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Recently, the Houthis attacked a British ship, and not for the first time. While they claim that the ships are somehow linked to Israel, they are also owned by non-Israelis, and the crew members are from various countries. So their attacks actually harm people from many different countries.

I would expect that, if a country attacks a ship that belongs to another country, the attacked country would view this as a declaration of war, retaliate and fight back.

Strangely, the reactions I see from related countries are very mild, as if it is "no big deal" that commercial ships are attacked. Why are the reactions to the Houthis' acts of war, particularly in UK, so mild?

EDIT: what I meant by "mild" is that the reactions are defensive only. For example, recently US forces have destroyed 3 Houthi boats, but this was only a defensive action, as these boats were attacking a commercial ship. There was no offensive action against the Houthis as a retaliation for their actions. Is this an appeasement policy similar to that of Neville Chamberlain?

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    @Gantendo actually, the wikipedia link you mention strengthens the question: it says that the US ships just tried to defend themselves from the missiles shot at them, but the USA did not retalitate. Why is there no retaliation to these acts of war? Does attacking commercial ships not considered a "casus belli"? Dec 3, 2023 at 19:18
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    Do you think sending the US Navy is a mild reaction? apnews.com/article/… If a missile is fired at a ship, do you expect that the ship immediately knows who fired it and why and where they live and how to eliminate them while keeping "collateral damage" as low as possible? Do you think it would be wise for a US ship to fire blindly in the rough direction of any incoming missile?
    – user43134
    Dec 3, 2023 at 20:18
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    news.usni.org/2023/10/19/… firing multiple missiles is not a mild reaction (a strongly worded letter would be)
    – user43134
    Dec 3, 2023 at 20:26
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    @PoloHoleSet Who the "actual" government of Yemen is is disputed according to Wikipedia. Rashad al-Alimi calls it the "Houthi Nightmare" english.aawsat.com/home/article/4168946/…
    – user43134
    Dec 4, 2023 at 4:05
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is rendered unanswerable by the actions of the US and allies.
    – James K
    Jan 30 at 18:17

4 Answers 4

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the Houthis attacked a British ship

but your source says:

Bahamas-flagged.

Iran has even seized UK-flagged ships in the past, mind you. That at least did draw an official response from the UK.

A (large) ship getting hit by a rocket [what your DM piece is about] or drone [see below] isn't causing much damage. In fact, Iran itself is suspected behind a similar attack only a few days before, and on a Malta-flagged vessel way in the Indian ocean. Malta could, in theory, invoke the mutual defense clause of TEU and what not, asking the whole of the EU to militarily retaliate against Iran. And Bahamas could invoke the Rio Treaty (UK is not a member of that one though, but the US is.)

But, insofar the amount of seizures by the Houthis don't exceed what Iran themselves has done in the recent past. It's much less damaging to have a ship "dinged" by a drone or rocket than to lose it altogether by seizure or sinking.

For better or for worse, seizures were solved by negotiations in the past few years. Yes, the Houthis are easier to bomb, but then you can't bet that won't cause Iran themselves to retaliate somewhere, somehow. Iran might be step up attacks on shipping, which insofar have been infrequent. Given what we've seen in Ukraine, that's not because Iran lacks the drones in terms of numbers.

(The US for instance seized a Greek tanker with Iranian oil in April 2023, although only for the cargo. Typically Iran responds with some tit-for-tat move. Similar events happened in 2022.)

The Guardian even claims there are "reports" of US plans to strike at the Houthis (perhaps as they have done in 2016, when some radar installations thereof were hit by US cruise missiles) but there's the worry that that would affect Saudi-Houthi talks too...

Saudi Arabia hopes it can maintain a firewall between the Yemen peace talks and the Houthis’ attacks on Israel, but in London and Washington there is pressure to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, which would threaten any deal.

There are also reports that the US is willing to launch an attack on Houthi military sites in and around Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, as well as its port operations room, unless the ship seized on Sunday, the Galaxy Leader, is released.

And since the Saudi-UAE led coalition has given up on defeating the Houthis... They probably don't a return to this level of rocket & drone attacks against them:

enter image description here


BTW, it's not been that few reactions, IMHO, as the newly announced operation/alliance against them, dubbed "Prosperity Guardian" and [AFAICT] formally announced on Dec. 18, now includes some 20 countries, although only about half decided to make their participation public.

OTOH, the asymmetrical nature of the warfare (at least finance-wise) has been pointed out even by some Westerners:

The way the Houthis operate raises challenges for Western naval forces, as they’re fending off cheap drones with ultra-expensive equipment.

Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles — the ones fired by the French Languedoc frigate — are estimated to cost more than €1 million each while Iran-made Shahed-type drones, likely used by the Houthis, cost barely $20,000.

