Pro-Houthi takes part in march to express solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the Houthi-controlled Sanaa on December 2, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP)

Will the War in Gaza Lead to Another Round of War in Yemen?


Tue, 19-12-2023 03:09 PM, Aden

In the current tense circumstances and given the enormous stakes involved, the best that can happen is for truly neutral countries to decisively mediate between those with different views, China and India are the most qualified countries to play this role.

 Andrew Korybko (South24) 

The United States (US) announced Operation Prosperity Guardian during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s latest trip to West Asia, which will bring together an American-led multinational naval coalition in the Red Sea following the recent spree of Houthi attacks against allegedly Israeli-affiliated vessels. US sources also reported that America is preparing to strike that Yemeni rebel group that it delisted as terrorists in February 2021, which follows Israel’s threat of unilateral action two weeks back. 

Doing so would entail major political risks, however, since jets and/or missiles would have to transit Saudi airspace en route to Yemen just like the Houthis’ missiles traveled en route to Israel. It was already difficult enough for Saudi Arabia to sit back in the face of that group’s airspace violations, which it did in order to avoid rekindling the war amidst its rapprochement with Iran, but it might prove impossible to ignore Israeli violations due to the international Muslim community’s (“Ummah”) pressure over Gaza. 

Saudi Arabia is expected to eventually resume its secret normalization talks with Israel in order to unlock the mutual benefits that’ll come from the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, though any anti-Houthi strikes by Israel that transit its airspace could push the date back even further. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also wants to avoid responding to that group since he isn’t interested in fighting another round of war in that country, especially since it could ruin sensitive relations with Iran. 

He’s therefore been thrown into a dilemma by this spree of Houthi missile and ship attacks since doing nothing emboldens them and raises the chances of unilateral Israeli strikes, which would further delay the resumption of secret normalization talks, while responding could lead to another Iranian proxy war. Amidst his indecision, major shipping companies and oil giant BP announced that they’ll avoid the region out of an abundance of caution in favor of rerouting around the Cape, which is much longer and costlier. 

The US was already planning for this contingency as evidenced by how swiftly it sprung into action due to long-standing concern that such a scenario as the one that’s presently materializing could be disastrous for the global economy. Inflation could worsen as companies pass these newfound costs onto consumers, which could combine with the knock-on effect of possibly prolonged supply chain disruptions to create another serious crisis that affects dozens of countries just like COVID did.

The Houthis have remained defiant as this US-led coalition assembles off of Yemen’s shores. Their representatives doubled down on their claim that they only target allegedly Israeli-affiliated vessels and promised to continue doing so while also pledging to defend themselves if attacked. With these statements of intent in mind, the Houthis might either act against such a vessel first or the US might preemptively strike them to thwart that, but few expect anything other than an escalation. 

Abruptly ending their spree of missile and ship attacks would discredit this group among its domestic supporters as well as those who celebrate its actions among the Ummah. Likewise, the US would also be discredited if it did nothing as these same attacks continue, which President Joe Biden can ill afford ahead of what many have already described as his very challenging re-election campaign. Nevertheless, American retribution could bring hell to North Yemen, while another war isn’t popular with US voters. 

These foreseeable consequences, as well as the likelihood of Iranian proxy reprisals across the region that could also include the resumption of Houthi drone attacks against Gulf energy infrastructure, probably won’t prevent escalations like some hope. To the contrary, they might be interpreted by the Houthis and/or the US as reasons to carry out large-scale preemptive strikes, which could turn another round of warfare in Yemen originating from the latest Israeli-Hamas war into a truly regional war. 

At the same time, it also can’t be ruled out that this “Mutually Assured Destruction” could lead to both either independently restraining themselves in the event of Houthi-US hostilities or perhaps tacitly agreeing to do so via a third party like what happened after Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. The former Iraqi Prime Minister’s spokesman confirmed that his country received a verbal message from Iran that its response had started or was about to start and would only target the locations of US forces.  

Some have interpreted this as suggesting that Iran relied on Iraq to telegraph its response to the US in order to mitigate the damage that it wrought and therefore avert a larger war. Those who subscribe to this view understand that Iran was forced to respond to Soleimani’s assassination in some way but argue that it wanted this to be mostly symbolic in order to avoid any uncontrollable escalation. This hypothesis then posits that America went along with everything for that mutually beneficial reason. 

The situation is very different nowadays, however, and this speculative precedent might not be relevant. After all, back then it was only a single top military-intelligence figure that was assassinated in a surprise strike, not the entire Eurasian economy hanging in the balance because of the Houthis’ naval blackmail. Mutual animosity between Iran-Israel and Iran-US is also very high right now due to the latest Israeli-Hamas war so neither Tehran, its Houthi allies, nor Washington might be considering self-restraint. 

In these extremely tense circumstances and given the enormous stakes involved, the best that can happen is for truly neutral countries to decisively mediate between those three with a view towards either de-escalating this crisis or facilitating a mutually acceptable “face-saving” exchange of hostilities. Since the first is unlikely due to each side’s reputational interests that were earlier explained, the second could ideally be pursued along the lines of the Iraqi precedent from January 2020 that was just detailed. 

China and India are the most qualified countries to play this role because of their close trading ties with Iran and the US, but also Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the EU too, the last of which will also suffer just as much as them from those major shipping companies avoiding the region for the time being. Those two have also done their utmost to present themselves as neutral in the latest Israeli-Hamas war despite perceptions among some that China leans closer towards Hamas while India leans closer towards Israel. 

The truly regional war that’s at risk of breaking out in the worst-case scenario could crush their economies by cutting off their energy imports from West Asia and their trade ties with the EU, and considering their massive populations, such an outcome could destabilize the entire world. China and India therefore have self-interested stakes in averting this, though it might also be too late to try despite their best independent or joint efforts. All that’s known is that the coming week will likely be pivotal. 

Andrew Korybko 

Moscow-based American political analyst

- Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author and doesn't represent the center's views

YemenIsraelHouthisChinaIndiaAsiaUSNavalShipSaudi ArabiaIranRed Sea