Who are the Houthis and how did the US and UK strikes on Yemen come about?

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The US and UK have initiated airstrikes on over a dozen locations utilized by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, as reported by US officials. Further details on the airstrikes are available here.

This military response is a significant reaction to the Houthis’ ongoing series of drone and missile attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, triggered by the conflict in Gaza. Here’s a chronological overview:

Who Are the Houthis?

The Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, are a Yemeni militia group representing the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. Founded in the 1980s by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the group emerged in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s religious influence in Yemen. With an estimated 20,000 fighters, the Houthis control a significant portion of the country’s west, including its Red Sea coastline.

What is the group’s relationship with Iran and the war in Gaza?

The Houthis are backed by Iran due to Iran’s longstanding hostility with Saudi Arabia. The group also supports Hamas in the war in Gaza. Following the Hamas massacre on October 7, Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi expressed readiness to mobilize in the hundreds of thousands to join the Palestinian people in confronting the enemy.

What has been happening in the Red Sea?

Situated south of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, connecting Europe to Asia and East Africa. Yemen is located along the sea’s southeast coast, at the point where it intersects with the Gulf of Aden.

In the Red Sea, a crucial shipping channel, the Houthis initiated missile and drone attacks on vessels shortly after the start of the Gaza war. Most of these attacks were intercepted by US and Israeli countermeasures.

The tension heightened on November 19, as insurgents utilized a helicopter to capture a car carrier chartered by a Japanese company, associated with an Israeli entrepreneur, leading to the abduction of the crew. The Houthis declared that any vessels they identified as connected to Israel or its associates would be considered “a legitimate target for armed forces.”

Subsequent assaults on ships occurred, with limited success. However, numerous shipping companies opted to circumvent the Red Sea route and redirect their routes around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This decision substantially increased travel durations and expenses.

How did the US react?

On December 18, the US declared the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian as a countermeasure to the Houthi assaults.

The US initially avoided direct engagement until December 31, when US Navy helicopters engaged a cluster of small boats attempting to board a container ship seeking their safeguard. The demise of 10 militants signaled a new chapter in the crisis.

On January 9, American and British warships intercepted and neutralized 21 drones and missiles launched by the Houthis, characterized by London as the most extensive attack of its kind in the region. On January 10, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, warned that additional attacks might trigger a military response from Western forces.

What was happening in Yemen before the Gaza war?

In the years around the turn of the century, the Houthis garnered support from Shia Yemenis who were disenchanted with the corruption and oppression of the long-standing authoritarian president and Saudi ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This sentiment, particularly exacerbated by the aftermath of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, led to popular protests and numerous assassination attempts, ultimately compelling Saleh to resign in 2012.

In 2014, the Houthis formed an alliance with their former adversary Saleh to capture the capital, Sana’a, overthrowing the newly appointed Western-backed president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a year later. Following Hadi’s forced exile, the Yemeni government in exile sought assistance from its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to launch a military campaign, also supported by Western nations, aimed at ousting the Houthis.

This initiative sparked a devastating civil war, resulting in an estimated 377,000 deaths and displacing 4 million people by the end of 2021, as per UN estimates.

Effectively, the Houthis emerged victorious in the war. A ceasefire in April 2022 led to a notable reduction in violence, and despite the official expiration of the truce in October, hostilities have largely remained subdued.

How were the Houthis’ attacks perceived in Yemen and Saudi Arabia?

In Yemen, some view the Houthi operations as a justifiable means of applying pressure on Israel and its allies to defend Palestinian civilians. Analysts suggest that the Houthis’ intervention has strengthened their domestic support. The militants believe that Red Sea attacks can elevate their global standing, symbolizing Yemen as a whole, despite the presence of an internationally recognized government in the southern part of the country.

Concurrently, the Saudis are working towards normalizing relations with Iran and finalizing a peace agreement that might acknowledge Houthi control in northern Yemen. They express concern about any potential US response that could complicate efforts to withdraw from the country.

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