Battle-tempered warriors, the Houthis in Yemen are targeting Western shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile the US lacks proxies and is instead burdened by deadbeat depleted dependents.
US politicians gloat over the great dividends the war in Ukraine yields. As Ukrainian proxies kill Russians and destroy weaponry with Western-supplied arms, the West itself takes few human casualties, outside of occasional mercenaries. The mass human slaughter is suffered by Ukrainians, whose leaders are more than happy to sacrifice their people at the chimerical altar of joining the West. Wise American leaders realize the life-cycle of any great global power can be extended by the prodigious use of auxiliary forces.
The multipolar bloc—Russia, China and especially Iran—would love to turn the tables and manufacture a conflict where they themselves can arm proxies to kill American soldiers and sailors. Scanning the globe, aside from Hezbollah and (perhaps) Hamas, there are no better proxies on earth than the battle-hardened and dirt-poor Houthi militiamen in Yemen, whose fanatic resistance to foreign occupation over the past decade has led them to victory over a large Saudi Arabian-led coalition that included the US and UK. And to tempt the US into battle, the most flagrant insult to American power is to blockade trade routes towards the US’ greatest ally: Israel.
The Houthis: Forged in Rebellion
Houthis belong to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam but their religious doctrines differ considerably from standard Shiite Muslims in Iran or Iraq. Zaydis settled in the north of Yemen over a thousand years ago and have been fighting ever since for control of this coastal land.
In modern times, Yemen was relatively stable from 1978 up to the Arab Spring in 2011 under the rule of a Zaydi secular republican, Ali Abdullah Saleh. During his long rule, a Zaydi Islamist militia rose in rebellion led by Hussein al-Houthi. Despite their preference to be called Ansar Allah (or Ansarallah), these militants are now best known as the Houthis in English.
Yemen is a majority Sunni nation. Despite this, with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the Shia Houthis joined Sunnis in marching against Saleh—who was soon overthrown and replaced by his Sunni vice president, AbedRabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Zaydi Houthis then shifted gears, brushed off decades of hostilities with Saleh, and allied themselves with their former Zaydi enemy. Together they launched an insurgency against Hadi, and in late 2014 they captured Yemen’s capital city Sana’a. Hadi was arrested and eventually fled first to his hometown of Aden and then Saudi Arabia. After capturing Aden, the Houthis set up a provisional government but the international community continued to recognize the exiled Hadi as Yemen’s leader.
Saudi Arabia was alarmed by this instability on their southern border. They saw the Houthis as Iranian proxies and feared their southern cities falling into missile range. The Saudis formed a large coalition and launched a shock-and-awe air campaign under the overly optimistic codename, Operation Decisive Storm in May of 2015. The US provided airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, operational planning, aerial refuelling, and maritime interdiction.
The war in Yemen dragged on for nearly a decade. The Houthis response to Saudi aggression—missile and drone strikes combined with small ground incursions into Saudi territory—are similar to Ukraine’s. In early 2022, Houthi artisanal missiles evaded a US-provided Patriot air defense system and struck an Aramco energy facility in Jeddah, creating a huge fireball. The Saudis are much weaker militarily than Russia, and when the Biden Administration started cutting off support, Saudi Arabia turned to China. President Xi has much higher ambitions in the Middle East than furthering proxy wars and led a diplomatic push to resolve the higher level conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A ceasefire in Yemen followed in late 2022 and Saudi relations with Iran re-established in 2023. This opened the door to BRICS membership to both Saudi Arabia and Iran beginning in 2024.
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Rebels of the Red Sea
Mirroring the Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Houthis have placed a form of maritime “sanctions” on Israel until humanitarian aid is allowed into Gaza. To enforce their naval blockade, the Houthis have attacked several Western cargo ships heading towards Israeli ports through the Red Sea . These attacks have severely disrupted trade through the Suez Canal.
Again taking their cue from Western authorities eighteen months ago, who seized several superyachts belonging to Russian billionaires, the Houthis have commandeered an Israeli oligarch’s cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader.
The Bab-el-Mandab is located at the point of closest proximity between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Targeted shipping passing through the Gulf of Aden can no longer safely transit through this “Gate of Grief” to enter the Red Sea, which gives access to the Israeli Port of Eilat, where traffic is down 80%. The cost of marine insurance is soaring and several major freight and tanker firms have diverted traffic towards the southern tip of Africa, adding time and expense to the voyage.
In addition, Malaysia has closed its ports to Israeli-related shipping. A marine drone recently attacked a ship off of the Indian coast causing an explosion and fire. Raising the stakes even higher, Iranian media are reporting that:
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) commander said the Mediterranean Sea could be closed if the United States and its allies continued to commit "crimes" in Gaza.
