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Yemen’s Military Operations Signal A New Phase In The Red Sea

Above photo: Supporters of Ansar Allah hold a mock drone drone during a rally against the U.S.-led strikes on Yemen and Israel’s war in Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 23, 2024. Osamah Abdulrahman / AP.

Residents of Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa endured another harrowing night last Saturday as American and British aircraft dropped bombs on an insecticide manufacturer in a dense residential neighborhood. In the wake of the airstrikes, MintPress News reporter Ahmed AbdulKareem went to the Al-Nahda neighborhood in the center of the city, where a fire rising dozens of meters into the air illuminated nearby homes.

There, he found a chaotic scene eerily reminiscent of those now regularly seen in Gaza in the wake of Israeli raids. Rubble, broken windows, scattered and burned furniture, and women and children fleeing their homes to no particular place. “Bomb us more… we still won’t let any Israeli ship cross,” an angry resident shouted as the press descended upon the scene.

That same night in the western cities of Haifan and Shami, at least one civilian was killed, and six members of a single family were wounded in a separate spate of American airstrikes. Scenes like this are repeated on a near-daily basis in the war-torn country, yet Yemenis seem to be more committed than ever to the Palestinian cause.

As the genocide in Gaza continues to unfold and Western airstrikes targeting the Yemeni mainland increase, a new phase of escalation in the Red Sea has begun. In unprecedented numbers, Yemeni citizens took to the streets in 120 governorates last Friday to demand an escalation of attacks against the United States, the UK and Israel. Chants of “We demand escalation” echoed in unison throughout the massive crowds.

Abdul Wahab Al-Khair, a well-known Yemeni legal expert and activist based in Sana’a, told MintPress that decision-makers need to respond preemptively to public opinion to stop the U.S. attacks and the genocide in Gaza alike, telling MintPress,

Crowds numbering in the millions take to the streets weekly. I took the streets myself to call upon the Yemeni revolutionary, political and military leadership to hit Israel and impose a complete blockade on it by preventing Israeli ships – or those heading to Israel – from crossing the Bab al-Mandab, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. We also call upon the Yemeni armed forces to hit U.S. and British forces in the Red Sea as well. We are ready for a direct ground confrontation. Only Americans bear responsibility.”

Al-Khair argues that Yemenis see action taken in support of Gaza as the legitimate will of the people supported by Yemen’s democratically elected parliament, which approved a law prohibiting the recognition of, and normalization with, Israel on December 5, 2023. A separate bill that was recently passed classifies certain countries, entities, and persons as hostile to the Republic of Yemen. The law aims to identify and seek legal and military recourse against actors that threaten the sovereignty of the Republic of Yemen. Perhaps not surprisingly, the United States, Britain, and Israel have been classified as hostile actors under the law.

Al-Khair sees the issue as a legal one, telling MintPress,

Yemen, as a country bordering the Bab al-Mandab Strait, has the right to exercise its sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waterway and it has the right to impose laws and regulations regarding which foreign ships can cross. Yemen has the right to prevent ships of war or those used for the military purposes of a state or entity hostile to Yemen. It is not permissible to demand the release of a ship detained within the jurisdiction of Yemen that was taken to port to be investigated by authorities.”

Al-Khair argues that Yemen’s de facto blockade of Israeli interests in the Red Sea is entirely consistent with international and humanitarian law, conventions and treaties regarding the right to self-defense. Furthermore, he argues, joint defense between Yemen and other Arab countries, including Palestine, is enshrined in the Treaty of Joint Arab Defense and Economic Cooperation, signed in 1950 by members of the Arab League.

Indeed, it seems as though the cries of Yemeni protesters have been heard by decision-makers in Sana’a. Ansar Allah leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi announced in a televised speech last Thursday that Yemen would escalate the severity and scope of its operations against Israel and the United States in the Red Sea to a level not seen since hostilities began after October 7, 2023, when Israel’s war on Gaza began.

Yemen’s Missiles: A Formidable Challenge

In a move that could expose American and British forces stationed miles from Yemeni territorial waters to dangerous new weapons, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi revealed that “Yemeni Armed Forces have developed missiles in their arsenal to the point they will soon become too advanced for U.S. forces to intercept.” Al-Houthi was likely referring to unmanned underwater vessels (UUV) and unmanned surface vessels (USV).

On February 18, US Central Command confirmed in a press release that underwater drones had been deployed against the US Navy by Yemeni forces.

Between the hours of 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Sanaa time), February 17, CENTCOM successfully conducted five self-defense strikes against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned underwater vessel (UUV), and one unmanned surface vessel (USV) in Iranian-backed Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. This is the first observed Houthi employment of a UUV since attacks began in October 23.

