Why Did The UK And The US Bomb Yemen's Houthi Rebels?

It links back to Israel's ongoing offensive in Gaza.
Yemeni protestors loyal to the Houthi movement lift their rifles as they participate in a protest held against Israel's ongoing war on Gaza
Yemeni protestors loyal to the Houthi movement lift their rifles as they participate in a protest held against Israel's ongoing war on Gaza
Mohammed Hamoud via Getty Images

Not only has the move caused a stir in British politics, because PM Rishi Sunak announced the strike without first consulting parliament, but it’s also a significant escalation of the tensions which have been brewing around the Red Sea for weeks.

There are many different parties at play in this emerging crisis, so HuffPost UK will walk you through the key points here.

Who are the Houthi rebels?

Backed by Iran, this is a group of militants based in Yemen who are commonly known by the name of their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi – although they officially call themselves Ansar Allah.

With an estimated 20,000 fighters, they represent the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and run most of northern Yemen.

The group has been around since the 1980s when Saudi Arabia first started to impose religious influence in Yemen – and the Houthis didn’t like it.

The US does not currently designate Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, and the group does not appear on the UK’s list either but Downing Street has considered adding it in the past.

Yemen is to the south of the Red Sea
Yemen is to the south of the Red Sea
pop_jop via Getty Images

What is the connection between the Houthis and Hamas?

Iran, which also backs the Palestinian militants Hamas, supports the Houthis because of its own opposition to Saudi Arabia. Both militant groups are part of the Iranian-backed “axis of resistance”, an informal political and military coalition.

The Hamas massacre in October 7 prompted a warning from the Houthis that they were “ready to move in the hundreds of thousands to join the Palestinian people and confront the enemy”.

How much of a big deal are the Houthis in Yemen?

The Houthis have been steadily gaining support within the country since 2000 due to the perceived corruption of Yemen’s authoritarian regime.

A civil war then broke out in Yemen after the Houthis tried to overthrow the new western-backed president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in 2015.

Hadi fled, but asked Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the West’s backing, to launch a retalitatory military campaign against the Houthis.

The UN estimated that 377,000 people had died by the end of 2021 as a result of that war.

A ceasefire was not declared until April 2022, when Hadi handed power to a presidential council.

The truce technically expired in October 2022, but violence has not erupted in the time since.

The Houthis remain powerful and believe the current government is still illegitimate.

A Houthi militant in 2014.
A Houthi militant in 2014.
Anadolu via Getty Images

What does this have to do with the Red Sea?

The Red Sea is a heavily-used shipping channel, south of the Suez Canal. Much of global trade relies on it as it provides the best (shortest and cheapest) trade route from Europe to Asia and east Africa.

Ships have to go around the horn of Africa (at the southern tip of the continent) otherwise, which takes much longer and is more expensive – as the BBC noted, costs have risen 10-fold since the start of December because ships have been taking this journey instead, for safety reasons.

Conflicts in the area pose a risk to oil prices too, because they could jump up if there’s regional friction – particularly if oil-provider Iran is drawn in.

The Houthi rebels started to disrupt the shipping route after the Israel-Hamas war began, through missiles and drones, but most were intercepted by the US and Israel.

The group said it was only targeting ships going to and from Israel but other ships were soon spooked, too.

It’s thought that the Houthis thought this would not only show support for the Palestinians, but it would make them a stronger global player.

What is the UK’s relationship with Yemen?

The UK is actually the “penholder” for Yemen at the UN Security Council and sends aid to the war-torn country.

The UK and the UN have also backed previous peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the UK has sold arms to Saudi Arabia – a controversial area, because the Middle Eastern country has been accused of breaching international humanitarian law with its actions in Yemen.

However, the UK says there is not a “clear risk” that British weapons are being used in the war.

The UK has also raised concerns about human rights abuses committed by all sides in the Yemen-Saudi Arabia conflict, including the shelling of civilians.

But, as an ally to Israel and the US, the UK decided to target the Houthis overnight.

How have things escalated?

Strikes were reported in the capital of Sanaa, the Houthi Red Sea port of Hudaydah, Dhamar and the Houthi stronghold Saada last night. Five Houthi members were killed and six others injured, according to the group, who say there were 73 US-UK strikes in total.

But tensions have actually been rising for months now.

On November 19, Houthi militants used a helicopter to seize a ship linked to an Israeli business person, and abducted the crew.

More attacks on commercial vessels followed, with the world’s largest shipping group Mediterranean Shipping Company stopping Red Sea routes due to safety fears.

On December 18, the US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect the shipping area.

The US then took direct action on New Year’s Eve when the US Navy helicopters fired on small boats when they were trying to board a container ship, killing 10 militants.

On January 9, the US and the UK shot down 21 drones and missiles from the Houthis, which Downing Street said was the largest such attack in the area.

The following day, the US’s top diplomat Antony Blinken said any further attacks could spark a western military response. The UN Security Council also passed a resolution calling for immediate end to Houthi action in the Red Sea.

How has the international community responded?

Houthis have described it as “blatant act of aggression”, and vowed the US an UK will “pay a heavy price”.

It also said the attacks on the Israel-linked ships will continue.

US President Joe Biden has said he won’t hesitate to take further military action if needed “to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce”.

Rishi Sunak said the strike action was “limited, necessary and proportionate” and in “self-defence”.

He added that the US and the UK had “non-operational support from the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain”.

The strikes were also backed by Australia, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea, according to a joint statement released by the countries.

But Iran said the attacks violate Yemen’s territorial integrity, while Iraq warned that the West is now expanding the conflict between Israel and Hamas into the wider region.

The Saudi government wants the US and the UK to stop this escalation – it has been trying to normalise relations with Iran, and finalise a peace deal which could could end up with Houthis controlling the north of Yemen.

However, this action could jeopardise that.

Russia, an ally of Iran, has slammed the West over its action, saying they are “illegitimate strikes” and that the Kremlin has urged the Houthis to stop its attacks.

Moscow is also calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, even though Russian abstained from a Security Council resolution on Wednesday which called for the Houthis to stop the attacks.


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