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What’s happening in the US-Houthi conflict?

Jan 15

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Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, Houthi militants in Yemen have been attacking naval and commercial shipping targets in the Red Sea. The Houthis claim that their attacks are focused on Israel-affiliated targets, although many of the targets do not appear to have any such affiliation.

The conflict escalated recently when Houthi fighters attacked a U.S. Navy ship with an anti-ship ballistic missile. The American vessel withstood the attack, and the Americans then retaliated against a series of strategic Houthi positions and supply bases inside of Yemen.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan dives into the details of the Houthi attack, the U.S. counterattack, and the larger conflict involving the Houthis, Iranians, Saudis and Americans in the Red Sea theater. In the end, Zeihan argues, these U.S. counterstrikes should send a powerful warning to the Houthis, and people should expect to see a decline in Houthi attacks in the Red Sea region.

The following is an excerpt from Peter’s Jan. 12 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Things in the Red Sea have ramped up yet again. The Houthis, who are an Iranian-backed Shiite group in Yemen, launched a series of missile and drone attacks on international shipping. Early today, the United States conducted a retaliatory air assault on Houthi targets.

In response to an increase in assaults on commercial shipping and an anti-ship missile being launched toward U.S. naval assets, the U.S. targeted Houthi command and control systems, radar, and ammunition storage facilities. Only time will tell if the U.S. is serious about getting involved in this region, and it will likely depend on Iran’s willingness to engage in discussion with the Biden administration.

Everything about this region is complex (and I have very little desire to dive too deep), so we’ll leave it at “complex.” In all likelihood, we’ll see Iran push the Houthis away from a conflict with the U.S. in favor of directing any assets toward their regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

Hey everyone, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from the Phoenix Airport. Today, we’re gonna talk about a part of the world that I really don’t care for at all. And that’s Yemen.

 

There’s been an insurgency going on in Yemen, since I don’t know, Paleolithic period, multiple sides, got a relatively secular-ish government, you’ve got a Sunni militia that’s kind of officially or semi-officially affiliated with al Qaeda. And then you’ve got a Shiite group called the Houthis, that are wildly incompetent at most work and really can’t hold themselves together. There’s very little that’s worth fighting over, you have a little natural gas. But once this boiled up, I don’t know 15-20 years ago, everyone personally got out of that business. The water tables crashed, most agricultural production isn’t even going to food, it’s going to something like hot, which is a mild narcotic, that’s kind of a very, very mild version of like cocaine and shrooms put together, that most of the population is high on all the time.

 

Really not a lot going on there that matters to anyone, but the detailed depth you need to command in order to say anything intelligent is extreme. So it’s like that perfect mix of irrelevance and tedium that I just try to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, since the Gaza war got started, they’ve started to be cooking off missiles and drones at international shipping going through the Red Sea. Their position is on the eastern side of the Bible, then Deb, which is on the extreme southern-southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. And they actually do have the ability to reach in there, if they put their minds to it. Of course, they are incapable of making their own weapons. I mean, this is a place where sticks and stones are the highlight of the technology. So, all the weapons are brought in from Iran, who is specifically backing the Houthis in this multi-sided fight.

 

The Iranians like to do that, because it’s on the far side of Saudi Arabia, who is the regional rival, and every once awhile, the Houthis are, let’s be honest here, every once awhile the Iranians use Houthi cover in order to launch some missiles and some drones into Saudi targets. For their part, the Saudis have not really taken the bait in the traditional sense. I mean, yes, they have invaded. But really, they’re just using everything in Yemen as target practice, because they know there’s no way that they’ve got the military capacity to actually root out these groups. So they basically aim for the blue roof, is what I like to call it, in anticipation of someday, the Iranians actually driving down through Iraq and Kuwait to the Saudi oil fields. Basically, the Saudis are preparing by getting their fighter pilots some target practice, which you know, it’s not stupid, it’s just inhumane. Anyway, back in 2022, the Saudis and the Houthis signed a — signed, that makes it sound so formal — they agreed to a peace deal, or ceasefire anyway. And since then, the Houthis, with the Iranians, have been stockpiling weapons in anticipation of the next outbreak of hostilities. Well, in the aftermath of the October 7 assault on Israeli targets by Hamas, we now have this war in Gaza, and the Houthis are saying that they’re cooking off missiles and attacking shipping that is affiliated with Israel. And by affiliating Israel, what they really mean is anything that happens to go by, because they don’t really have a good way to identify anything. So they’ve just been shooting whatever they see.

 

Well, local time in the middle of the night on January 12, the United States launched moderate-sized air assault using some tomahawks and some fighter bombers on Houthi targets, saying that they were targeting a few command and control systems, a little bit of radar, and mostly the ammo dumps and processing facilities where the Houthis launched these things from now.

 

This is a fairly big chunk of territory. This isn’t like the tiny little pipsqueak of territory that Gaza is. This is actually you know, something almost the size of Colorado. I think I’ll get back to you on that one.

 

So, clearing up the Houthis is definitely not an option without a[n] Iraq-style invasion. And that is not in the cards. The question, of course, is how serious is the Biden administration about this? We’ve seen 12% of global trade get disrupted by these drone and missile assaults. So they’d have to put their back into it if the United States really wanted to stop this.

 

It’s not clear that that’s the goal. And in fact, I’m fairly certain it’s not. You see, there was a precipitating event earlier in the day before the strikes.

 

There [sic] amount of assaults on the commercial shipping have been incrementally increasing. But what was different about the 12th Is that a ballistic anti-ship missile was launched at a U.S. naval asset, and within hours, the United States shot back.

 

It’s not that the United States is overly concerned about shipping despite the PR, but you shoot at a navy vessel, that navy vessel will return fire.

 

So I’m sure the message has been delivered quietly to the Iranians right now, it’s like no, you do what you feel, you need to just know that if you target us again, this is going to be a lot more involved. And it’s not just going to be the Houthis that are getting shot back at. Remember that every drop of oil that Iran exports goes to the Strait of Hormuz, and everyone likes to make an ooh and an aah and about the possibility of Iran closing the strait, but they actually need it more than most of the other producers in the region.

 

Will that be enough? I mean, time will tell. But there’s reason to be at least partially optimistic because something similar happened back in 2016, when the Houthis targeted an American naval asset, and a lot of their stuff got blown up within the next couple of days. And there haven’t been threats against U.S. naval assets since, until today.

 

So there’s some capability here for this to be smoothed out, but ultimately comes down to whether or not the Iranians are willing to actually have a conversation with the Biden administration about anything. Now, the Iranians do have a stronger support relationship with the Houthis than they do with say Hamas. Hamas is Sunni and Arab, whereas the Iranians are largely Persian and Shia. So the Iranians have always seen Hamas as completely disposable, they don’t really care about it. They’re happy with what’s going on in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. But they’re not going to intervene in any meaningful way to protect something that they don’t even consider to be an asset. Houthis [sic] a little bit different. They are Shia. And so there’s a little bit more camaraderie, and unlike needling Israel, which is, you know, convenient and fun, and good for PR in Iran and around the Arab world, needling Saudi Arabia, their primary regional foe, is a much more strategically important thing. So there’s leverage on both sides here. But ultimately, the Iranians would love to keep the Houthis focused on Saudi Arabia, because that’s where the money is. And that’s where the future conflict for the Iranians ultimately will be. And they would love the United States to stick out of this. So they’ve been basically needling the United States and needling Israel, because it’s good PR across the Middle East, but I don’t think they’re really interested in bleeding for it because their real fight requires every asset they have later on. So I would guess that we’re going to see things simmer down in Yemen, and I can go back to ignoring it.

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