Escalating Aggression by Yemeni Houthis Seen as Possible Spark for All-Out Mideast War

Financed, trained, and armed by Iran, the Houthis seize a cargo ship in the Red Sea and launch numerous medium-range missiles at Israel.

AP/Kristijan Bracun
The cargo ship Galaxy Leader at the port of Koper, Slovenia, September 16, 2008. AP/Kristijan Bracun

The Yemeni Houthis, testing the patience of their neighbors, as well as of America and Israel, are escalating their aggression, with the latest test being the seizure of a cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader, in the Red Sea over the weekend. Will such provocations spark an all-out Mideast war? 

Financed, trained, and armed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Houthis have since October 7 launched numerous medium-range missiles at Israel. American, Israeli, and Saudi defenses have intercepted the attacks. Yet, the interruption of a major shipping artery could lead to wider ramifications. 

On Monday, the Houthis released a dramatic video showing a helicopter, believed to be a Soviet-era MI-17, landing on the deck of the Galaxy Leader as it raced on the high seas, seizing its 25-member crew at gunpoint and taking control of the 620-foot vessel. The assailants can be heard bellowing the Houthi battle cry, “God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Cursed be the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

The vessel was seized for being “Israeli-owned,” a Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sare’e, said Monday, according to Al Jazeera. The group would “not hesitate to target any Israeli vessel in the Red Sea or any place we can reach,” he added. 

Yet, the Galaxy Leader “has no connection to Israel,” the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, told reporters Monday. “There was a serious incident for the shipping world, a case of terrorist piracy. The world knows this is a grave case that needs to be taken care of. I believe the Americans are following it very closely.”

It was “an Iranian attack on an international vessel,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said Monday, adding that Tehran has been involved in planning it. 

The Bahamian-flagged Galaxy Leader is operated by a Japanese company, NYK line, and owned by Ray Car Carriers, which is registered in Britain’s Isle of Man. One of the British company’s owners is an Israeli billionaire, Abraham Ungar. The crew includes men from the Philippines, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and Mexico, but no Israelis. 

While the IDF is focusing on Gaza, other Iranian allies also have increased their attacks on Israeli targets. Though Yemen is 1,250 miles from Israel’s southernmost city, the Houthis are emerging as second only to Lebanon’s Hezbollah in attacking Israel.   

In Iraq and Syria, groups with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps carried out at least 64 attacks against American targets since October 7. America has to date hit back three times. Soon after entering office, President Biden removed the Houthis from a terrorist list. 

“We don’t want to see this conflict widened,” the National Security Council’s spokesman, John Kirby, said Monday in what has become a mantra of the administration. Yet, frustration is growing over the Pentagon’s response to Iranian proxy attacks, according to the Washington Post.   

In the region, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which has a long Red Sea shoreline, is also unenthusiastic about re-entering battle against the Houthis, which it has fought since 2015. After a Beijing-sponsored agreement earlier this year, in which Riyadh renewed diplomatic relations with Tehran, the Saudis backed down on involvement in the Yemeni civil war.

Riyadh “has gone to great lengths recently to improve relations with Qatar, with the Houthis, Iran, Syria, everyone,” a former Wall Street Journal publisher who often travels to Saudi Arabia, Karen Elliott House, tells the Sun, adding that she therefore doubts that the Sunday attack would change Saudi policy. “Protecting Vision 2030 modernization is top priority” for the Saudis, she said.

Launched in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Vision 2030 calls for a modernized, diversified Saudi economy, more openness to the world, and a revamping of Saudi priorities. Such a vision “needs stability and can’t exist in a war arena,” a Saudi scholar at Ben Gurion and Hebrew Universities, Michal Yaari, says.

While Saudi Arabia renews relations with former regional adversaries, it maintains non-official relations with Israel as well. Undermining these ties is widely believed to be one of the reasons Hamas launched the October 7 attack. Both the terrorist organization and its Iranian sponsors feared that Riyadh was getting close to formalizing ties with Jerusalem.   

Saudi-Israeli ties, nevertheless, “are still solid, as they are based on mutual interests that have not changed since the start of the war,” Ms. Yaari tells the Sun. Since October 7, she notes, the Saudis have intercepted Houthi missiles aimed at Israel at least twice. If freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is threatened, Riyadh would “not hesitate” to cooperate with America and Israel to confront the Houthis militarily, she adds.

While the Houthis often act independently of Iran, they share goals with their benefactor. Even if the Islamic Republic is careful to calibrate provocations to avoid an all-out regional goal, the terrorist group it sponsors in Yemen could trigger one.

The New York Sun

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