American and British air strikes would have done relatively little to degrade the ability of the Houthis – known formally as Ansarullah – to attack commercial shipping passing through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, analysts told This Week In Asia.
“Thus, I can’t imagine these US and UK air strikes effectively establishing deterrence over the Houthis” who had already responded with attacks in the Gulf of Aden, he said.
“These air strikes will only play into Houthi narratives and probably contribute to the group’s popularity at home in Yemen and throughout the wider Arab-Islamic world,” Cafiero said.
Ibish said the strikes were “clearly a message to the Houthis” that the organisation’s interference with commercial shipping in one of the world’s busiest and most strategically important waterways “is completely unacceptable”.
Ansarullah’s disruption of international shipping “certainly helps reinforce the Iranian message that if Tehran and its allies are not part of a maritime security network” all around the Arabian Peninsula, “then there won’t be one at times of crisis such as the current moment”, he said.
By implication, it meant that “if Iran does not feel free to sell its own oil, then nobody else will be allowed to engage in international commerce unmolested either”.
“So the message from the Iranians is very clear, and the international response has to be very clear as well,” Ibish said.
The Houthis “must desist or face increasing and escalating threats to their own interests at home” in Yemen, he said. “That’s the only way to end this crisis.”
Riyadh on Friday said it was “closely monitoring [the situation] with great concern”, and called for “restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing”.
Badr Albusaidi, Oman’s foreign minister, said the airstrikes “will only add fuel to an extremely dangerous situation”.
Shahira Amin, a non-resident senior Middle East fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, described the US-UK air strikes as “a worrying escalation in the war and a provocation to Iran which backs the Houthis”.
A ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas would “subsequently bring a halt to Houthis’ attacks on ships” because they are attacking shipping in the Red Sea to “protest the killings and destruction in Gaza”, she observed.
“It is absurd that the US and UK are attacking the poorest Arab nation when they claim they want to de-escalate tensions in the region,” Amin said. “Clearly, the US wants to drag Iran into a wider conflict.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s January 7 warning that the window of opportunity to avert an Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah was fast closing was “another sign the US is seeking a military confrontation with Iran”, Amin said.
“So far Iran has refused to be baited into the conflict and it looks like the Islamic Republic will not retaliate unless it is directly attacked,” she said.
Cafiero expected Iran to “still want to avoid further escalation in this upcoming period”.
The Iranian economy would “suffer greatly” from an escalated conflict and Tehran also “wants its detente” with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to “stay on track and not get derailed due to this regional crisis”, he said.
“They need to thread the needle” between responding with force in an attempt to deter a group that “some people call undeterrable”, but also “not letting up the pressure” on Ansarullah where “it feels emboldened and more brazen to conduct these kinds of attacks”.
“In some ways, it increases the risks of the situation spiralling out of control, and I think we’re already in a low-boil regional war,” Clarke said on US broadcaster CNN.
“The question becomes: does it escalate beyond that, does it become a regional conflagration where we’ve got even more active participation” from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and some of the other groups that “have already been attacking US forces and trying to mix it up with Israel”.
“I think, at the end of the day, it looks like Israel and Iran are on somewhat of a collision course,” Clarke said.
“What role does the US play there? Does it serve as a buffer or as a force multiplier for Israel? That’s something we’ll learn in the coming weeks,” he said.
If the White House fails to dissuade an increasingly militaristic Israeli wartime cabinet from going to war with Hezbollah, the US may find itself dragged into another Middle Eastern war, analysts warned.
Ibish said there was a faction in the Israeli war cabinet, led by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, “that has wanted the war to spread” since soon after Hamas forces assaulted southern Israel on October 7.
“It strongly appears that this faction has been gaining ground within the war cabinet and converting other ministers” to their perspective, Ibish said.
In order to enable 80,000 of its citizens to return to their homes in northern Israel, Israel has demanded that Hezbollah remove its fighters – in particular the elite Radwan commando force – as far north as above the Litani River, 29km from the Lebanese border.
But that would not change the basic equation because the threat to Israel is primarily posed by Hezbollah’s massive arsenal of more than 150,000 missiles and rockets, many with precision and hyper-precision guidance, and not the elite commando units who do battle with the Israeli army in the border region, Ibish said.
“That this is a pretext is further demonstrated” by the fact that the displacement of the 80,000 Israelis had not occurred “when the escalation faction in the war cabinet” began pressing for Israel to launch a “pre-emptive” strike against Hezbollah in order to diminish and degrade its missile arsenal and thereby reduce the dangers it poses to Israel, Ibish said.
“So it comes down to this: is Israel bluffing, or is it really willing to go to war with Hezbollah soon if it does not withdraw its elite forces considerably north … If Israel isn’t bluffing, can the Biden administration restrain the Israelis?” he asked.
If Washington cannot restrain its closest ally, it will “suffer a major blow to its already shaky credibility in the Arab world, looking alarmingly weak and feckless, incapacitated by its own domestic political landscape from acting in what the Biden administration insists is in its own interests, and in Israel’s as well”, Ibish said.
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