But that strategy seems to be backfiring. The Houthis have not stopped their attacks in the Red Sea, in part because the Biden administration’s approach to deterring the Houthis has been flawed from the start, according to a former member of the Houthis, Ali Albukhaiti.
Instead of leaving the Houthis interested in halting their attacks, the Biden administration’s actions have likely inspired the Houthis to double down, Albukhaiti told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview through a translator.
“The Houthis, first of all, they’re energized by the whole idea now that they’re fighting the United States,” Albukhaiti, a former spokesperson for the Houthis, said. “The current approach will likely end with… they’re able to mobilize more people.”
The U.S. is struggling to halt the attacks partially because it has been targeting easily replaceable artillery, Albukhaiti warned. “Their kind of capability is simply the ability to keep launching missiles,” Albukhaiti said. “These are replaceable, very mobile, and they can be replaced by the waves of either smuggling and sending weapons that they are supplied by Iran.”
The Houthis have been carrying out attacks against vessels and international shipping crew in the Red Sea ever since Israel launched its war in Gaza, following the Hamas Oct. 7 attack in Israel. The group—which has launched at least 41 attacks so far, upending global shipping—has suggested they will only stop if Israel ends its war in Gaza.
The United States and the U.K. stepped up its response and began striking back at Houthi sites inside Yemen last month, with the purpose of degrading the group’s capability to launch attacks in the first place.
“We are going to continue to work with our partners in the region to prevent those attacks or deter those attacks in the future,” Pentagon Spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters last month.
When pressed by reporters in recent days if the current approach is having the intended effect, the Pentagon insisted that it is.
“We do assess that we are having an impact on their capability,” Ryder said this week.
But the Houthi attacks continue, fueling concerns about whether the Biden Administration has a handle on the crisis. Just this week, Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles attacked a bulk carrier and a cargo ship, forcing a U.S. destroyer to respond, U.S. Central Command said on Wednesday.
There are dire consequences to miscalculating the Houthi threat, Albukhaiti warned.
If the current threat is not handled properly the United States and other countries run the risk that the Houthis escalate and block the Bab al-Mandeb strait, for instance, he said—something the Houthis have been warning they could do for years.
“If the United States does not take the current threat seriously… they are going to have to be ready for a future conflict at the Red Sea that they’re gonna pay a much bigger price in terms of loss of life, in terms of financial resources, and in terms of military loss.”
Several lawmakers have been urging the Biden Administration to take action against Iran in order to pressure the Houthis into halting their attacks.
U.S. officials have been stressing over the possibility that the Israel-Gaza war might spill over into a wider war, and have repeatedly said they don’t want a war with Iran. Rather than hit inside Iran, the administration is likely carrying out its counterattacks in their current form as a way to sidestep confrontation, said Emily Harding, former director for Iran on the White House National Security Council.
“I suspect what the Biden administration is really after here is a degradation of capabilities. If they can make it so that the rocket launch sites on the coast are incapable of firing, that’s a win. If they can eliminate some of the stores that they’ve stocked up of Iranian weapons, that’s a big win,” Harding told The Daily Beast. “If they can make it clear to the Iranians, look, you can keep pouring money and resources into this group and we’re gonna keep shooting at them, then that’s a win.”
The name of the game is “degrade the Houthis, deter the Iranians,” Harding said.
But even if the Iranians somehow receive the message, Iranian influence might not be enough to stop the Houthis, warned Albukhaiti.
“The Houthis are not mere followers of Iran. They are in an alliance with Iran. They receive a lot of weapons and funding. But they will not simply be deterred by just the Iranians telling them to do so,” he told The Daily Beast.
For the Houthis, continuing their current campaign may be a domestic political play as well, Dan Byman, former Middle East analyst for the U.S. intelligence community, warned.
“The Houthis are unpopular in large parts of Yemen, in part because of the other horrific, truly horrific, economic conditions there, but also the repression,” Byman said. “This conflict is a way of gaining nationalistic support—the support for the Palestinians is almost universal in Yemen. It’s a way of presenting themselves with kind of the right side of history.”
Iran may also be leaning into the current chaos to prop up its own image on the international stage, according to Albukhaiti.
“It’s a convenient way to use the Houthis. Because it distracts the attention from Iran. Iran in a way looks like it’s acting much more responsible compared to the Houthis,” he said.
It’s also possible that Iran isn’t going to stop supplying the Houthis—and instead decide to increase their supply of weapons, Byman predicted.
“I think Iran will continue and it’s actually quite possible that Iran will increase it… to show… that even if the U.S. strikes back, that Iran will stick behind them, and that’s a reason to continue working with Iran,” Byman told The Daily Beast.
On Wednesday, Israel vowed to continue the war until “absolute victory,” clashing with the Houthis’ stated goal of ending Israel’s assault in Gaza in order to call off its campaign in the Red Sea.
But for the Houthis to back down, the United States or other allies likely need to make it clear that they are forming a counter-Houthis coalition, akin to the countering ISIS global coalition, according to Albukhaiti.
“If the Houthis do not feel that there is an actual possibility of losing their position of power inside Yemen, they’re not going to be deterred,” he told The Daily Beast.
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