No details were provided on how Iran might accomplish such a task. Currently cargo diverted away from the Red Sea and Israel’s Eilat port is circumnavigating Africa and passing through the Gibraltar Strait to reach Israel’s Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Ashdod. Iran has access to the Lebanese coast and so could threaten commercial shipping by launching long-range kamikaze drones. A total sea blockade of Israel is possible on paper but unlikely in reality at this stage.
So far the Houthis have been selective with their targeting. No ships associated with the BRICS-11 nations have yet been attacked:
The number of non-western tankers carrying oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) in the Red Sea has surged since the Yemeni armed forces began targeting Israeli-linked vessels, according to MarineTraffic data reviewed by Middle East Eye (MEE).
At least 12 vessels carrying LNG and 182 carrying oil were transiting the vital seaway on 19 December, a higher average than before the Yemeni attacks started.
“[Ansarallah] have been tremendously precise in not hitting non-western oil tankers,” Viktor Katona, an analyst at commodities data firm Kpler, told MEE. “There are a lot of Saudi, Iraqi, and Russian tankers in the Red Sea, and [Ansarallah] haven’t hit a single one.”
As Phillip Pilkington on X points out, this situation is not sustainable for the West:
This means that Western shipping now has an enormous cost premium relative to ships from the BRICS+. This in turn means that, as time goes on, Western shipping becomes a dud from a pure business point-of-view. We have seen something similar with Chinese airlines undercutting Western carriers for certain trips as they have access to Russian airspace. But of course shipping is much more important than shaving some flight time off for a commercial carrier. If the Western shipping industry is rendered structurally uncompetitive then the BRICS countries will take over global shipping. Obviously this is something that Western countries simply cannot tolerate.
Operation Prosperity Guardian
Despite wobbling through the terminal stage of its reign as global hegemon, the one job the US must still fulfil is to guarantee maritime trade routes. But there is a catch. The regime of globalization that the US launched in the 1990’s is undermining the nation as a whole, although certain social classes, such as those with links to Wall Street, profit mightily. However, the greatest benefits from globalization pass to the People’s Republic of China. So the US expending resources supporting a large navy to secure the seas only allows the Chinese to gain ever more power. But global hegemonic appearances must be kept, and as the blockade in the Red Sea so far only impacts Western shipping, a US naval intervention is appropriate.
In response to the Houthis sea blockade, the US launched Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), sporting a task force that appeared to feature a ten-nation navy, with France, Spain, and Australia. As details emerged, it turned out many of the ten nations were only sending small staffs and no warships. Then France, Italy and Spain withdrew from the formal alliance, declining to allow their naval assets to serve as mere proxies under US command.
OPG is more notable for those who refused to join. India is at the top of the list. The only Middle Eastern nation in the coalition is tiny Bahrain. Former US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are on the brink of joining the BRICS, both declined to participate. This is especially disappointing for the US, since Saudi Arabia is just ending a war in Yemen and their supposed arch-enemy Iran is surely pulling their Houthi puppet’s strings in the Red Sea. But it seems bitterness towards the US has led Saudi Arabia to decline US incentives to join the coalition:
But Riyadh-based political analyst Dr. Ahmed Al Ibrahim doesn’t expect Washington’s sweet talking to have any substantive impact on Saudi Arabia’s stance vis-à-vis escalating regional tensions.
“Saudi Arabia is doing what's best for Saudi Arabia. It does not matter whether this is for the US administration or for anybody else. As you know, MBS is trying to zero out the whole region from any conflict, and yet we are being challenged periodically with the concerns of the militias in the region like Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis,” Al Ibrahim told Sputnik.
Characterizing the US deployment of warships to the region as “a kind of hypocrisy” in the wake of the Biden administration’s previous attempts to starve Riyadh of military equipment to fight the Houthis, Al Ibrahim stressed that Saudi Arabia is doing its best to “move forward” instead of getting bogged down in another quagmire thanks to the US.
“Controlling the Houthis is now the US mandate. They need to deal with them,” Al Ibrahim emphasized. “I doubt if the United States will basically pull Saudi Arabia into the Houthi conflict. Saudi Arabia is a sovereign country and it will assess the situation. And I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to contribute to that. Having Saudi Arabia involved in that, it's one day [until] you get blamed by actually protecting your border and your security by the Americans. And if you don't, also, you will get blamed. So I think Saudi Arabia is not going to get dragged into any war. Saudi Arabia has an economic vision that they need to be rich, and they will choose any day, anytime peace.”
