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After Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, fears of a wider Middle East conflict grow

Houthi supporters chant slogans and hold signs reading "Death to America, Death to Israel," as they attend a rally on March 26, 2023, in Sanaa, Yemen.
Hani Mohammed
/
AP
Houthi supporters chant slogans and hold signs reading "Death to America, Death to Israel," as they attend a rally on March 26, 2023, in Sanaa, Yemen.

Updated December 31, 2023 at 4:08 PM ET

Since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out in Gaza in October, some have been warning that the localized fighting could erupt into a regional conflict.

Those warnings came in November when Hezbollah vollied rockets into Israel from across the border in Lebanon and as the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers and supporting ships to the region.

And they came in early Decemberwhen Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked commercial vessels in the Red Sea in an incident that also involved a U.S. warship on patrol in the area.

Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea have continued, most recently over the weekend when the U.S. said it responded to a cargo ship's distress call and downed two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas. U.S. Central Command said it sunk three small Houthi boats and killed their crews after they fired on U.S. helicopters.

The Houthis have said they are aiming to block Israeli ships from passing through the Red Sea until Israel halts its military operations in Gaza.

Earlier in December, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announceda multinational security effort known as Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect shipping vessels passing through the Red Sea from Houthi attacks.

Still, U.S. officials don't expect the danger to subside right away. "We are cleareyed that the Houthi reckless attacks will likely continue," Vice Adm. Brad Cooper saidin an interview with The Associated Press.

In addition to the attacks by Hezbollah and the Houthis, other militant groups backed by Iran have carried out dozens of attacks against U.S. military forces spread throughout the Middle East in recent weeks, according to the Pentagon. While these attacks have been frequent, they've so far been on a relatively small scale and the U.S. has responded with limited airstrikes. Yet they point to the volatility in the region and the possibility that attacks could escalate into a much larger battle.

Who are the Houthis, and what do they want?

The Houthis emerged as a rebel group in the late 1980s and '90s, but grew in military might after the turn of the century and went to war with the Yemeni government.

In 2014, the Houthis overthrew the country's government and gained control of the capital, Sanaa, which the militia still controls today. Houthis follow a branch of Shia Islam, as does the Iranian leadership, which helped lead to their alliance.

In 2015, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen on behalf of the internationally recognized government in an attempt to beat back the Houthis. Saudi Arabia is a top rival of Iran, which supports the Houthis with weapons, intelligence and other political and diplomatic aid.

That conflict has been raging for years and spawned the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations, with more than 24 million people in need of aid and protection.

Still, the Houthis managed to withstand the offensive and remain in control of large swaths of territory and much of the Yemeni population.

Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa professor who studies the Middle East, said the Houthis have been emboldened by their ability to resist the Saudi-led attacks, and as a result they've been trying to grow from a domestic power into a regional player in recent years.

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"We've seen them attack the [United Arab Emirates, which had allied with Saudi Arabia in the war]. We've seen them attack Saudi Arabia. We have seen them, in the past, attack shipping in the southern half of the Red Sea," he said. "So when the Gaza war started in early October, to me it was a matter of time before the Houthis would become involved militarily."

The attacks likely would also be viewed as messages of support to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and may be popular at home too, according to Juneau, where there are strong pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli attitudes.

"To be seen domestically as not only opposing Israel politically but actually trying to do something about it — i.e. sending missiles and drones — is a classic way to mobilize domestic support by playing on these pro-Palestinian popular feelings," he said.

Will the Red Sea attacks erupt into a broader conflict?

This is not the first time the Houthis have targeted ships — including U.S. naval vessels — in the Red Sea off the country's western coast.

In 2016, missiles were fired from coastal Yemen toward a U.S. Navy destroyer twice in four days. The U.S. responded by firing missiles at three radar installations in Houthi territory.

Juneau said the Houthis didn't target American vessels again for several years, but it's unclear if a similar U.S. response today would have the same deterrent effect.

"It will be much more difficult to do that today than in 2016, because the Houthis are far more powerful now than they were before and they feel much more emboldened," he said.

The Houthis have also fired missiles directly at Israel before, but in one such attack in November Israel's military stopped it with its air defenses.

Going after commercial ships also gives the Houthis leverage, Juneau added, to negotiate with impacted nations and raise the ambitious militia group's international profile.

Last month, Japan announced it was approaching the group for talks after a Japanese-operated cargo ship was hijacked in the Red Sea.

"That's exactly what the Houthis want," Juneau said. "By forcing the Japanese government — which is a very important G7 country and so on — to deal with them directly, they are looking for recognition, at least de facto, of their status as the governing authority inside Yemen."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez