Behold the Houthis

The Houthis are little known and less liked, but they can hardly be ignored. Fighting their way to the top of the fractious tribes in Yemen, they withstood the onslaught of larger neighboring Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S., in a decade long, pitiless war that led to a humanitarian catastrophe in  Yemen. Today as the largest power and effective government in Yemen, they are calling the shots in the latest war roiling the region.

And shots they are. They vow to continue shelling any ships carrying supplies to Israel on the Red Sea until there’s a ceasefire in the Israel–Hamas war. So far they have struck some fifty ships making the attempt, sinking one but to date without casualties. Most shipping now avoids the Red Sea route and takes a longer one at greater expense. Some stores and factories receiving the costlier goods have closed down, but in general buyers are coping. The question is how will they fare if the blockade continues, pushing up already mounting global inflation.

The U.S. navy has come to an attempted rescue. American destroyers in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are shooting back at the Houthis on the shore. They in turn face incoming drones and missiles that seem to be in everlasting supply with the determined and battle-hardened Houthis who are using them. So far none has been able to hit a U.S. ship, but luck can run out. “People don’t understand how serious it is and how dangerous it is for the ships,” a destroyer commander told a visiting Associated Press reporter. Some military observers say the navy hasn’t seen anything like it since World War Two. Chalk that up to the Houthis.

It’s unusual, perhaps verging on the unique, for a warring party to say it’s not fighting for more land, riches or revenge but for peace – a ceasefire. But it’s a rallying cry that resonates with the Arab world and beyond. Gaza has experienced a frightful pummeling.  The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor estimates that Israel has dropped 70 thousand tons of bombs on Gaza or more than the combined total of bombs that struck London, Hamburg and Dresden in World War Two. Gaza indeed has the obliterated look of post-war Dresden. More than 37 thousand people, almost all civilians of whom half are women and children, have been killed.

For all the firing back and forth, it would seem the various participants don’t want to get any closer to the Second World War. They go only so far and no farther. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is in search of a truce. It has been unable, despite considerable U.S. help, to subdue its combative neighbor.  It was especially alarmed by the Houthi demolition of Aramco energy facilities, causing the temporary shutdown of the country’s oil production. Coming to terms with the Houthis also means easing tensions with its regional antagonist Iran, currently supporting Yemen. That also means ignoring U.S. efforts to stall negotiations with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia is a critical component in maintaining an uneasy equipoise among volatile neighbors

The same cannot be said for the U.S. As the life support for Israel, it chooses not to demand a ceasefire. So the bloodletting continues unabated. The tendency today is to dismiss Houthis as thugs or terrorists when, if anything, they have proved their mettle in the conflict-ridden region. In effect, the U.S. has ceded the moral and political high ground to a ragged band of tribal warriors who seek peace while the U.S. continues to pursue war to what end? Nothing good that one can see.

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