The Houthi attacks

Image: Lara Jameson


Considerations on the possibility of expanding conflict in the Middle East

Recent events in the Middle East, with the outbreak of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, following the Palestinian group's attack on Israel, on October 07, 2023, with developments on the Israeli border with Lebanon and an upsurge in hostilities with the Hezbollah group, Attacks by the Houthis, the organization that dominates northern Yemen, on ships in the Red Sea, in addition to bombings involving Israel and the USA in Syria and Iraq, are configuring a worrying scenario of escalation that could result in a regional war.

Israel's reaction to the attack suffered has been devastating, with an indiscriminate killing, involving a high number of Palestinian civilians, the overwhelming majority of the 23.469 victims, with an estimated 40% of these being children and adolescents (number updated as of 11/01/24, from according to the Gaza Ministry of Health) against around 1300 Israelis killed in Hamas' actions. In humanitarian terms, the Israeli attack on Gaza is a catastrophe: almost the entire population of more than two million people had to leave their homes, the Palestinians do not have drinking water, electricity, internet, telephony, hospitals have collapsed or are functioning poorly. in a very precarious manner and the delivery of essential supplies such as food and medicine is in quantity far below what is needed. Hunger and disease affect a large part of the population.

Hamas has Iranian support, as do Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis and armed groups in Syria and Iraq. To date, however, none of the actors mentioned has directly interfered in the Israel-Hamas conflict, with the exception of some rockets fired by the Houthis into Israel, all of which were intercepted. The exchange of artillery between Israel and Hezbollah, with some aerial bombardment of the Lebanese group's positions, remains at a “slow fire”, although there has been a certain increase, with an increase in firing from both sides and Israeli aerial bombardment.

Hezbollah possesses an estimated 150.000 missiles and rockets and could fire thousands in a single day, seriously hitting major Israeli cities, with extensive physical damage and casualties. Israel would therefore not be able to defend itself against a massive attack with its “Iron Dome”, the anti-aircraft defense system. Israel's predictable overwhelming response, with possible US support, inhibits this scenario, as does direct involvement by Iran.

In the Red Sea, a new front is being developed with the Yemeni Houthis, in support of the Palestinians, launching attacks on all ships that, in this group's assessment, may have any relationship with Israel. The Red Sea is a critical route for global cargo shipping, between Asia and Europe and also Asia and North America. Going around Africa to the south is a longer and more expensive option. If this scenario eventually comes to fruition for a prolonged period of time, it will have significant negative impacts on the international economy, affecting stocks and prices. Some companies are already avoiding the Red Sea due to lack of security.

A regional war is not the intention of any of the actors involved. But the threat to “freedom of navigation” across the world’s seas and oceans, especially in a critical point like the Red Sea, could force the North Americans to escalate the conflict, although the Joe Biden administration, with the relevant aspect of addressing If it's an election year in the US, try to avoid this scenario. A frontal attack on one of its sponsored “Shia Crescent” groups could also make Iran directly involved. Iran sent a destroyer towards the Red Sea after the US attacked Houthi vessels, killing their crew.

Iranian regional strategy and attacks in the Red Sea

Yemen has a long history of resistance to external powers and colonization that includes the Roman, Ottoman and British Empires and, more recently, resistance to the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Israel, seen as proxies of the hegemonic power, the United States. The Houthis (a term that refers to the founder of the movement, the cleric Hussein al-Houthi) profess a very old branch of Islam, Zaydism, a dissent from Shiism, with a majority only in Yemen.

This Yemeni group, as well as Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups in Iraq and Syria, the so-called “Shiite crescent”, are part of the regional Iranian articulation, in which the Persian country supports, in addition to these actors, countries such as Syria and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, the 2003 US invasion and subsequent deposition of Saddam Hussein (with the bloody war that killed, it is estimated, more than 700 Iraqis) transformed a relatively stable country into a scene of sectarian conflicts. And Iran, which waged war against Iraq in the 1980s, began to influence the direction of the Arab country, also with a Shiite majority, and have it as an ally in the regional power struggle.

From 2015 onwards, a fierce civil war pitted the Houthis, with Iranian support, against the then central government of Yemen, supported by Saudi Arabia and the USA. In March 2023, an agreement was announced seeking to resume diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two historic rivals in the Middle East, this agreement, in an unprecedented diplomatic role, mediated by China, a country with close economic relations with both.

Among the points of the agreement, the pacification of Yemen, with the acceptance of the status quo with Houthi rule over part of Yemen and an Iranian commitment to no longer finance the group. The Houthis managed to have the military capacity, with missiles and drones, to hit targets in Saudi Arabia, which occurred in retaliation for the Saudi bombings in Yemen. This military power certainly weighed on the Saudis' realistic decision to accept Houthi rule over part of Yemen.

Military capacity that has been testing the safety of transport and military vessels in the Red Sea. The Houthis' initiative projects it as a regional (and in a certain way, global) actor and fits into the Iranian strategy of confronting another regional rival, Israel. What is clear is that the USA, although it continues to be the most powerful political actor, and the one that has been moving the most diplomatically, is no longer able to assert its preferences as before.

Even in the case of Israel, despite counting on billions of dollars in US defense aid, the country has not responded to the Biden government's requests for “moderation”, that is, for the cessation of indiscriminate attacks that victimize so many Palestinian civilians. And beyond the diplomatic sphere, the Houthis' attacks in the Red Sea, an area of ​​high relevance for maritime transport and the international economy, may be another indication that the historical period of Pax americana, started after the Second World War, in which a single state actor would be able to maintain “global stability”, at the limit by force of arms, may be falling behind.

*Wagner Sousa is a postdoctoral candidate in International Relations at Unesp.

Originally published on International Observatory of the XNUMXst Century, no. 3.

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