The Yemen Model

commentary

Jul 3, 2024

Oil tanker <em>Marlin Luanda</em> on fire after a missile attack by Houthi fighters, 60 nautical miles southeast of Aden, Yemen, January 26, 2024, Indian Navy handout via EyePress News/Reuters

Oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after a missile attack by Houthi fighters, 60 nautical miles southeast of Aden, Yemen, January 26, 2024

Indian Navy handout via EyePress News/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Institute for Future Conflict on July 3, 2024.

Since November 2023, Yemen's Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea. So far, they have managed to hijack one ship, sink another, and damage several more. But the Houthi attacks have had even further-ranging effects on global trade: Up to 40 percent of traffic has been rerouted around Africa, adding significant time and cost to the journey.

In response, the United States and a coalition of forces in the Red Sea have downed a number of Houthi UAVs and missiles, launched retaliatory attacks on Houthi territory in Yemen, and attempted to prevent more hijackings. The Deputy Commander of U.S. CENTCOM described these actions as the first U.S. engagement in naval combat at this scale since World War II. The Houthi attacks haven't stopped, but while they slowed in May, down from a recent peak of 28 UAVs shot down by coalition forces on March 9, they spiked again in June.

U.S. and coalition strikes may have degraded the Houthis' launching systems, command and control nodes, and possibly stockpiles of missiles and UAVs.

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There are at least four possible reasons for the slowdown. First, U.S. officials believe that U.S. and coalition strikes may have degraded the Houthis' launching systems, command and control nodes, and possibly stockpiles of missiles and UAVs. These assessments, however, are clouded by a lack of clarity about the size of the Houthis' weapons stockpiles before the U.S.-led strikes began and the Houthis' ability to be resupplied by Iran.

Second, as per public reporting, U.S. officials have apparently been engaged in private conversations with Iran, which could include discussions of de-escalation in the Red Sea.

Third, the Iranian ship Behshad, which is suspected of providing intelligence for Houthi attacks, recently left its position in the Gulf of Aden. That also may be having an effect. The Behshad, which appears headed back to Iran, may being trying to avoid Israeli retaliatory attacks following recent regional escalation. Or it may have been redeployed for logistical reasons. Finally, it's also possible that the Houthis simply have fewer targets, given the reduced number of commercial ships attempting to transit the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Even if the U.S.-led coalition degraded Houthi capabilities, it is not clear whether Iran will replace the lost munitions and vital intelligence to facilitate continued attacks. In other words, the current approach may be working now, but will it maintain de-escalation in the Red Sea in the long run? In the meantime, there are significant costs to the U.S. military associated with the Red Sea campaign, both in terms of expended munitions and readiness.

As several analysts pointed out in January, the U.S.-led coalition's strikes could prove a net benefit for the Houthis. Following a U.N.-mediated truce in Yemen's civil war, the Houthis have failed to effectively govern the majority of Yemen's population that falls under their control. Instead, the group's attempts at domestic governance had provoked increasing unrest and dissent—at least until October—due to the group's heavy-handed and repressive approach to ruling. The U.S.-led strikes give the Houthis a chance to burnish their pro-Palestine credentials and claim to be fighting Western aggression. Such messages appeal to parts of the Yemeni public, and that resonance means the Yemeni elites in the opposition also can't publicly support U.S.-led strikes.

This pattern, of short-term “wins” without a more substantial strategy to back them up, has long underlined the U.S. policy approach to Yemen, as I argue in my new book The Yemen Model. In the years following Yemen's Arab Spring, U.S. policymakers chose to view Yemen through the narrow frame of counterterrorism. They worked with their Yemeni government partner to counter Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) without involving regular U.S. forces directly, an approach they dubbed “the Yemen model.”

The U.S.-led strikes give the Houthis a chance to burnish their pro-Palestine credentials and claim to be fighting Western aggression.

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Likewise, when the Saudi-led military intervention in the war in Yemen began in March 2015, U.S. officials ultimately decided to back the intervention because they saw the need to provide support to U.S. partners at a time when those bilateral relationships had frayed. In both cases, the Yemen model–style approach, focusing so narrowly on abstract U.S. interests, blinded them to Yemen's instability, thus perpetuating those same threats.

Today, the same thing may be happening in the Red Sea. The tempo of Houthi attacks has slowed, but it is unclear what the long-term plan is for deterring future Houthi attacks and building stability in Yemen and across the Middle East region.

By not acknowledging the context of the Houthi attacks, what the Houthis are aiming to achieve, and how this is linked into the conflict in Gaza—not to mention the ongoing war in Yemen and the status of the mediation process to end it—U.S. officials are setting themselves up for a replay of the Yemen model.


Alexandra Stark is an associate policy researcher at RAND and author of the book “The Yemen Model.”

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