Are the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea a Solidarity Campaign or a Ruse?  – or is not the Right Question

Bulk carrier traversing the Red Sea

In the last months since November 2023, there has been a sudden surge of interest in Yemen in media and expert’ analyses. Much of the attention has been on explaining the reasons behind the military campaigns in the Red Sea carried out by Ansar Allah (The Partisans of God), commonly known as the Houthis. The aim of this piece is to argue that the preoccupation with why Ansar Allah is attacking ships traversing the Red Sea is not a productive one. A more pertinent question to be asked is: why and how have their campaigns increased their popularity both regionally and beyond?

Following the wake of Hamas’ October attack and Israel’s disproportionate retaliation on Gaza, Ansar Allah have launched a number of missiles on Israel. Since November 2023, they also initiated military attacks on commercial vessels and ships navigating the Red Sea, disrupting global trade. According to Ansar Allah’s Armed Forces spokesperson, Yahya Saree, the attacks on ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are a campaign of solidarity with Palestinians and to exert pressure against Israel’s continuing war on Gaza. A few experts have expressed suspicion about Ansar Allah’s claim of solidarity with Palestine – asserting it is as a ruse. Edmund Fitton-Brown, former U.K. ambassador to Yemen stated, “this is not a liberation movement,…[these are] feckless thugs.” Although this latter viewpoint is an extreme one with the general analytical consensus not convinced that the group’s actions are entirely ingenuous.

The prevalent explanation of Ansar Allah’s campaigns relies on the notion that they are motivated by a desire to gain otherwise abating domestic legitimacy. One analyst recently asserted that the war on Gaza has become an opportunity for Ansar Allah to rally around the Palestinian popular cause to gain domestic and regional legitimacy. This follows from a tendency within experts’ circles to identify Ansar Allah as rebels, which makes the ‘legitimacy’ explanation acceptable. However, classifying them as such is inaccurate. Whether ‘rebels’ or ‘terrorists’ these categorisations aim to constitute them as illegitimate political actors. Yet, this depiction does not reflect the reality on the ground. Currently, Ansar Allah is the de-facto government that controls the northern part of Yemen. Since 2004, they have engaged in many wars and have also asserted themselves as a ruling power. They have shown extraordinary combat power, endurance, and capacity to fight long wars that can be very costly to their rivals, all while governing the areas under their control with an “iron fist”. Their war with the Saudis-led-coalition is a good example. Washington and Riyadh have been compelled to acknowledge the legitimacy of Ansar Allah through peace negotiations, which resumed last year seeking to put an end to the protracted war in Yemen. That these recent peace negotiations have stalled since October 2023, and Ansar Allah is re-listed as a ‘terrorist’ group doesn’t make the group less legitimate. It is likely that in the future, the US will remove them from the list once more to protect the interests of its long-term ally Saudi Arabia.

There might be some merits to the claim that legitimacy is what drives Ansar Allah – after all, they are like any modern political movement constantly vying for political legitimacy. However, little media attention has been given to the rising popularity of Ansar Allah following their declaration that ships connected to Israel will be the target of their military operations. Whether ingenious or otherwise, an adequate question would be asking why their rhetorical and military campaigns have spawned their popularity even in the West? The answer can be inferred when observing Western political leadership’s stance on Israel’s vengeful war on Gazans. Their complicit response has “severely damaged” their “moral credibility” as the ‘guardians’ of universal human rights. As the Palestinian cause falls between the cracks of Western moral imperatives, many Western citizens in the US, Europe, and Australia, have been questioning their governments’ moral credibility through weekly demonstrations and sit-ins that continue apace.

Nonetheless, many Western leaders incessantly ignored them, and called their actions
hate marches.” They failed to take any firm action against Israel under the pretext of Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’. Instead, more voices of solidarity with Palestine have been repressed and accused of anti-Semitism, particularly in Academe. Western leaders ignored, muted, and suppressed voices that refuse to accept that tens of thousands have been slaughtered with such impunity. Subsequently, a large number of Western citizens have lost faith in their   leaderships’ legitimacy. The current campaigns leading to the US presidential elections is a case in point. The cost of Biden’s unequivocal support for Israel has been losing important democratic constituencies. It may even result in the defeat of the Democratic Party. Still, Western leadership continues to deliberately refuse to listen to their people.

Refusing to acknowledge that Ansar Allah’s campaigns in the Red Sea are perceived by many of their citizens as an exposure of the West’s moral bankruptcy, the US-UK coalition, ironically chose to reclaim their moral legitimacy by asserting that they must ‘safeguard freedom of navigation in the Red Sea’. Yet, it is unclear what the US-UK attacks on ‘Houthis targets’ would save or achieve. Over the past nine years, the US, UK, France, and Australia have supported the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen by continuing to sell weapons and provide intelligence, thereby becoming complicit in Saudi-UAE war crimes in Yemen. Still, they failed to undermine Ansar Allah’s military capabilities. What these recent attacks could/might achieve is further increase the popularity of Ansar Allah. They are likely to escalate popular discontent at home, and potentially further weaken the coalitions’ leadership domestic power base. More tragically, the attacks dubbed as ‘only Houthi targets’ will ultimately exacerbate the already devastating humanitarian conditions in Yemen- the result of nine years of relentless war and the economic warfare that was imposed on the country by the Saudi-led-collation.  

The excessive attention on whether Ansar Allah’s solidarity with the Palestinians is genuine will not delegitimise them, nor will it re-patch the crumpling image of the West as the defender of universal moral imperatives. By dismissing the more pertinent question of why and how Ansar Allah managed to gain global popularity, Western political leaders would continue to be blindsided to the simmering resentments that have left many Western citizens and democratic constituencies disenchanted with their governments’ responses to the events in Gaza.

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