Britain launched airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen overnight and the big question today is about escalation.
But that is to misread, I believe, some fundamental aspects of what’s happening in the Red Sea. In short, this is a specifically Yemeni and Houthi issue – part of a vicious conflict that has been going on for nine years – that has hitched itself to the war between Israel and Hamas.
The Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen who control the capital and the most populous areas of the country, have disrupted shipping in a key international sea lane, the Red Sea. Around 10 per cent of global sea trade passes through there every year.
The Houthis say this is about supporting fellow Muslims among the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet there are reasons for them to say that – and also other reasons for them to act as they have.
The Yemeni population are no doubt exhausted by their own long and brutal civil war. It has left 21.6 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance (and of those, 13.4 million are in ‘acute’ need) and the country itself ranked second most fragile state in the world behind Somalia. Many Yemenis have powerful fellow feeling for the Muslims perishing in Gaza. By claiming to act in support of the Gazans, the Houthis can win valuable support at home.
This is a conflict that long predates the war started in Israel on October 7th
Internationally, they could gain by this too (as crazy as that sounds). By causing an almighty nuisance in the Red Sea, they’ve made themselves a problem to be solved. Of course force is one element of that solution, but the other is diplomacy. America, among others, will want this problem to go away and fast. Thus a pathway is opened to Houthi political goals such as political recognition, a power sharing settlement in Yemen and an end to the civil war.
As for Iran’s involvement (they are no doubt behind the very sophisticated weaponry used), do read the academic Elisabeth Kendall clear and helpful piece on Yemen here, she points out that seeing the Houthis merely as an Iranian proxy is to over-simplify things.
This is also a conflict that long predates the war started in Israel on October 7th.
Since 2011 Britain has been the ‘penholder’ for Yemen at the United Nations Security Council – this unofficial role essentially means we’ve been in charge of trying to resolve the conflict. In very trying circumstances that work has nonetheless been a failure.
Another failure may be the cuts to our aid budget to Yemen – it fell from £260m in 2019 to £77m in 2022 (though the proportion spent on things like civilian conflict resolution did actually rise, to be fair).
A joint committee of the Lords and Commons sounded a warning in September about cuts and changes to something called the Conflict Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), saying they could “impair the ability of the UK government to anticipate conflict, prevent escalation, and respond effectively to areas of known instability across the world, which may be a false economy”.
These reasons – some of the Houthis’ own motivations and Britain’s lengthy involvement in the region – are reasons to see last night’s bombings as discrete from the Israel-Gaza conflict, even though the Houthis want to encourage the opposite view.
As our leader sets out today the West needs a concerted effort to present this military action as one about international trade and self defence, not Israel-Gaza. To that end it needs on board countries like Egypt, to show a broad and united front. The challenge, other than of succeeding on its own terms, in public relations terms is the perennial one when blunt violence is involved: how do you contextualise a bomb?
I’ve laid out some reasons not to despair about ‘inevitable escalation’, but that last point shows some of why it will not be easy to avoid. There are crucial days ahead.