The US and Britain are, at the time of writing, at war with the Ansar Allah movement that controls over two-thirds of the population of Yemen and a third of its territory. This war is not an act of ‘self-defence’, it is doomed to failure, it is wrecking the fragile and desperately-needed Yemeni peace process, and it is actually strengthening Ansar Allah, known as ‘the Houthis’ after their first leader.
British forces took part in US-led airstrikes and missile attacks on Ansar Allah on 11 and 22 January. The US carried out another six missile attacks or airstrikes on Houthi positions between these two dates.
The initial assault, by the US, UK, Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, was meant to frighten the Houthis into stopping their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, off Yemen’s coast. Instead, it has led to a tit-for-tat cycle with no end in sight.
Along with its military action, the US has also put Ansar Allah back on its list of ‘specially designated global terrorists’ (SDGTs).
The Houthis had claimed that their attacks (which started in November) were focused on shipping ‘linked to Israel’ to help end Israel’s devastating war in Gaza.
On 11 December, they said: ‘If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces.’ (After 11 January, the Houthis said ships linked to Britain and the US had also become targets.)
‘Sanctioning the Houthis now makes them look as if they are being punished for standing with Palestine,’ comments a researcher with the respected British thinktank Chatham House, Farea Al-Muslimi.
The co-founder of Red Sea Analytics International, Michael Horton, points out: ‘Many of the Houthis’ former enemies are openly and covertly expressing their support for the group now. The Houthi attacks on what they describe as Israeli and U.S.-vessels resonates with many Yemenis, and indeed, many people around the world who are decrying the Israeli actions in Gaza.... From the perspective of many Yemenis, the Houthis possess the moral high-ground, and the power of that narrative, regardless of its veracity, should not be underestimated.’
“Imagine if Iran had fired missiles at Israeli airbases to ‘reduce Israel’s capability to violate international law’ in Gaza”
Brian Finucane, from another respected thinktank, the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera that the SDGT label seemed unlikely to have any positive effect on the behaviour of the Houthis: ‘I think it’s a form of do-something-ism.’
The terrorist designation may, on the other hand, undermine the fragile Yemen peace process, as we warned last issue (PN 2669). After eight years of military failure and humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has shown signs of wanting to ease out of its invasion there, and recent peace negotiations (with Omani mediation) have shown positive signs.
Britain has played a shameful role in this tragedy: arming, training and guiding Saudi forces, and providing crucial diplomatic support.
Now, by taking part in the US assault on Ansar Allah, Britain may help destroy the peace process, freezing Yemen in an endless state of war, and triggering the full-scale famine that has threatened for so many years.
Saudi Arabia may have quietly withdrawn from direct involvement in the war already, refusing to allow its airspace to be used for attacks on Houthi targets, for example, but Yemen also needs a real peace process that can give the economy a chance to recover.
US and British airstrikes can indeed whittle away the ability of Ansar Allah to launch anti-ship missiles. However, they will do almost nothing to stop the group’s use of one-way attack drones (OADs) or marine mines to target ships.
That’s the view of Michael Horton, the co-founder of Red Sea Analytics International quoted above. Writing on Responsible Statecraft, Horton points out that: ‘The OADs and the facilities used to manufacture and assemble them are spread across northwest Yemen. Most of these facilities are either underground or located in dense urban areas. Even with a continued air campaign against them, the Houthis are in a position to keep menacing international shipping with OADs and mines for months if not years.’
Far from protecting shipping in the Red Sea, the airstrikes have escalated the dangers.
The Houthis say their campaign is in solidarity with people in Gaza. On 25 January, Ansar Allah leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said: ‘Our country will continue its operations until food and medicine reach the people of Gaza.’
It is entirely possible that the Houthis will stop their criminal attacks on Red Sea shipping (zero deaths of sailors so far) if Israel stops its criminal war in Gaza (over 26,000 Palestinian deaths so far, including over 10,000 children).
The current US-UK campaign against the Houthis is not a case of self-defence, despite government claims.
If a missile is flying towards a ship, destroying it is definitely a case of self-defence.
If you can see that a missile is being prepared to fire against a particular ship, is being aimed at it, many international lawyers would say it would be legally acceptable in (‘anticipatory’) self-defence to attack the missile launcher before the missile was actually fired.
That is not what the US and UK say they are doing.
They are trying to ‘reduce the Houthis’ capability to violate international law’ by attacking ships in the Red Sea (that’s the British government’s official statement).
This is not about attacking weapons that are just about to be launched at a particular ship, but weapons that might or might not, one day, be used for such a purpose.
Imagine if, in the last week of November 2023, during the hostage-release/humanitarian pause in the Gaza War, Iran had fired missiles at Israeli airbases, with the justification that it wanted to ‘reduce Israel’s capability to violate international law’ when it resumed its assault on Gaza and cut off the flow of aid to the people there.
How would the US and British governments have reacted to that?
The relevant principles were, to take just one example, set out by Chatham House in 2005, under the guidance of a former senior foreign office lawyer, Elizabeth Wilmshurst.
Article 51 of the UN charter ‘preserves the right to use force in self-defence “if an armed attack occurs”’ – a missile is already in flight towards you.
For those who believe in a right of ‘anticipatory self-defence’, Chatham House said, there are certain conditions, going back to the Caroline court case in the US in 1837.
There must be ‘a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation’. The use of force, ‘justified by the necessity of self-defence, must be limited by that necessity, and kept clearly within it.’
These are universally-recognised principles. They do not hold in the case of the US-UK campaign against the Houthis – and they also do not hold in the case of Israel’s war of destruction in Gaza.
In both cases, the threat of future attacks (by the Houthis or by Hamas) can be prevented by many other means and there is plenty of time for deliberation. There is a strong case that with both the Houthis and Hamas, future attacks can be prevented by diplomatic and political means – the end of the Gaza War in one case, and the end of Israel’s occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank in the other (see PN 2669).
For those who believe in the use of force, one option with both the Houthis and Hamas would be to follow the UN Charter and to see what action the UN security council can agree on, which might include military action carried out by UN-badged forces (Article 42), under the command of a UN ‘military staff committee’ (Article 47). These are parts of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter that the West likes to forget about, only invoking Article 51 – with their own special interpretation of it.