot be resolved with an escalating use of force by the West, but only by ending the conflict in Gaza. Judging by statements from US officials about the need to reduce the intensity of IDF operations in Gaza, Washington understands this. But the problem is that the gap between the administrations of Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is growing. Washington is putting pressure on the Israeli authorities to stop the conflict in Gaza, but Netanyahu does not want this, as he understands that a ceasefire will lead to his loss of power and the start of a criminal process against him. The situation is deadlocked, and the fate of Israel, as well as the entire Middle East and American policy in the region, depends on its outcome.