The Houthi rebels, unbowed by U.S. strikes, are continuing to attack ships in the Red Sea, putting the Biden administration in a bind as it works to stomp out the Yemeni militant group’s aggression and resume global trade operations.
An initial series of strikes last week on Houthi assets in Yemen was meant to degrade the Iranian-backed group’s capabilities to keep up the Red Sea attacks, but the Houthis emerged intact and with a resolve to continue their aggression.
The U.S. continued to strike the Houthis this week and the rebel group has responded with more attacks.
All signs are pointing toward a prolonged conflict. But a drawn-out battle between the Houthis and the U.S. will only deepen global shipping disruptions, worsen a humanitarian crisis in Yemen and inflame the Middle East as Washington seeks to contain a wider regional war, analysts say.
Like other Iranian-backed groups, the Houthis have tied their operations to Israel’s war in Gaza and pledged to keep fighting as long as Israeli soldiers continue their fight in the Palestinian enclave.
“Americans want the seas to be safe for the support and resources provided to the Israeli enemy while starving the Palestinian people,” Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said in a speech Thursday shared on pro-Iranian Telegram channels.
“We warn against weariness towards the oppression of the Palestinian people. The longer the siege and starvation continue, the greater the responsibility on our nation.”
The top concern for the Pentagon is how to resume global trade through the Red Sea. Shipping prices are surging as companies are forced to avoid the Red Sea shortcut and go around Africa.
But tit-for-tat attacks may disrupt transit through the corridor even more, scaring off ships seeking to avoid conflict, said Caroline Rose with the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
“Their long-term plan is, of course, to try and secure this waterway,“ said Rose, director of the think tank’s Blind Spots program. “In the short term, it actually encourages ships not to use that waterway because of the increase in instability and insecurity.”
And while manufacturing companies are mainly eating the price hike for now, months of fighting could create a serious supply problem and spike costs for average consumers, said Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Firms are very circumspect on passing those increased prices to consumers. But at some point they have to — they can’t be absorbing it,” Tayur said. “We’re not seeing price increases at this moment, but if this starts taking longer, we should probably expect that.”
The U.S. resorted to strikes after other deterrence efforts failed. The Houthis began attacking ships in late November, prompting the Pentagon to set up a multi-nation task force to protect ships at sea.
But the task force, which still includes warships patrolling the Red Sea, did not stop Houthi attacks, and major companies are still avoiding the route.
Under pressure, the U.S. and the U.K. last week launched retaliatory strikes for the first time since the November conflict began. American forces had conducted a total of five rounds of strikes in Yemen as of Thursday, targeting radar, missile and launch capabilities of the Houthis.
But after every strike, the Houthis have responded with yet another attack, underscoring a troubling pattern and raising questions about whether the U.S. deterrence can work. President Biden acknowledged on Thursday that U.S. deterrence efforts were struggling to stop the attacks.
“Are they stopping the Houthis? No,” Biden said. “Are they going to continue? Yes.”
The Pentagon says the U.S. is not at war with the Houthis but will continue to defend commercial shipping in the Red Sea. It said the efforts are degrading Houthi operations, even if attacks aren’t stopping.
Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said the U.S. has been “very successful” in the repeated strikes, destroying nearly all of the selected targets. She said that has forced the Houthis to launch smaller-scale attacks.
“We never said that the Houthis would immediately stop,” Singh said. “We’ve been able to degrade and severely disrupt and destroy their capabilities since [last week]. But it’s really on them when they want to decide to stop interrupting commercial shipping.”
But other analysts say the Houthis are battle-tested after years of enduring bombing campaigns from Saudi Arabia and U.S.-backed forces in Yemen.
“The Houthis are far more savvy, prepared, and well-equipped than many Western commentators realize. They are highly experienced in waging war after years of brutal conflict,” wrote Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow with the think tank Chatham House.
“Their recklessness, and willingness to escalate in the face of a challenge, is also significant and always underrated.”
Besides strikes, the U.S. is also trying to get at the Houthis in other ways.
The Biden administration announced Wednesday it categorized the Houthis as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, an attempt to make them a pariah on the global stage. It also opens up a path for the U.S. to sever some of their financial connections.
The action comes after Biden in 2021 lifted a previous Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation on the Houthis, which was enacted under the Trump administration.
Some Republican lawmakers hammered Biden this week for failing to reinstate the FTO, a more powerful designation.
“The Houthis are seeking to disrupt the international economic system, attacking civilian commercial ships, including American vessels, in the Red Sea, and launching rockets at American military service members,” wrote Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “If this isn’t the definition of a Foreign Terrorist Organization, I don’t know what it is.”
Still, it’s unclear if any designation will deter the Houthis.
“When it comes to the financing of the Houthis, particularly if it is connected to the Iranians, that’s already outside of the channels” that might be impacted by U.S. sanctions, said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “I don’t foresee that being significant at all.”
Parsi argued it was time to discuss a cease-fire in Gaza because the U.S. position to defend Israel’s war was becoming costly, with Iranian-backed groups mounting attacks across the Middle East and the Biden administration falling into disfavor worldwide for supporting Israel.
“The U.S. is spending a lot of resources and absorbing a lot of costs to refuse to do something that actually lies in our interests,” Parsi said of a cease-fire.
The terrorist designation could also deepen a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where millions of civilians have been struggling to meet basic needs since the breakout of war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in 2014.
Today, the Houthis control about 75 percent of Yemen, putting most of the civilian population under their oversight.
The Biden administration said it would carve out humanitarian exemptions in the terrorism designation, but humanitarian groups have raised concerns about the designation scaring off private companies and banks from servicing Yemen, with a knock-on impact on humanitarian groups.
“There’s still a huge amount of uncertainty as to how everyone is going to respond,” said Anastasia Moran, associate director for U.S. advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. “Humanitarian operations don’t exist in a vacuum … we exist in this ecosystem with private actors in Yemen.”
Moran also raised concerns about the conflict between the Houthis and the U.S. derailing peace talks in Yemen between the rebel group and the Yemeni government.
The warring parties have been in a fragile truce since 2022 and that has alleviated widespread suffering, but long-term U.S.-Houthi fighting could seriously endanger talks from reaching a more permanent peace and ending the humanitarian crisis, she said.
“This was moving on a path where there could be economic recovery,” she said. “In the last few weeks, I think everyone is concerned that you have two years of very fragile progress that could all be lost.”