Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 5 December 2023. © Richard Kemp
The West has allowed a new Al Qaida armed with ballistic missiles to form under its very eyes. After their post-9/11 neutralisation in Afghanistan, the greatest fear of the US and its allies was that it would re-emerge under the protection and with the support of another state, possibly acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, a potential alliance between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was one of the main drivers of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
That same nightmare scenario now exists with the Houthis. They have seized control over much of Yemen’s state apparatus. They are sponsored by Iran, which funds them and has armed them with ballistic and cruise missiles and attack drones, some with ranges exceeding 2,000 kilometres – the operational distance to Israeli territory – as well as anti-ship missiles, remote controlled maritime attack vessels and sea mines.
Since mid October the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at Israel in ‘solidarity’ with Iran’s other proxies, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. On the 31st a ballistic missile was intercepted by the IDF’s Arrow air defence system above the Earth’s atmosphere, marking the first ever example of warfare in space. Since the Gaza war began the Houthis have been attacking shipping in the Red Sea, some with apparent Israeli links.
This is by no means the first time the Houthis have attacked international commercial shipping: in 2016, they attempted to strike two US warships in the Red Sea. They’ve also launched multiple drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, some causing significant destruction.
The most recent Houthi attacks were against the USS Carney and several commercial vessels on Sunday. This was a narrow miss: if the American warship had been hit, the West could have been dragged into further conflict. That of course remains a distinct possibility unless the Houthis can be deterred or de-fanged. And then of course there is the immense damage that these attacks are doing to global trade, with the Red Sea providing a vital maritime transit route connecting the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean.
All of that brings into sharp focus a wider Western strategic naivety in the region. Much of the blame lies at the door of Joe Biden. Soon after he took office, without any apparent thought for the geopolitical implications, he de-listed the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation; largely, it must be assumed, because his nemesis Donald Trump proscribed them in the first place.
It also formed part of Biden’s craven appeasement of Iran and his desperation to re-establish Obama’s nuclear deal that Trump had rightly abrogated. The obsessive pursuit of that objective was also why Biden failed to respond adequately to repeated Iranian proxy attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria since taking office. This weakness – on top of the debacle in Afghanistan in 2021 and heel-dragging over support to Ukraine – almost certainly emboldened Iran and contributed to their Hamas proxy’s assault on Israel in October. Biden’s foreign policy has been the embodiment of the adage that strength deters while weakness provokes.
Nor is the UK without blame. Despite growing concerns over Tehran’s burgeoning nuclear programme and regional aggression using proxies like Hamas, Hizballah and the Houthis, the government has still gone along with Biden’s policy of appeasement. It failed to impose the UN snapback sanctions that were justified by Iran’s supply of attack drones to Russia for use against Ukraine. It has even failed to proscribe the IRGC despite the terrorist threat it poses directly to Britain.
Jeremy Hunt, when Foreign Secretary in 2018, weakened British support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi insurgency fighting the legitimate government of Yemen. He was supported by Andrew Mitchell, now a powerful Foreign Office minister, who demanded an end to British backing of Saudi’s efforts to suppress the Houthis. That does not bode well for confronting the terrorist group.
Western policy has been to invest significant resources in maritime protection against Houthi aggression in the Red Sea. The recent escalation must now be answered beyond mere protective measures. On top of the disastrous impact on global trade and the threat to Western warships, there is a very real risk of Iranian-driven escalation against Saudi Arabia and the consequences of that on oil supply. Many believe that Hamas’s attack against Israel was triggered by Iran’s opposition to the developing normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That may well go ahead after the current conflict, likely provoking Iran to use the Houthis to step up aggression against Saudi as well as the UAE, which has already normalised relations with Israel.
The West’s policy of appeasing Iran and its jihadist proxies is extremely dangerous. We must halt the financial support and weapons supply from Iran to the Houthis: it’s time we spoke the language of the Middle East, and forcefully confront this shadowy axis of evil.