CENTCOM identified the anti-ship cruise missiles, unmanned underwater vessel, and the unmanned surface vessel in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined they presented an imminent threat to U.S. Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region. These actions will protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure for U.S. Navy and merchant vessels.

According to Marc Miguez, commander of US Carrier Strike Group Two, to have a bomb-laden, unmanned surface vessel that “can go at pretty fast speeds” poses a serious threat to U.S. military assets in the Red Sea. Rear Adm. Miguez told the Associated Press that the U.S. does not have enough intelligence to cope with Yemen’s underwater drones, making them highly lethal in some circumstances. “If you’re not immediately on scene, it can get ugly extremely quick,” he added.

Abdulaziz Abu Talib, Executive Director of the Yemeni Center for Political and Strategic Studies (YCPSS), a Yemeni think tank that advises the country’s leadership on policy issues – told MintPress that the future of navigation in the Red Sea hinges on Washington and London’s will to escalate hostilities and the extent of their success in forming alliances to militarize the Red Sea. “Yemen is benefiting from its experience fighting U.S.-backed Saudi forces for the past 15 years,” Abu Talib told MintPress. “Accordingly, the safety of American warships and interests is not guaranteed, and American and British forces will not be able to defend them easily.”

In his speech, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi revealed that Ansar Allah has already carried out 183 operations against targets in the occupied Palestinian territories and 48 in the Red Sea and Arabian Seas. This past week alone has seen Ansar Allah carry out over 13 operations, including the sinking of a British ship and downing a US military drone.

Fury In The Red Sea

Brigadier Yahya Saree, the spokesperson of the Yemeni Armed Forces, said in a statement following the declaration of escalation that Yemen would “confront the American-British escalation with more qualitative military operations against all hostile targets in the Red and Arab Seas in defense of our country, our people and our nation.” Saree’s statement was paired with an announcement that “naval forces of the Yemeni Armed Forces carried out a specific military operation targeting the American ship “Torm Thor” in the Gulf of Aden, with a number of appropriate naval missiles.”

Saree’s announcement came on the heels of a proclamation revealing new qualitative military operations targeting Israel’s southern city of Eilat with several ballistic missiles and drones, an operation in the Gulf of Aden in which a British ship was set ablaze after being struck by several naval missiles and a third which saw an American destroyer “targeted with a number of drones.”

On February 19, Yemeni forces targeted the British ship, the Rubymar, in the Gulf of Aden, sinking it. Dramatic videos of the Rubymar sinking soon made their way to social media sites. The Yemeni Armed Forces emphasized that as part of the operation, they ensured the safe evacuation of the ship’s crew, underscoring that all personnel had reached safety.

That same day, Yemeni Air Defenses downed a US intelligence asset used to identify ground targets, the MQ9 Reaper UAV, a multirole top-of-the-line aerial vehicle equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Later, military media footage showed the moment the American drone was targeted and shot down. In the footage, members of the Armed Forces can be seen collecting the debris of the Reaper after it plunged toward al-Hodeidah’s coastline in the early morning hours.

According to a military expert close to decision-makers in the Yemeni army, Ansar Allah has made significant developments in missile capabilities, including producing missiles that can fly outside of the atmosphere. Last December, media outlets reported “the first battle in the history of space” after Israel’s Arrow defense system intercepted a Yemeni ballistic missile outside the atmosphere. Brigadier General of the Yemeni Armed Forces Mujib Shamsan told MintPress that current events have pushed Yemen to develop ballistic missiles that keep up with modern technology, which has created a dilemma for U.S. Naval forces.

In the wake of the sinking of the British Rubymar in the Gulf of Aden, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi sent a clear warning to European countries mulling involvement in the Red Sea, saying, “For Europeans, do not play with fire. Take a lesson from Britain. You do not need the support of the American devil to protect the occupying entity to practice the extermination of the sons of Gaza without disturbance. International navigation is safe. Your presence increases the militarization of the sea, targets international shipping, and affects the food supply chains of your countries’ stores.”

Abu Talib, who heads a research team at the Yemeni Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told MintPress that “Yemeni operations have not only revealed Israeli weakness, [often] concealed under a media aura, they have encouraged other parties to carry out operations in support of the Palestinian people, which has doubled the pressure on Israel and reflects the [goals] of the naval blockade. Operations have prompted Israel to seek alternative land routes, rely on expensive sea lines and impose economic losses on Israel’s economy as seen in the decline of its credit rating from Moody’s International.”

Abu Talib told MintPress that Yemeni authorities are sending messages of reassurance to all countries benefiting from navigation in the Red Sea or bordering it that they will not be targeted. Moreover, he said, Yemeni forces possess the intelligence capability to distinguish Israeli ships and target them accurately and with a mechanism that does not affect international navigation.