Since the Iran-Iraq War, the US and Israel have often provoked but always profited from Sunni-Shiite tensions. In this 40 year divide-and-rule campaign, it is preferred to have Muslim factions killing each other than uniting in anger against the US or Israel. As Shiite power increased, especially after the US practically handed Iraq to the Shiite bloc with its invasion in 2003, Sunni nations moved to align with the West. But as the Saudi war effort against the Houthis floundered, the Chinese stepped in and promoted peace between Saudis and Iranians as the best revenge against America for both. China’s Middle Eastern policy of “unify and collaborate” has pulled most of the regions nations, whether Sunni or Shiite, into the growing BRICS organization’s orbit.
Hamas has never announced the strategic intent of its October 7th attack on Israel. Speculation revolves around the goal of pushing Saudi Arabia away from normalization negotiations with Israel. So far the attack has only further widened the gulf between Sunni Arab nations and the West and in turn pushed all Muslim Middle Eastern nations closer to multipolar leaders China, Russia and Iran, who are powering the campaign to undermine US global power.
Given the great benefits China accrues from the US policing global waterways, combined with the fact that there is obviously a tacit agreement by the Houthis not to hit their shipping, China has refused to join the US-led naval coalition:
The Chinese government appears to be brushing off Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call for Beijing to assist an international coalition in protecting commercial shipping in the Red Sea from Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militias.
Beijing signaled that it has no interest in joining the Pentagon’s Operation Prosperity Guardian , a multinational force including Canada, the United Kingdom and Bahrain, in providing security for cargo ships under threat of Houthi attack.
“We believe relevant parties, especially major countries with influence, need to play a constructive and responsible role in keeping the shipping lanes safe in the Red Sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Thursday in an indirect reference to U.S. military and diplomatic heft in the region.
Wang’s reference to “major countries with influence” reflects Beijing’s recognition that the U.S. and its allies and partners can muster, at speed, far greater naval power necessary for a seaborne shipping protection campaign than Beijing currently can . Wang didn’t address whether Beijing would use its close relationship with Iran , which provides arms and funding to the Houthis, to seek an end to those attacks.
Asymmetrical attrition warfare: Cheap weapons win even as they lose
In Primal Parity, riffing off mythical ideas from Freud and Darwin, I offered a hypothesis that a multipolar “primal horde” was gathering to slay Uncle Sam, who currently plays the role of international primal father. Since no one member of the primal horde is strong enough to take on the US alone, to dethrone America, they must act together. Already the US and allies are struggling to supply ammunition in sufficient quantities to Ukraine. In Gaza, Israeli doctrine calls for the mass punishment of civilians, and is sapping any remaining moral superiority the West hypocritically projects at the world. In South America, Venezuela is attempting to annex a large chunk of Guyana, under which lie massive natural gas fields.
Given the West’s transition towards more financialized economies over the past forty years, is the resulting loss of arms manufacturing an Achilles’ heel being exploited by the primal horde? Is the true aim of the Houthis not necessarily to blockade shipping but to bleed America of its limited sea-based air defense missiles?
As American warships rack up kills against Houthi drones and missiles in the Red Sea, Pentagon officials are increasingly alarmed not just at the threat to U.S. naval forces and international shipping — but at the growing cost of keeping them safe.
U.S. Navy destroyers have shot down 38 drones and multiple missiles in the Red Sea over the past two months, according to a Defense Department official, as the Iran-backed militants have stepped up attacks on commercial vessels moving energy and oil through the world’s most vital shipping lanes. On Saturday alone, the destroyer USS Carney intercepted 14 one-way attack drones.
Houthi leaders have said the attacks are a show of support for the Palestinians, and that they won’t stop until Israel halts its operations in Gaza. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday announced a new international maritime coalition to safeguard shipping and counter the attacks.
The cost of using expensive naval missiles — which can run up to $2.1 million a shot — to destroy unsophisticated Houthi drones — estimated at a few thousand dollars each — is a growing concern, according to three other DOD officials. The officials, like others interviewed for this story, were granted anonymity to describe sensitive operations and internal deliberations.
“The cost offset is not on our side,” said one DOD official.
Experts say this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and urge DOD to start looking at lower-cost options for air defense.
“That quickly becomes a problem because the most benefit, even if we do shoot down their incoming missiles and drones, is in their favor,” said Mick Mulroy, a former DOD official and CIA officer. “We, the U.S., need to start looking at systems that can defeat these that are more in line with the costs they are expending to attack us.”
The proliferation of relatively cheap anti-ship missile technology forges the Houthis into a powerful threat. Iran, Russia and China can arm them with swarming attack drones, cruise and ballistic missiles to test, and in their best case, overwhelm US naval defensive systems. The Houthis are survivors, having just emerged victorious after a decade-long battle against Western-supplied weapons. Eventual US airstrikes may prove ineffective, particularly given the rough and mountainous terrain near the Red Sea. Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the Middle East. As Bob Dylan once sang, “when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Yemen’s grinding poverty means it cannot easily be dissuaded through bombing, sanctions or blockades. The Houthis survived many years of Gaza-style air strikes by the Saudis on civilian targets. One reason the Saudis are less vocal about the carnage in Gaza today is because they inflicted a similar amount of slaughter on Yemen over the past decade.