“When you kill a Shahed with an Aster, it’s really the Shahed that has killed the Aster,” France’s chief of defense staff, General Thierry Burkhard, said at a conference in Paris earlier this month.

However, if the Shahed hits a commercial vessel or a warship, the cost would be a lot higher.

As discussed in that piece, for now, the list of commercial shipping companies that have (publicly) decided to avoid the Red Sea is increasing.

some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Italian-Swiss MSC, Danish giant Maersk and France's CMA CGM, were forced to reroute to avoid being targeted. BP also paused shipping through the Red Sea.

Some US defense related voices have said that in order to break this unfavorable equation, the Houthis must be bombed. It might not be as simple as that though, because Iran is apparently helping them with radar targeting, and directly hitting those Iranian assets is much closer to a war with Iran, basically.

The public announcement of the Prosperity Guardian came at about the same time as Maerks--the largest container shipping company--announced it would avoid the Red Sea. Also on that occasion "[SecDef] Austin did not answer a question as to why the Pentagon had not conducted a counterstrike." Besides that:

Separately, the United States has also called on the United Nations Security Council to take action against the attacks.

In a letter to council members obtained Monday by The Associated Press, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Houthi attacks targeting commercial vessels legally transiting the international waterways continue to threaten “navigational rights and freedoms, international maritime security, and international commerce.”

The 15 council members discussed the Houthi threat behind closed doors Monday [Dec 18] but took no immediate action.

Unnamed US officials seem to have snipped at China for that and related issues:

One notably absent participant is China, which has warships in the region, but those ships have not responded to previous calls for assistance by commercial vessels, even though some of the ships attacked have had ties to Hong Kong, the [US] military official said.

(The Houthis took responsibility for a drone attack on a Hong Kong-flagged Maersk ship on Dec 14, saying it was headed to Israel.)

OTOH Maersk announced on Dec 27 that they are returning to the Red Sea. However, the true story is a bit more complicated than the NYT paints it. Maerks (and CMA CGM) only restored some of their routes through the Red Sea.

The Prosperity Guardian doesn't seem to include Saudi's though, as a piece the Globe and Mail comments:

What may seem surprising about the coalition is that it does not include Saudi Arabia, which would typically support American efforts to weaken the Houthis. Riyadh led a nine-country intervention on Yemen’s civil war in 2015, largely to prevent the emergence of an Iranian proxy that would be willing and able to wreak havoc on their southern border at Tehran’s behest. But they lost that fight on the ground and in the air in Yemen, and now the Red Sea attacks have shown how very real that proxy nightmare is becoming for Riyadh. Bringing the U.S. into conflict with a mutual foe would seem like a no-brainer.

But the Saudis and most other Arab partners have decided not to join the coalition because there are too many downsides to lining up with Washington in this particular fight. They do not want to be seen to be opposing Houthi operations that are ostensibly aimed at helping Palestinians, no matter how problematic their actions may be. The Saudis are also concerned that support for the coalition could adversely affect peace talks with the Houthis, which are aimed at helping Riyadh extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire.

So, yeah, my [earlier] hunch that the Saudi's don't approve of attacks on the Houthis at this juncture seem justified.


And, yeah, [since then] the US and UK have been conducting air-strikes against the Houthis, but for now the effect has been limited (understatement):

Since the US-led strikes began on 11 January, shipping using the vital Red Sea trade route has dropped by 29%.

That's a greater rate of decline than between the start of Houthi attacks in November and the beginning of the US-led action.

The Houthis initially said they were attacking ships connected to Israel, or heading to or from there. But since air strikes began in January they have mostly targeted ships tied to owners or operators in the UK or US.

[...] the number of commercial ships using the route has fallen by 50% since the start of the Houthi attacks, according to ship tracking firm Lloyd's List Intelligence. This is despite a US-led military partnership, involving UK naval vessels, safeguarding commercial shipping in the area.

enter image description here

It remains to be seen if the US & allies can and are willing to out-bomb the Houthi attacks, and interdict their re-supply with [mostly Iranian-provided] missile parts enough to reverse this trend. For now, US & UK seem to be learning the bitter lesson that the Saudis (& UAE) learned--that the Houthis should not be underestimated in their ability and willingness to escalate.

Besides welcoming the direct confrontation with the US, the Houthis have now declared that US & UK citizens are fair targets, at least inside Yemen, although they gave 30-day notice for that, deadline which has yet to elapse.

FWTW:

[US] Officials say they don’t expect that the operation will stretch on for years like previous U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. At the same time they acknowledge they can identify no end date or provide an estimate for when the Yemenis’ military capability will be adequately diminished.

