Accessibility links

Breaking News

Houthi Red Sea Strikes and US Response Prove Fertile Propaganda Ground

Houthi supporters in Sanaa protest against airstrikes launched by the U.S. and U.K. on Houthi targets in Yemen on January 12, 2024. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
Houthi supporters in Sanaa protest against airstrikes launched by the U.S. and U.K. on Houthi targets in Yemen on January 12, 2024. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Houthis, their Iranian backers and others seeking political gain from the Palestinian cause exploit Western response to months of Yemini militant attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea

The U.S.-led strikes on Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels to stop their months-long maritime attacks in the Red Sea intensified the deluge of disinformation from governments prone to demonstrating their support for Palestine and opposition to Israel.

From NATO ally Turkey to Iran and Russia, top government officials engaged in anti-U.S. propaganda, misattributing the blame and misrepresenting the situation.

On January 11, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that the United States and United Kingdom, with support from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Bahrain, had conducted joint strikes on Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

CENTCOM said it targeted radar systems, air defense systems and storage and launch sites that the Houthis in Yemen have been using to aim unmanned aerial systems, cruise and ballistic missiles against commercial vessels.

The U.S. carried out a follow-up strike on a Houthi radar site on January 13.

CENTCOM said it aims to degrade the Houthi’s ability to carry out “illegal and reckless attacks on U.S. and international vessels and commercial shipping in the Red Sea.”

Nevertheless, the Houthis have continued their strikes, unsuccessfully targeting a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea on January 14 and successfully striking a U.S. commercial vessel on January 15.

On January 16, U.S. officials confirmed U.S. airstrikes had eliminated four ballistic missiles the Houthis were going to use in further attacks.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October, the Houthis have demonstrated their solidarity with Palestine and opposition to Israel by attacking commercial maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

The Houthis falsely claimed the ships they attacked — or hijacked — were all connected with or transiting to Israel.

The Houthi attacks have also occurred in international waters, violating the right of innocent transit and passage.

'Sea of blood’

The U.S. and its allies tolerated months of Houthi attacks on civilian targets before responding.

Yet opponents of the United States — and even NATO ally Turkey — have attempted to frame Washington and its allies as the aggressors for responding to Houthi hostilities.

"All that has been done is a disproportionate use of force," Turkish President Recep Erdogan said on January 12 in response to the U.S.-led strikes.

"At the moment, they are trying to turn the Red Sea into a sea of blood and Yemen, with the Houthis and by using all of its force, says it is and will give the necessary response in the region to the United States, Britain.”

Erdogan’s stance that the U.S. is to blame for escalating tensions in the Red Sea is shared by Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group. Hezbollah has received Iranian support for decades and has been instrumental in the longstanding Iran-Israel proxy conflict and the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Like Hezbollah, the Houthis are an instrument of Iranian power projection in the region. Both are part of the Islamic Republic’s increasingly decentralized Axis of Resistance, which by some counts entails over 100 Shiite militias operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, among other places.

The White House accused Iran of being “deeply involved” in the Houthi’s Red Sea attacks, including through the provision of arms and intelligence.

Citing “U.S. and Middle East officials,” the Semafor news website reported on January 16 that “commanders and advisors” from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are “on the ground in Yemen and playing a direct role in Houthi rebel attacks on commercial traffic in the Red Sea.”

Also on January 16, Iran said it attacked one of the main “espionage headquarters” of Israel’s Mossad spy agency not far from the U.S. consulate in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region, further raising fears of regional spillover from the Israel-Hamas war.

Iran’s ambitions aside, there is broad-based support for the Palestinian struggle in the Muslim world.

Erdogan, a champion of Islamist causes, has been a vocal critic of Israel’s war effort and a staunch supporter of Palestinian independence. Erdogan has called Hamas, the Iran-backed militia that runs the Gaza Strip, a liberation group.

Hamas sparked the current war with Israel by launching a deadly attack in southern Israel on October 7, 2023, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Hamas took about 200 hostages during the attack. Most of them remain incommunicado, and their fate is unknown to the families.

Erdogan has likewise opposed the deployment of two U.S. carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea intended “to deter hostile actions against Israel” — namely by Iran and Hezbollah. Erdogan falsely claimed they would “hit Gaza.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi also tried to spin the Houthis’ actions as a show of solidarity with Palestine, claiming the U.S. strikes had been “rejected and condemned by the freedom-seeking nations of the world.”

Iran ally Russia also accused the West of escalating tensions to achieve its “destructive goals,” claiming the U.S. strikes against the Houthis showed a “total disregard for international law.”

By contrast, Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which has been engaged in a near decade-long conflict with the Houthis, blamed the Iran-backed militants for provoking the strikes on Yemeni soil.

‘Necessary, proportionate, and targeted’

On January 10, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning in the “strongest terms” the dozens of Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels since November 19.

One day prior, the Houthis launched their largest attack in the Red Sea to date, creating a situation that the British defense chief called “unsustainable.”

The U.N. resolution called on the Houthis to immediately halt such strikes and to release the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader commercial ship, which the Houthis hijacked in November, and its crew.

That resolution also affirmed the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial ships under international law. It took note of the right of U.N. member states under international law “to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”

The Houthis refused to halt their attacks, calling the U.N. resolution a “political game,” and framed the attacks on civilian vessels as a “legitimate defense.”

The U.S.-U.K. strikes came soon after, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the response as “necessary, proportionate, and targeted,” arguing that the escalating Houthi attacks are “putting innocent lives at risk … disrupting the global economy, and … also destabilizing the region.”

The limited U.S.-U.K. response, using precision-guided munitions, only hit military assets used to conduct strikes against civilian ships.

The Houthis confirmed that those strikes killed five of their fighters and wounded six others. There were no reports of damage to civilians or civilian infrastructure.

Nor were there efforts to target senior Houthi leaders or otherwise undo a truce brokered between the Houthis, who roughly control one-third of Yemen’s most populated territory, and a Saudi-led coalition, which backs Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

That U.N.-mediated truce, hammered out in April 2022 after years of fighting, remains on shaky ground.

Right into their hands?

Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni security, conflict and defense researcher and nonresident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, argues that while the U.S. actually seeks de-escalation with the Houthis, the Houthis are intentionally provoking an armed response from Washington to raise their own political profile.

He argued that an “international intervention would enable them to further mobilize the public for the as-yet unfinished battle at home, as well as increase their popular support base abroad in both the Arab and Islamic worlds.”

Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, cautioned against giving the Houthis “exactly what they want” through a military response.

Feierstein told Reuters that being targeted by Washington raises the Houthis’ profile, putting them in the “first rank of Iranian affiliates in the 'Axis of Resistance'."

Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen's Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif on December 5, 2023. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen's Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif on December 5, 2023. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

U.S. officials told The New York Times that the strikes were carefully calibrated to send a warning but not expand the conflict.

However, Elisabeth Kendall, a Middle East expert at Oxford University, told France 24 that unless the airstrikes substantively struck Houthi military infrastructure necessary to carry out the Red Sea attacks, the U.S.-U.K. response would likely “play into their hands.”

“[The strikes] will outrage them, enrage them and feed into their narratives of being the defender of the oppressed, in particular those in Gaza, against the imperialist West — America, Israel and their allies,” she said.