Back on the brink of war

A file photo of a home destroyed by an airstrike in Sana, Yemen. The Houthi militia in Yemen, strategically located at the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has propelled itself into an unlikely global spotlight in recent weeks as it has sown chaos in the Red Sea, attacking commercial ships and hobbling global trade. — ©2024 The New York Times Company

THE explosions woke Ali Al-Sunaidar and his children in the middle of the night – a familiar feeling after years of war.

He knew that the ancient mud-brick buildings in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, could collapse under the pressure released by bombings, so he opened the windows in his home, letting in the winter air.

“We were terrified and anxious,” said Al-Sunaidar, a photojournalist in Sanaa, after dozens of US-led airstrikes hit Yemen on Jan 12, targeting the Houthi militia that controls much of the country’s north.

“We’ve been living in tension, dread and horror for the last nine years.”

A day later, the United States struck again, bombing a radar facility in Yemen, US officials said.

For nearly a decade, Yemen has been at war, pummeled by a Saudi-led military coalition supplied with US bombs in an effort to defeat the Houthis – a once-scrappy tribal militia backed by Iran that has evolved into a de facto government in northern Yemen.

The coalition expected swift victory. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have died from fighting, hunger and disease, and since the coalition pulled back several years ago, partly because of international pressure, the Houthis have only deepened their grip on power.

The Houthi militia in Yemen, strategically located at the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has propelled itself into an unlikely global spotlight in recent weeks as it has sown chaos in the Red Sea, attacking commercial ships and hobbling global trade.

The Houthis have portrayed their campaign of missiles and drone attacks as a righteous battle to force Israel to end its siege on the Gaza Strip.

Now, with a US-led coalition bombing Houthi military installations in an attempt to halt the ship attacks, Yemenis say they feel a profound sense of déjà vu.

“The Saudis tried that path in Yemen for nine years, and clearly it didn’t work,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The strikes will not stop the Houthis from further attacks in the Red Sea – if anything, rather the opposite.”

The Houthis swept into Sanaa in 2014 and ousted the Yemeni government, espousing a religious ideology inspired by a sect of Shi’ite Islam. They have not only survived the war that followed but also thrived, honing sharper military skills and ensconcing themselves in northern Yemen, where they have set up an impoverished quasi-state that they control with an iron fist.

Despite efforts to deter them, the Houthis have refused to back down, vowing to retaliate and welcoming the prospect of war with the United States with open delight.

“Yemen is not an easy military opponent that can be subdued quickly,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, said in a post on X after the US-led strikes. “It is ready to enter a long-term battle that will change the direction of the region and the world.”

Military analysts say the Houthis have amassed a diverse array of anti-ship weaponry, incorporating both cruise and ballistic missiles into their arsenal, as well as an assortment of attack drones. Pentagon officials say the Houthi missiles have a range up to 1,800km, within striking distance of Israel.

The US military’s Central Command described the drone and missile barrage fired from Houthi-controlled territory recently as “a complex attack”. While the missiles pose little threat to advanced Western warships with sophisticated defences, they are a menace to commercial vessels, even when fired indiscriminately, analysts said.

Anti-ship missiles, along with drones and speedboats, “have become the group’s weapons of choice in its ongoing campaign against shipping in the Red Sea,” Fabian Hinz, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, wrote.

Earlier last month, the UN announced a potential “road map” to peace for Yemen. Now, Yemenis worry that instead of the war quieting down, it is entering a new, even more complicated phase.

But for the Houthis, the prospect of war with the United States is a fulfillment of their official narrative, built around hostility toward Israel and the West.

The Houthis are an important arm of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance,” which includes armed groups across the Middle East. But Yemeni analysts say they view the militia as a complex Yemeni group, rather than just an Iranian proxy.

US officials and those from allied Western governments said the Houthis’ continuing attacks on ships have left them with little choice but to respond.

The air strikes in Yemen sent a “very clear message” that Britain and the United States would act to keep shipping lanes open, David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, told NBC, saying they showed that “if warnings aren’t heeded, consequences follow”.

Pentagon officials emphasised that they had sought to avoid civilian casualties, while a Houthi military spokesman said five of its fighters had been killed.

Still, the Western attack is likely to “increase anti-Americanism” in Yemen and bolster the Houthis’ popularity as the group capitalises on Yemeni opposition to foreign intervention, said Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organisation.

In essence, there is now “another ‘foreign enemy’ pretext to distract the public from their failing rebel governance that does not deliver services or pay salaries,” he said.

In the Yemeni city of Taiz – which is under control of the internationally recognised government – Mansour Ali, a bus driver, said he applauded the Houthi ship attacks because he believed they were carried out “in solidarity with our Palestinian brethren”.

“I think America and Britain targeted them because of their stance on Palestine,” Ali said.

Some US allies in the region, including Qatar and Oman, had warned the United States that bombing the Houthis could be a mistake, fearing that it would do little to deter them and would deepen regional tensions.

They have argued that focusing on reaching a ceasefire in Gaza would remove the Houthis’ stated impetus for the attacks.

“It is impossible not to denounce that an allied country resorted to this military action, while meanwhile, Israel is continuing to exceed bounds in its bombardment, brutal war and siege on Gaza without any consequence,” the Oman foreign ministry said.

Among the few groups in the Arabian peninsula likely to welcome the strikes is the Southern Transitional Council, an Emirati-backed armed separatist group that controls much of southern Yemen.

In an interview days before the strikes, Amr Al-Bidh, a senior official for the group, criticised the UN peace process – arguing that it risked further empowering the Houthis – and said his group would be eager to join in an international military intervention against the Houthis.

“We know that we can’t get rid of the Houthis,” he said. “But at least let’s weaken them – put them on the back foot.”

But in Sanaa, Al-Sunaidar, the photojournalist, said the years of drawn-out strife had taken a toll, especially for young Yemenis. He lives with his two-year-old twin daughters and his two brothers, each of whom has three children.

Before the war, children would become excited when they saw a plane overhead, he said.

“The children would wave to it,” Al-Sunaidar said. “Now they cover their ears in horror.” — ©2024 The New York Times Company

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