Houthi rebels in Yemen are firing on cargo ships, threatening broader Middle East war

Here’s what you need to know about the Houthis, their role in the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian situation in Yemen

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Houthi rebels in Yemen struck two cargo ships in the Bab al-Mandab Strait on Friday, raising the threat of further escalation of the Israel-Hamas war and putting international commerce at risk.

Houthi military spokesperson Yaha Sarea said in a statement the two ships, MSC Alanya and MSC PALATIUM III, were heading to Israel and were attacked after ignoring several warnings.

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The Houthi rebel forces announced on Thursday that they had targeted the cargo ship Maersk Gibraltar with drones and prevented several other ships from heading to Israel in the previous 48 hours.

The Danish shipping company Maersk said the ship Maersk Gibraltar was targeted by a missile, but the vessel and crew are safe.

The Houthis warned they would target all ships sailing to Israel, regardless of their nationality, until Gaza receives the food and electricity it needs.

Attacks on the ships in the Arab and Red Sea began on Nov. 19, when the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Defenders of God), seized Galaxy Leader, a British-owned and Japanese-operated vessel, and detained its crew.

Since then, four commercial ships have been attacked, and others were forced to change their routes.

In response, the United States is considering forming a multinational maritime force to protect shipping in the Red Sea.

Here’s what you need to know about the Houthis, their role in the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Who are the Houthi forces?

The Houthis are an Arab-Yemeni movement that religiously belongs to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam. The movement is named after its first influential leader Seyyed Badr al-Din al-Houthi. It became politically active in the 1990s. The Houthis have a history of armed conflict with Saudi Arabia that intensified in 2015 into a total war.

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The Houthis are backed politically and militarily by Iran.

What have they been doing to ships?

Houthi forces hit the Norwegian commercial tanker STRINDA with a missile on Tuesday, sending a clear message to the world they are serious and willing to escalate the conflict.

The Houthis said any ship passing by Yemen should keep its radios turned on and quickly respond to communication, otherwise the ship is a target.

The Houthi forces have continued their attacks despite the U.S. warning.

“I do not think there is a solution in the short or mid-term,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

“There is no obvious option to force Houthi to stop.”

Juneau said the U.S. enhancing maritime security mission in the Red Sea will take time, and it might not be a perfect solution.

What is the threat to the broader region?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to act militarily against the Houthis if the U.S. fails to do so. Israel is over 2,200 km away from Yemen.

“Netanyahu is living in a dilemma. He realizes that attacking Yemen means a regional war. Going to a regional war also means risking normalization not only with Saudi Arabia. Israel could lose its deals with the entire region,” said Mostafa Shalash, the director of the Asian Studies Unit at the Center of Arabic Eurasian Studies.

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“The Houthi will not stop as the war in Gaza continues.”

What is life like in Yemen?

As the eyes of the world focused on the missiles and drones of the Houthis, living conditions in Yemen have been shockingly deteriorating after nine years of war, making it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Out of a population of 30 million, more than two-thirds of the population of Yemen require humanitarian assistance. More than 17 million people suffer from high levels of acute food insecurity. The majority of those are women and children.

Earlier this month, 22 humanitarian organizations in Yemen sounded the alarm after the UN World Food Programme announced a pause on its General Food Assistance program, which could affect over nine million Yemenis enduring food insecurity across northern Yemen.

On Dec. 11 Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report about the water crisis in Taizz, a city in southwestern Yemen. It demonstrates how control over water resources has been a centerpiece of the conflict between the Houthis and Yemeni forces, leaving three million civilians struggling with their basic needs.

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In describing the dire conditions, one man told HRW that he wishes to die and not experience all of that suffering.

“Death is more merciful than this life. We are suffering and struggling to get every single simple thing,” the man told HRW.

According to the UN, over half of the population in Yemen does not have access to safe drinking water.

How did the civil war break out?

The Yemen civil war dates back to 2014 when the Houthi military forces took over control of Yemen’s capital and largest city Sana’a. The rebel group toppled the Saudi-backed government.

The humanitarian crisis began dramatically worsening after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched an intervention in Yemen in March 2015, declaring war on the Houthis and their domestic allies.

As a result of the war, the UN estimated that 377,000 people died by the end of 2021. About 60 per cent of them died due to hunger and disease while over 150,000 were killed in direct armed conflicts. More than 11,000 children have been killed or maimed.

In addition, 4.5 million people have internally been displaced since 2015.

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Is there a chance of peace?

Although there have been peace talks since April 2023, aiming to end the conflict for good, the U.S. recently warned the Houthis that the peace plan for Yemen negotiated with Saudi Arabia would fail if they did not stop targeting ships.

“The Houthi perceives they are the ones who won the war in Yemen,” said Juneau, adding that the Houthi want to take on a regional role after consolidating their domestic power.

Juneau added that the U.S. threatening to halt the peace negotiation between Houthi forces and Saudi Arabia is possible, but the Saudi position in the meantime focuses on withdrawing from Yemen after a costly eight years of war, without achieving their objective.

“It is a war Saudi Arabia has lost, and the Houthi want to extract as much concession as possible,” Juneau said, emphasizing that what has been negotiated so far is not a peace solution, it is a Saudi withdrawal and Houthi declaration of victory.

Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces began in April 2020 with a UN-brokered truce deal that lasted for six months. Although the brokered truce expired in October 2022, the parties refrained from major escalation. Peace talks mediated by Oman resumed in April 2023.

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Juneau said a peace deal between the Saudi government and the Houthis would not solve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

“The Yemini people are losing on this. That is the tragedy,” he said.

A Yemeni non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute Nadwa Al-Dawsari posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that regardless of the terms of the deal and how good they look; it is a deal between the Saudi government and Houthis not between Yemenis, and won’t end the humanitarian crisis.

The Embassy of The Republic of Yemen in Canada was not available for comment as the ambassador is out of the country.

What are the chances of a regional war in the Middle East?

Shalash said he believes that Saudi Arabia and Iran will work to avoid a regional war by all means. Saudi Arabia wants a way out of Yemen, and Iran needs Saudi investments to reinforce its economy after more than 40 years of imposed sanctions. A regional war would directly affect their interests.

“Iranian and Saudi recognized hostility driven by sectarian mentality had reached a dead-end,” Shalash said. “The region is experiencing a new political reformation. The relationships of power are shifting.”

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Shalash said that the Houthis and Iran understand that escalating the situation in the Red Sea is not in the United States’ interests.

“The U.S. cannot afford to enter a war in Yemen. There is no objective,” he said. “After nine years of war, the Houthi became more powerful. That is a fact”

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