Nonetheless

[...] They point out that more sophisticated attacks, like a large-scale one that occurred Jan. 9, have not been repeated since the U.S.-led strikes began. “Recall before the strike we had U.S. ships attacked with 20-plus UAVs and multiple missiles in a single attack,” a second American official said, using a military acronym for drone aircraft.


And when it came to air strikes, Western countries were less united:

Italy, Spain and France stood out [...] by not taking part in U.S. and British strikes against the Houthi group in Yemen and not signing a statement put out by 10 countries justifying the attacks.

The divergence highlights divisions in the West over how to deal with the Iranian-backed Houthis, who have been targeting civilian ships in the Red Sea for weeks in what they say is a protest against Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Bahrain provided logistical and intelligence support for the operation, U.S. officials said.

In addition, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and South Korea signed a joint statement with these six nations defending the overnight attacks and warning of further action to protect the free flow of Red Sea trade if the Houthis did not back down.

[...] Speaking on condition of anonymity, a French official said Paris feared that by joining the U.S.-led strikes, it would have lost any leverage it had in talks to defuse tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. France has focused much of its diplomacy in recent weeks on avoiding an escalation in Lebanon.

[...] Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said Madrid had not joined the military action in the Red Sea because it wanted to promote peace in the region.

Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto earlier this week, made clear his reluctance to target the Houthis, telling Reuters that their aggression had to be stopped without triggering a new war in the region.

And the same 3 countries also didn't join "Prosperity Guardian":

The diverging opinions in the West over how to tackle the Houthi threat emerged last month when the United States and a number of its allies launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect civilian vessels in the busy Red Sea shipping lanes.

Italy, Spain and France did not sign up to the mission, unwilling to put their naval vessels under U.S. command.

All three already participate in an EU anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa, and the Spanish defence minister on Friday said the European Union might soon decide on a new initiative.

This is to say nothing of Russia, which has condemned the air strikes in strong terms. And so did China, in slightly more indirect ones. Russia has little exposure to the route and is even hoping to benefit from the Houthi attacks:

Russian officials contend that the confrontation in the Red Sea is economically advantageous to it. Russia’s exports and imports largely pass through its Far East ports and railway links with China. No more than about 10% of its foreign trade goes through the Suez Canal and, in any case, that has not — so far — been affected.

Putin claimed that the Red Sea standoff could prompt shipping companies to switch to the Northern Sea Route that runs along Russia’s Arctic coast.

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  • The reasoning of the final BBC article is fallacious. The relevant comparison is not "value" before and after air strikes, but rather "value" cf. the counterfactual where no airstrikes took place. This is a general problem when trying to measure policy effects, but it is particularly acute when evaluating military operations. Feb 1 at 23:30
  • @CharlieEvans: Fair point, but the US is using a somewhat similar argument (that the Houthis haven't repeated a 20-drone wave)... a success. It's a kind of a half-empty/half-full glass argument everyone is using. Feb 2 at 7:35
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Update: Reuters (2024-01-11):

The United States and Britain have started carrying out strikes against targets linked to Houthis in Yemen


The US and its Western allies do not want to escalate and inflame tensions in the Middle East.

Zoran Kusovac (Al-Jazeera, 2023-12-27):

Every admiral would tell his political superiors that military necessity would call for attacks on Houthi missile infrastructure on the ground in Yemen: fixed and mobile launch sites, production and storage facilities, command centres and whatever little radar infrastructure there exists. A proactive response to the missile threat, in other words, to destroy the Houthi ship-targeting capability, rather than the reactive one limited to shooting missiles down as they come in. ...

Attacks against targets in Yemen would have a clear military justification. But they would also carry a clear political risk: that of the West, particularly the US, being seen in the Arab and Islamic world as actually entering the Gaza war on the side of Israel. After all, the Houthis say their attacks on Red Sea ships are aimed at getting Israel to end the war.

Aware of the perils of such a development that could easily cause the conflict to spread, the US has tried to tread carefully, engaging with regional powers, and sending messages that it wants no escalation. ...

Mindful of all these dilemmas, France, Italy and Spain are playing it safe: they will “unilaterally” deploy their frigates to the Red Sea to “protect the ships of their respective nations”. Should the US Navy ultimately attack Yemen, the Europeans will be able to claim that they did not contribute to the intensification of the war, shoving all the responsibility to the US.

The Washington Post (2023-12-31):

The Houthi attacks have posed a quandary for the Biden administration, in part because Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. partner, is trying to conclude a peace deal with the Houthis, seeking to formally end the kingdom’s military intervention in a long civil war in Yemen. The escalation of hostilities between the United States and the Houthis could upset those efforts.

The Houthis “know the Americans don’t want to escalate,” because of the Saudi-Yemeni negotiations, said Mohammed Basha, a senior Middle East analyst at Navanti, a risk-assessment group. “They are in the sweet spot.” ...

