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  • Writer's pictureTéa Satariano

The U.S. Approach to Houthi Rebels in the Red Sea

US naval ships in the Red Sea

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have begun targeting U.S. ships in the Red Sea in protest of Israel's actions in Gaza (U.S. Naval Forces, Flickr)

Who are The Houthis?

The Iranian-backed Houthis are a rebel group based in Yemen who, in recent months, have begun attacking vessels throughout the Red Sea in response to Israel’s war with Gaza. The Houthis first gained prominence in 2024 after rebelling against Yemen’s government. Despite a decade-long civil war within their own country, the Houthis spent years fighting a military coalition in Saudi Arabia and have asserted themselves as a growing terrorist group. 

Primarily, the group is a religious group of Zaydi Shiites and has generally allied itself with other Muslim-majority countries, including the recently embattled Palestine. Leaders from the group have publicly condemned the war in Gaza, as well as the lack of initiative by world leaders to ensure proper aid to the region. Due to the group's staunch Gazan support throughout the war, they have declared Israeli-allied groups or vessels their primary target in their recent attacks. Although, in recent weeks, they have not hesitated to attack U.S. military ships and commercial shipping vessels. 

The Red Sea Attacks

As Houthi attacks have become more frequent in the Red Sea, they have also increasingly targeted U.S. military and commercial ships. One such attack was an anti-ship missile launched from Yemen at a U.S. cargo ship, the Rubymar. The crew was forced to abandon the ship after being hit, and the two-missile strike, regarded as one of the Houthis most damaging attacks thus far, created such a substantial amount of damage that the crew was forced to issue a distress call. 

The main reason the Houthi’s attacks are concentrated in the Red Sea is location. Bordering Yemen, the Red Sea is the closest location of international intermixing for the Houthis to make their political statements. However, the more complex answer is that attacking Red Sea vessels is one of the largest ways to disrupt world commerce, thus amplifying the Houthis’ political agenda. Low waters in the Panama Canal have diverted an even larger number of ships than normal to the Red Sea, which on average, sees approximately 11 percent of global trade, making it so that the Red Sea has become a hotbed for commerce from the world's largest consumers, including the United States. 


The U.S. Military: Ready to Respond

The U.S. has acknowledged not only that it is a clear target of the Houthis, but also that it needs to be militarily prepared, even if Houthi weapons are not comparable to U.S. weapons. The military has already struck down Houthi underwater vessels deployed in the Red Sea, as well as blocked missiles aimed toward U.S. commercial ships and warships. Military leadership has also recently begun retaliatory strikes in collaboration with other countries that have similar economic interests within the region, including the United Kingdom. One instance of these collaborative attacks includes the U.S. and Britain striking eight Houthi bases, specifically targeting locations in which significant amounts of weaponry and resources, including missiles, rockets, drones, and air defense systems, are known to exist. 

While coordinated attacks are being kept close to the military’s breast due to the ongoing nature of Houthi hostility, it has been revealed that the majority of U.S. interaction with Houthi violence has been through self-defense strikes against anti-ship missiles. These strikes will likely continue as little can be foreseen regarding the future of ship safety in the Red Sea. 

World Repercussions: Environmental and Economic

Attacks by the Houthi rebels are significantly affecting global traffic and commerce, as a multitude of shipping agencies are now avoiding the area for the safety of their crew and goods. One of these groups is the International Rescue Committee, which has been forced to divert ships coming from Asia on a much longer path to their African destination of Sudan. The ships are carrying vital aid for the country, of which roughly half of its citizens are in desperate need due to mass displacement within the country. 

After a Panamanian oil tanker headed for India was hit on its portside by a Houthi missile, citizens began urging international action to stop the disruption of international trade. Commercial shippers from Europe and Asia have become outraged by detours caused by the attacks, complaining that the change in course has cost them large amounts of money.

In addition to the economic impact, the Houthis involvement in the Red Sea has led to unforeseen environmental impacts. In one attack, the Houthis missile hit a ship carrying several thousand tons of fertilizer, creating an 18-mile oil slick as the ship took on water. The Red Sea is home to an extremely unique, and thus far climate resilient, breed of coral. However, the presence of the new oil slick poses an issue not only to the health of the reefs but all other organisms in the sea. While the reef’s health is a significant concern, many experts now worry the Houthis will not be restrained by any concern for world interests. The blatant willingness to cause such pollution, and as a result, destruction to the flora and fauna of the group’s native Yemen, has led many to believe that the group will not allow anything to distract them from their chosen form of protest.



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