Houthis and Iranians have laid a trap – and the UK and US have flown right in | World News

The allied aim is to neutralise the threat posed by the Houthi rebel forces against international shipping in the Red Sea, through which a huge amount of oil and goods pass. But the Iranian-trained Houthis, once a rag tag rebel army, are now a fighting force to be reckoned with.

By Dominic Waghorn, International affairs editor @DominicWaghorn

It’s not surprising the British and Americans have had another go at striking the Houthis in Yemen – but it’s just not necessarily all that clever.

Allied naval vessels have been threatened, the argument goes in London and Washington, the commercial shipping of other countries hit or hijacked.

It is essential something is done about it, say the politicians and military planners.

Middle East latest: Houthis warn UK and US to ‘expect response’

But how far have they thought it through? The operations risk a lot, will almost certainly not achieve their goals and are already strengthening the enemy.

The Houthis and their Iranian patrons laid a trap and Britain and America have arguably walked, or flown right into it.

The allied aim is to neutralise the threat posed by the Houthi rebel forces against international shipping in the Red Sea, through which a huge amount of oil and goods pass.

It is one of the vital arteries of international commerce. The longer the threat persists, the more it is going to affect all of us, in prices at the petrol pump and for online goods.

Once a rag-tag rebel army, the Houthis are now a fighting force to be reckoned with, dominating much of Yemen and armed and trained by Iran.

They have been attacking ships since the start of Israel’s Gaza offensive in solidarity with their Arab brothers, they say.

The Houthis are hitting the West where it hurts – but to be successful, the British-American airstrikes must entirely neutralise their threat to the Red Sea.

Transport minister Huw Merriman says ‘we are not ruling out further strikes against the Houthis’. 

While any threat persists, international shipping must avoid the Red Sea because of the punitive cost of insurance which has in some cases risen 20-fold.

That degree of success is unfeasible. Ask the Saudis who failed to deter the Houthis despite eight years of military action supported by Gulf allies, the UK and the US.

But more to the point, the capability the Houthis are using to threaten shipping is mobile and easily hidden in the desert wastes of Yemen.

The airstrikes will certainly degrade the Houthis.

Houthi fighters at a protest on Sunday against US and UK strikes on Yemen. Pic: AP

Tribesmen loyal to the Houthis sit during a parade for new tribal recruits amid escalating tensions with the U.S.-led coalition in the Red Sea, in Bani Hushaish, Yemen January 22, 2024. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

‘Plucky’ Houthis revelling in popularity

But they only need to continue threatening shipping. For that, the Houthis need to hang on to a handful of portable assets and render the Red Sea unviable as a conduit for international shipping.

And despite everything British and American jets threw at them two weeks ago, they’ve managed to keep up the threat, letting loose missiles at shipping regardless.

Meanwhile the Houthis are benefiting from the military action where it counts for them in the arena of Arab public opinion.

While corrupt, decadent autocratic Arab regimes, as millions of Arabs see them, are doing nothing about Gaza, the plucky Houthis are. And they are revelling in it.

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As Sky News has shown today, the conflict is making celebrities of the Houthis, like the man they are calling Timhouthi Chalamet, a young photogenic Houthi online influencer.

And the Houthis have successfully drawn Britain and America deeper into the Middle Eastern conflict that’s swirling around Gaza.

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Read more:
UK has no quarrel with Yemen, Lord Cameron says
Relatives of Israeli hostages storm parliament
Dispute over whether Labour was briefed on Houthi strikes

Rishi Sunak may claim the airstrikes are “unrelated” to Gaza but that’s frankly nonsense. The Houthis have made this explicitly about Gaza. They began their action over the war there and will end it, most analysts agree, once there is a ceasefire.

The British and Americans are letting loose armaments worth tens of millions on one of the world’s poorest countries to allow Israel to do the same in another equally impoverished area.

That is certainly how this is being seen by hundreds of millions.

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None of that is any good for either countries’ standing in the Arab world and beyond. It is a PR disaster for Britain and America and a huge boost for the Houthis and by association their Iranian patrons.

The airstrikes may be blowing up bunkers and weapons stockpiles or rearranging sand in the desert but in the battle for hearts and minds across the Middle East, they are handing a victory to Iran and its allies.

And they are almost certainly not going to make the Red Sea a viable international trade route again, not until Israel ends its offensive in Gaza.

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