“From the beginning of the Yemeni operations, the objectives of these operations and identity of the targets were announced, which are Israeli ships and those heading to [it], while the rest of the world’s ships were not targeted as long as they identified themselves and their destination, which is exactly what has happened. Therefore, it can be confirmed that the impact has been only on Israel’s navigation; even American and British ships passed without objection until they launched their aggression against Yemen,” Abu Talib added.

Threat Of A US Ground Invasion

It’s not yet clear whether the U.S. anticipated such an audacious response by Ansar Allah, but statements by the Biden administration and U.S. military leadership suggest the U.S. was likely caught off guard. The subsequent tit-for-tat has some concerned that the U.S. may respond with one of the few tools left in its arsenal to stem the effectiveness of Ansar Allah’s blockade of Israeli interests in the Red Sea, a full-scale ground invasion of Yemen.

For their part, Ansar Allah is anticipating the possibility. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi recently revealed that at least 230,000 fighters were being equipped and trained in various military sciences, including guerrilla warfare, while professional training and qualification are underway for tens of thousands of others. In addition, 566 military maneuvers have been held since the start of the war on Gaza, along with over 359 military marches, where soldiers walk on foot, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers, to ready them for war in Yemen’s harsh desert conditions.

Abu Talib noted that Yemen is known for its historical rejection of invasion. “It resisted the Ottoman invasion, which claimed the Islamic Caliphate, expelled the British occupation in the south of the country, and faced the Saudi-Emirati invasion for eight years,” he told Mintpress, adding, “Any attempt to invade will be met with resistance that exceeds the resistance to the Saudi-Emirati invasion of [2015]. New segments of the population will join the Yemeni armed forces that were not involved in confronting Saudi Arabia because the nature of the invading forces is seen as more foreign and hostile to Muslims.”

Abu Talib doesn’t think that Saudi and UAE-backed militias in Yemen will stand in the way of Ansar Allah’s resistance to a potential U.S. invasion. “We do not believe that factions affiliated with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will be on the side of the invading forces. They may have accepted subordination to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, two Arab powers, but will not likely agree to work with American and British forces.”

“Yemeni fighters are characterized by an ideological motive against American hegemony and the Zionist project,” he added. “It will pose a difficulty for the invading forces if they attempt an invasion or even carry out major hostile operations.”

Sabotaging Peace

Some Yemenis fear that Washington is not content with bombing the Yemeni mainland but risks torpedoing the fragile peace that has taken hold over the past few years. Several ISIS members were killed in a preemptive police raid in Al-Bayda Governorate in central Yemen as they were preparing to carry out suicide bombings against targets in Sana’a and other provinces, according to a police statement, which added that high-ranking officials of Ansar Allah were among the intended targets of the ISIS operations.

Abu Talib noted that the U.S. will likely try to leverage simmering hostilities in the region to undermine the ongoing efforts to broker long-term peace in Yemen between warring parties. “Given the connection between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is expected that Washington will obstruct the peace process in Yemen as a form of punishment. This is expected, and it is widely believed that the recent stagnation in negotiations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia is due to pressure from the White House,” Abu Talib told MintPress.

Ansar Allah’s second-in-command, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, revealed in a recent interview that the group had received indirect messages and threats from the United States, including threatening to stir up civil unrest, sidelining ongoing peace talks and even stopping foreign aid from reaching Yemen, because of the country’s position on Gaza.

Hidden Motives

In Yemen, the American presence in the Red Sea is not only seen as a defense of Israel but hides other geopolitical motives as well. “Washington, and the West in general, seek to control the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait based on old maritime strategic theories that assume that whoever controls this region can control the world,” Abu Talib said, adding, “Even before this latest deployment, Washington and its allies established naval forces in the Red Sea under the pretext of preventing piracy. There is an international dimension related to this, the desire to dominate the international system in the face of growing Chinese and Russian power. This explains the presence of a large number of foreign bases in Djibouti, including China’s only foreign military base.”

“The American and British presence in the Red Sea does not only represent a danger to the countries bordering it. It is being carried out for the sake of Israel’s ambitions in the Red Sea. Officials in Tel Aviv have spoken of what they called ‘the conflict between the north and the south,’ referring to the northern and southern Red Sea, Abu Talib added,” referring to long-standing Israeli efforts to internationalize control over the area following the Yom Kippur War, when Israeli maritime traffic was prevented from using it.

Whatever the motivations, Ansar Allah has made it clear that they don’t plan on abandoning their support for the Palestinian cause in the face of mounting pressure. In a recent announcement, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi declared that “If the reason for that food and aid are not being delivered into Gaza is Egypt’s fear of being bombed, then we are ready to send drivers who are experienced in delivering supplies to fronts under bombardment to lead the aid carriers.”

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