Four RAF Typhoons joined air strikes last night against targets in Yemen, a Middle Eastern country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

So why is this happening and what is the connection with the Israel Gaza conflict?

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthi group controls large parts of northern Yemen. It is an Islamist organisation with political and military wings.

The Houthis are supported by Iran and oppose the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Their official slogan includes the statements “death to America”, “death to Israel” and “curse the Jews”.

In 2014, the Houthis sparked the Yemeni civil war by taking over the capital city, Sanaa, with the Houthis fighting against a coalition of forces led by Saudi Arabia.

Why have the Houthis been attacking ships in the Red Sea?

Houthi rebels have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea, which lies between the Arabian peninsula and Egypt, with the Suez Canal at its northern limit. More than two dozen vessels have been targeted since November.

The idea is to disrupt the economies of Israel (which has access to the Red Sea on its southern shore) and western powers that support it, including the US and the UK.

And the economic threat is a real one. The International Monetary Fund estimates that 10 per cent of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and according to its PortWatch tracker, the number of ships passing through the Suez Canal fell 28 per cent in the ten days up to 2 January.

Vessels are instead taking the longer route around the southern tip of Africa, which increases time and costs for producers and suppliers.

The BBC reports that the UK Treasury has “modelled” scenarios in which this trade disruption pushes up global oil prices by $10 a barrel and natural gas prices by 25 per cent. (Though we should remember that modelling hypothetical scenarios doesn’t necessarily mean that the department thinks they’re likely to become reality.)

Why has the UK carried out air strikes in Yemen?

The UK government says that “given the persistence of the Houthis in threatening merchant ships, several of which have already suffered damage, and the deliberate targeting of [the UK’s] HMS Diamond and US Navy vessels on 9 January”, the UK joined a “carefully coordinated” operation with other nations designed to “reduce the Houthis’ capability to violate international law in this manner.”

On the night of 11 January 2024, the UK carried out air strikes on two locations. One was a site in Bani in north-west Yemen, which the government says was “used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones”. A second set of strikes targeted an airfield in Abbs which “intelligence has shown” has “been used to launch both cruise missiles and drones over the Red Sea”, according to the Ministry of Defence.

How are the Yemen air strikes linked to Israel and Gaza and will they stop the Houthis?

The Houthis say their attacks on Red Sea vessels are in defence and support of Palestinians in Gaza.

Responding to reports in December that the US had formed a coalition of countries willing to strike on Houthi targets, a senior Houthi official wrote on Twitter: “Even if America succeeds in mobilising the entire world, our military operations will not stop… no matter the sacrifices it costs us”.

In practice, though, Houthi attacks are unlikely to make a major difference to Israel’s ability to continue its fight against Hamas in Gaza.

Will the western-led air strikes change much? “The US and UK strikes are unlikely to halt Houthi aggression in the Red Sea”, says Jonathan Pankioff of the US-based Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. “The Houthis view themselves as having little to lose,” he says, as they are “emboldened militarily by Iranian provisions of support and confident that the United States will not entertain a ground war.”

Though, he adds, “the United States can still have a meaningful impact on reducing both the capabilities and effectiveness of the Houthis” and will “send a meaningful message to other Iranian proxies about US willingness to use force in the region”.

(Image Credit: Sgt Lee Goddard/British Royal Air Force/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)