Yemen: a new frontier against the “axis of evil” or a manifestation of the West’s failure to act?

Written by Anton Khimiak

On the night of January 12, the US and its allies (a coalition currently comprising the United Kingdom, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands) launched a joint military operation against the Houthis in Yemen. 

Given the nature of this event, the HWAG team sees it fit to examine the new front of global conflict between the “free world” and the “Tehran-Moscow axis of evil,” which sits next to one of the most important international trade routes, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Through this analysis, we also explore what a Western military operation in the southern Arabian Peninsula could mean for Russia’s influence in the Middle East and around the world. 

Who are the Houthi?

The Yemeni Houthi paramilitary group, also known as Ansar Allah, is a religious and political movement founded in the early 2000s. The Houthis’ social base is the Shiite Muslim Zaidi community, which accounts for one-third of the country’s total population. The Houthis had long been denied access to political and economic power structures, prompting an armed uprising in 2014. Since then, a civil war has raged in Yemen between various factions that rely on regional players and are in constant competition with one another:

  • In Yemen, the president represents the legitimate government, recognized by the international community and supported mainly by Saudi Arabia. 
  • The Houthis control the country’s most populous areas, including the capital Sanaa, with Iran as the main ally and sponsor
  • The Forces of Southern Yemen (Southern Transitional Council, STC) are separatist movements seeking secession from Yemen. The STC, supported by the United Arab Emirates controls the country’s largest port and commercial center, Aden. 
  • Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group led by Islamic fundamentalists.

The Houthi rebels use nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric to position themselves as protectors of the Yemeni people from foreign intervention. Since its inception, they have criticized Yemen’s government for its close ties with the United States and Saudi Arabia, accusing the latter of putting their own interests ahead of Yemenis’. With the help of Tehran’s ideological and financial clout, the movement quickly became radicalized. Other regional players see the Houthis as one of Iran’s proxy groups in the Middle East, alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and a number of Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq. 

Reasons behind the Allied Operation

Several key factors drive the Allies’ military operation in Yemen:

  • Intensified pirate attacks on cargo ships in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, as well as attempts to fire anti-ship missiles (ASM) at civilian vessels, are how the Houthis, who control approximately 280 kilometers of the Arabian coast of the Red Sea, “reacted” to Israel’s ground operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

It is worth noting that the Red Sea sees nearly 15% of global maritime trade, including 8% of grain trade, 12% of oil transportation, and 8% of liquefied natural gas trade. In December, large logistics companies began to favor a 7,000-kilometer longer but safer sea route around Africa due to the escalating conflict. As a result, commodity and energy prices rose, potentially slowing global economic growth.  

The infographic depicts incidents in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait from November 19, 2023 to January 9, 2024. Source: Damien Symon.
  • The Houthis have launched missiles at Israeli territory as well as military installations used by the US and their regional allies. According to the British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Yemeni Houthis may possess old Soviet P-15 Rubezh missiles, Mohit missiles converted from S-75 air defense systems, and Chinese C-801 surface-to-air missiles with a 40-kilometer range. However, the Houthis have much more dangerous missile weapons at their disposal, including Iranian Ghadir (Al-Mandab-2) surface-to-air missiles with a declared range of up to 300 kilometers. In addition, Iran’s Yemeni allies use Fateh-313 and Raad-500 ballistic missiles supplied by Tehran (ranges of 450 km and 500 km, respectively) modified to hit maritime targets.
Houthi military parade in Sanaa, September 21, 2023
  • For strategic reasons, the anti-Houthi operation aims to counter Iran’s growing influence, as Tehran provides comprehensive support to Ansar Allah (the Houthi movement), including weapons, financial assistance, and militant training. In this situation, the US and its allies seek to undermine Iran’s expansionist program while preventing further regional chaos.
Houthis’ slogan: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse to the Jews, and victory to Islam.”

Russian propaganda strikes back

As with the war between Israel and Hamas, Russia is actively covering the events in a positive light. On the one hand, Moscow is using the news story to divert attention away from helping Ukraine and its own war crimes, while also demonizing Israel and the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign is attempting to rally Arab support. The Russian media portrays the Houthis as fighters for Yemeni freedom, and the US-led operation is yet another attempt by Washington to impose its own interests on other nations. Russia seeks to demonstrate its responsibility and compassion by focusing on civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis caused by the military intervention. This could potentially boost pro-Russian sentiment among Middle Eastern audiences. 

Moreover, Moscow has significant tools to increase its information influence in the Arab world. For example, RT-Arabic, the Arabic-language division of the Kremlin’s international propaganda flagship RT, is among the most popular in the region, with coverage comparable to other local media behemoths Al Jazeera, Al Arabia, and Sky News Arabia.  