It’s hard not to speculate that this crisis in the Red Sea is just one more way for the primal horde to spread the US even thinner over the globe. With US ground forces already short of ammunition thanks to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, now US naval forces may see their stocks slowly dwindle if the Houthis can keep their attempts at a sea blockade going for the following year. The mathematics of a naval war of attrition are not looking good:
Each U.S. destroyer carries an estimated 90 missiles (perhaps a few more). Their primary mission is to protect the U.S. aircraft carrier they are shielding. What happens when Yemen fires 100 drones/rockets/missiles at a U.S. carrier? The U.S. destroyer, or multiple destroyers will fire their missiles to defeat the threat. Great. Mission accomplished! Only one little problem, as described in the preceding quote — the U.S. Navy got rid of the ship tenders, i.e. those vessels capable of resupplying destroyers with new missiles to replace the expended rounds. In order to reload, that destroyer must sail to the nearest friendly port where the U.S. has stockpiled missiles for resupply.
Got the picture? If the destroyer must sail away then the U.S. carrier must follow. It cannot just sit out in the ocean without its defensive screen of ships. The staying power of a U.S. fleet in a combat zone, like Yemen, is a function of how many missiles the Yemenis fire at the U.S. ships.
But the problems do not stop there. Each of the Aegis missiles, as I noted in my previous post, cost at least $500,000 dollars. A retired U.S. DOD official told me today that the actual cost is $2 million dollars. If Yemen opts to use drone swarms to saturate the battle space around a carrier, then the United States will firing very expensive missiles to destroy relatively inexpensive drones. This brings up another critical vulnerability — the U.S. only has a limited supply of these air defense missiles and does not have the industrial capability in place and operating to produce new ones rapidly to make up the deficit.
The US recently pressured Japan into “loaning” America a batch of Patriot air defense missiles. It’s not clear if these are intended for Israel or Ukraine. It does demonstrate that the US is already taking unusual measures to combat their inability to produce weaponry at scale. But these are early days in Global War 6, the primal horde has barely started its campaign.
Much to the ire of critics on the right, the Biden Administration is so far taking a measured response to the Houthi-Iranian provocations in the Red Sea. One step, however, they are not considering, is to accept Houthi demands and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. Houthi actions are playing well with the Global South while the BRICS+ nations have been loath to criticize them.
King of Prussia, Frederick the Great once said, "he who defends everything defends nothing." Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant says the Jewish State is engaged, “in a multi-front war. We are being attacked from seven different arenas - Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, The West Bank, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. We have already responded and acted in six of these arenas." Israel is an internally deeply divided nation and is being stretched beyond its limits. It will soon have to make choices decisions on where to defend.
In a sense, Israel is a microcosm of the fate the primal horde has in store for the US. A seven-front war is possible for the US — Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and, most importantly of all, Taiwan. And like Israel, the US is deeply divided politically and heading into an election year. If indeed the primal horde are acting together, 2024 will be a year of increased attrition of US firepower and one of geopolitical setbacks.
The key to winning global wars is to have proxies do much of the fighting, especially in the early stages of the conflict. Ukraine’s proxy performance was outstanding in 2022, but as 2024 arrives they are already a dead weight. For China and its BRICS+ allies, non-state proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis are all showing great potential.
The opposite of a potent proxy is a depleted dependent. In the Western camp, Europe, Japan and Korea all demand more protection from the US than they can ever give back as proxy forces. Even Taiwan is refusing to seriously increase defense spending. Only the Philippines is a potential proxy for the West in Asia.
On one level the US will emerge from the Ukraine War victorious over the Europeans—who will be cut off for an extended period of time from Russia and the Eurasian power bloc. But this will be only a pyrrhic victory. With Russia well on its way to successfully demilitarizing an already weak EU, the once powerful continent now increasingly resembles an emasculated geopolitical old folks’ home. Instead of provoking Europe into rearming, the gathering catastrophe in Ukraine is instead met with increasingly deranged anti-Russian rhetoric from EU politicians. Europe’s depleted dependence will only force the old continent to grovel ever more obscenely for Uncle Sam’s military protection. When the primal horde expands their attacks, and the US is unable to defend everywhere at once, Europe might just end up being thrown to the wolves. God help Europe and their short-sighted defense arraignments if Donald Trump wins election in 2024.