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that the Biden administration had been “very timid in responding to escalation by Iran.”

“The administration continues to not respond to the Houthi escalation in the area,” he said. The White House was “going to have to look at operations into Yemen where the capabilities are resonant, where Iran continues to reload them as they attack commercial shipping areas and put at risk U.S. military,” he added.


In contrast, the Houthis do want to escalate. (So, the US and its Western allies escalating would play into their hands.)

Bloomberg (2023-12-31):

the Houthis’ motives go beyond the war in Gaza, said Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemen expert with the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“They are praying and hoping for a boxing match with the US, that’s definitely their dream,” he said referring to Houthi aspirations to bolster their regional and global standing as a resistance force to be reckoned with.

The New York Times (2023-12-20):

Before the war in Gaza, ... the Houthis were also facing public discontent, as Yemenis grappled with a lack of basic services and civil servants went for years without salaries, contributing to widespread hunger.

The war in Gaza was a “dream come true” for the group, said Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a research group based in London.

For decades, the Houthis had anchored their ideology on hostility toward the United States and Israel, and support for the Palestinian cause. “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews” is part of the group’s slogan.

They have also become an important arm of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” which includes armed groups across the Middle East. Analysts close to the Iranian government have said the Houthis’ base in Yemen makes them ideally positioned to escalate regional conflict.

Now, the Houthis have a chance to live out their narrative, Mr. Al-Muslimi said, adding, “They can actually go into a war with Israel.”

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  • Sounds like the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain. Jan 3 at 3:06
  • This is the right answer - any escalation with the Houthis will be linked to the current ongoing Israeli war and invite even more international scrutiny that will be detrimental to current Israeli war goals. Note the UN General Secretary's extra ordinary motion to the UNGA pointed out that there was a fear of the conflict enlarging. If Lebanon, Yemen and Iran too get involved in the war, it is unlikely that the US will be in a position to stop international pressure on Israel to declare a ceasefire because otherwise Russia and China may get involved in the conflict too.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 3 at 3:20
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Currently, the Houthis are limiting their actions to Israeli-linked ships. This can affect, marginally, other countries by it's not a full blockade. Attacking the Houthis (or even declaring hostilities toward them) could, on the other hand, make you a target of this volatile organization. The reality is that nothing much can be done at the moment.

So other countries have just accepted this new status quo.

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    This is just straight up misinformation. Houthis are not limiting their actions to Israeli-linked ships. A lot of stuff is being done right now. This is not a "new status quo" that other countries simply accepted; hence the presence of the American navy.
    – user43134
    Dec 4, 2023 at 5:14
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    Ships hit by Houthis near Yemen not connected to Israel, says IDF - .jpost.com
    – user43134
    Dec 4, 2023 at 5:25
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    The US armed forces are not known for ignoring people who fire missiles at them. And the US spends a fuckton of money in and on Yemen and the surrounding region.
    – user43134
    Dec 4, 2023 at 5:30
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    "The Houthis say they will target not just Israeli ships but those that protect Israeli ships in the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea." 1
    – user43134
    Dec 4, 2023 at 5:33
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The premise of the question is now outdated, as USA and the UK have responded to the Houthi aggression by attacking some of their military targets. Still, I think the following explanation by Ali Al Bukhaiti, an ex-senior Houthi spokesman is relevant:

Bukhaiti speculated that if the Houthis were to hit an American warship in the region, the US would struggle to respond.

“The Houthis have no permanent military bases, they are armed militias,” Bukhaiti said. “The USA can’t harm them. If the US opens a war it will harm the Yemeni civilians.”

“The Houthis hide, it [the USA] doesn’t know where they are,” he added. “They fight like a gang. They bomb, and attack, and then hide under the ground in tunnels.”

Indeed, even after multiple strikes by USA and the UK, the Houthis keep attacking ships.

It seems the only way to fight a militant organization entrenched within a civilian population is a long and diligent ground operation - similarly to what Israel is currently doing in the Gaza strip. Such an operation would be very costly, so it is unlikely that any country would volunteer to do it - unless the Houthis become so strong and harmful that it will be inevitable.

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  • Get real, no Western country is going to invade the Houthis [over this]. Not after Afghanistan, Mali etc. turned out the way they did. Israel is fighting next door, and on some land ~1/3 of the ministers in the current cabinet want resettled. (The US airstrikes OTOH were somewhat predictable after the mood inside the Pentagon made it to the press.) Jan 30 at 22:12
  • @Fizz this is what I said.. "it is unlikely that any country would volunteer to do it - unless the Houthis become so strong and harmful that it will be inevitable". Jan 30 at 22:17

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