In December 2023, RT Arabic established a regional office in Algeria. 

At the crossroads of global interests

The Kremlin often reaps the benefits of Middle Eastern instability through increased oil and gas prices. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will take the risk of escalating the situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. To begin with, up to 80% of Russian oil and oil product supplies to China and India are currently transported via the Red Sea. Second, the interests of Russia’s main oil exporters, China and India, serve as a deterrent. Beijing and New Delhi are carrying out their ambitious trade and logistics projects, “One Belt, One Road” and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), respectively. Thus, one must note that Russia’s main economic partners, who rely on the Kremlin to fund its war against Ukraine, are concerned about the safety of navigation in one of the world’s most important waterways. 

However, the geostrategic dispositions of such influential players as China and India do not categorically rule out Moscow’s attempts to launch a hybrid strike against the global economy in the near future (most likely alongside its ally Iran) in a location vulnerable to trade logistics—the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Even the hypothetical presence of such a lever in Moscow’s hands transforms the Houthis into a trump card in the global conflict with the West. 

The Kremlin can address this threat by supplying maritime drone technology to the Houthis (via Iran or another intermediary). In the Black Sea, Ukraine has successfully used water-based UAVs to displace the enemy fleet. The Russians have been mimicking the concept of using kamikaze maritime drones and have recently unveiled their own development. Providing the Houthis with maritime UAVs could be a game changer, as the new technology will necessitate additional means of protecting Western warships operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Russia’s other interest in preventing the flow of goods through the Red Sea stems from its desire to develop the Northern Sea Route. For many years, the Kremlin has viewed this logistics project as a gold mine for generating huge profits from the future transportation of goods from Asia to Europe via Arctic waters. According to Nikolai Korchunov, Ambassador-at-Large of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Northern Sea Route could serve as an alternative to the Suez Canal. Moreover, Russian press is actively disseminating this idea, despite the fact that no carrier has announced plans to use a Russian alternative. It is important to note, the Northern Sea Route has been operated by the state-owned Rosatom Corporation since 2021, however the company is not subject to US or EU sanctions. It’s worth noting that in March 2021, Rosatom’s official telegram mocked the Suez Canal, which was closed due to the Ever Given container ship accident.

From the Red to the Black Sea?

The United States and its regional partners (the Gulf monarchies) patience ran thin after under two months of the Yemeni Houthis causing havoc. In this regard, Valeriy Chaly, Chairman of the Board of the UCMC, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine, and Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States (2015–2019), stated on NV

“When necessary, countries around the world band together and strike. And we need to start talking about whether the US is prepared to take the same approach with Russia”

According to Chaly, the United States and its allies have shown Iran the consequences of Tehran’s involvement in the war against Israel. Also the coalition demonstrates its determination in preventing any blockade of sea routes, a clear signal to Beijing

But what signal was Russia supposed to receive as part of the allied operation against the Houthis? 

Valeriy Chaly recalls that the United States’ official position is that no blockade of sea routes, particularly in the Black Sea, is permitted.

“After all, what prevents the same Typhoons (Eurofighter Typhoon, a multi-purpose fighter jet) from flying from Cyprus to the Black Sea region? How do Russia’s actions in the eastern Black Sea differ from those in the Red Sea?”

According to Chaly, “It’s time to be bold and demonstrate resolve, but not just against the Houthis and Hamas. In the case of Ukraine, the world is confronted with a specific violation of international law. And so, the next step should be to prevent Russia from impeding maritime traffic throughout the Black and Azov Seas”.

To summarize, the US and its allies’ joint military operation in Yemen is not a local conflict in which the West can quickly resolve security concerns by demonstrating technological superiority over an antiquated adversary. In fact, the events in Yemen are an important part of the free world’s struggle against the Moscow-Tehran “axis of evil”. 

The Kremlin, with its own geopolitical interests and regional media infrastructure, is attempting to use the situation in Yemen to promote pro-Russian narratives throughout the Arab world. Furthermore, destabilization in the southern Arabian Peninsula could lead to the transfer of Russian technology to Iranian proxies. Moscow could attempt to use this as their ‘trump card’ to apply additional pressure on the West to reach agreements on other global issues, such as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.  

At the same time, the methods used by the West in the current situation are inadequate to the magnitude of the challenges. Threats to shipping in the Red Sea indicate that forces hostile to the United States, its allies, and partners are about to escalate. Impunity only fuels the ambitions of Russia and Iran’s military and political leaders. 

At this point, it is critical for the West to recognize that the operation against the Houthis is only a fight against symptoms. The pathogens are thousands of kilometers from the locations of the coalition’s missile strikes.