This is perhaps the Iranian-backed group least expected to be involved in a regional escalation of the war between Israel and Hamas. Since the beginning of the war, the Houthi rebels have multiplied their tricks against Israel, provoking the opening of a new front, and the Yemeni militiamen want this to be seen. Spectacularly staged in a video broadcast on Nov. 20, the previous day's attack off the Yemeni coast on the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship identified by the rebels as Israeli, was stormed by helicopter before fighters landed on the pontoon, gunning down the crew. Claiming responsibility for the operation, Yahya Sarei, military spokesman for the Houthis, warned on Sunday that “all ships affiliated to or engaging with Israel … will become legitimate targets,” urging all entities to avoid such activities in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait “until the aggression against the Gaza Strip and the atrocities committed against Palestinians cease.” “We will sink your ships,” he warned a few days before the ship was seized, in a message published in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Mission accomplished, except that Israel merely condemned an "Iranian attack on an international vessel,” arguing that the ship, en route from Turkey to India, was not of Israeli origin, nor did it have any Israeli nationals on board. Instead, registers point to the ownership of an Israeli billionaire close to the extreme right.
Above all, Israel sees in this the hand of Iran, sponsor of the rebel group, which intends to take advantage of the conflict to impose itself on the regional scene. In response to Israel's actions in Gaza, the Yemeni militia, part of the “Axis of Resistance,” launched several missile and drone attacks, some of which were intercepted, demonstrating its strike capability. Although limited, the operation opens up a new bandwidth for Israel to monitor, as it is engaged in Gaza, the northern Lebanese front and the West Bank. “With their military prowess, the Houthis want to show that they are no longer a small armed group, but a growing military force,” said Ahmad Nagi, a researcher at the Carnegie Center.
The scene, filmed by Houthi military communications service, also appears to have had other interlocutors in its sights. “The Houthis certainly want to appear as the true defenders of Palestine, but above all as a force to be reckoned with in the region,” according to Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at Oxford University. It's a move that is particularly aimed at neighboring Arab countries, while in the background, another issue could be closed once and for all, pacifying relations between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni militia.
The Yemeni quagmire
Stagnating for months, peace talks between Riyadh and Houthi fighters could be reinvigorated by this show of support for Gaza. According to some observers, an agreement may even be imminent. For the military force deployed by the Houthis would strengthen their position in negotiations with their northern border neighbor, leader since 2015 of a coalition which supports pro-government Yemeni forces. "Saudi Arabia has no desire to see missiles and drones flying over its territory towards Israel, nor to see its Vision 2030 plans for tourism and trade in the Red Sea complicated by an increased maritime threat," explains Elisabeth Kendall. Since April 2022, the kingdom has entered into direct talks with the rebels in a bid to extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire, more concerned with putting an end to attacks on its territory and ensuring regional stability to carry through its project to open up the economy.
Talks between the Houthis and the Saudis had also progressed in recent months before the start of the war in Gaza. On Sept. 14, Houthi representatives traveled to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman — a first in the Saudi capital since the coalition went to war in 2015. On the agenda are the prospect of a permanent ceasefire, the resumption of gas and oil exports from Yemeni fields, the payment of civil servants' salaries and the future of Yemen's central bank.
These discussions were in addition to a series of more tacit agreements in the months leading up to the meeting, notably concerning the opening of ports and airports, with the resumption of direct flights between Sanaa and Jeddah, and the end of restrictions imposed by Riyadh on ships entering the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida. The two adversaries also returned the corpses of their respective combatants who died at the front. These developments owe their revival to the signature of the Iranian-Saudi normalization agreement, signed on March 10 under the aegis of Beijing, following which Tehran undertook to halt its arms deliveries to Yemeni rebels.
The Yemeni government in a bad position
However, negotiations seemed to have been suspended after the unprecedented visit of the Houthi delegation to Riyadh. Despite this, fighting between the two sides remained substantially reduced, although the truce agreed upon in April 2022 and renewed until October of the same year had expired, with the Houthis also having stopped targeting Saudi territory. But the rebels continue to exert pressure at the border, seeking to gain a strong foothold to negotiate the agreement so much desired by Saudi Arabia. On Sept. 25, a drone attack by the Houthis against Bahraini soldiers stationed on Saudi Arabia's southern border left four people dead and others wounded. According to the rebels, the operation was in response to violations committed by Saudi Arabia against them in the border zone. Riyadh did not retaliate. However, the recent firing on Israel from Yemen and, even more so, the instability created in the Bab el-Mandeb strait are a source of concern for the Saudis.
“The forthcoming agreement currently only covers a series of humanitarian issues, but nothing has been agreed on political and military matters,” added Ahmad Nagi. At a time when the Houthi rebels control almost all of the north of the country, a political resolution of the conflict could prove highly unfavorable to the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, especially as the latter, plagued by internal strife, is not invited to the talks.
The Presidential Council is notably made up of two secessionist members of the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council, which has far greater firepower than the other members of the executive, who are more dependent on Riyadh. On the other hand, “the Presidential Council risks losing vital financial support if it does not comply” stressed Elisabeth Kendall, pointing out that “el-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could benefit from its ability to present itself as the champion of anti-Houthi sentiment.”