The National:

Good evening! This week's edition of the In Common newsletter comes from Frances Guy, the executive Director of Scotland’s International Development Alliance, a former British Ambassador to Yemen and a member of the board of Common Weal. To receive the newsletter direct to your inbox every week click here.

It is difficult to put it more eloquently than the 26 international humanitarian organisations did in their statement issued in Yemen on 16 January: “Political leaders must consider the dire humanitarian implications of military escalation… that could undermine Yemen’s fragile peace process and longer-term recovery”.

President Macron of France was also clear that France stayed out of the military action against the Houthis because this is a diplomatic issue not a military issue.

The National: French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a humanitarian ceasefire in Israel (Carl Court, PA)

His implication is that the action risks being counterproductive. To say this is not to belittle the importance of protecting freedom of the seas and the security of one of the world’s most important shipping routes, but rather to say that governments need to beware of action for the sake of it and look in depth at any unintended consequences. It is often easier to start military action than stop it. 

Extremists of all shapes (including Hamas and the Houthis, both of whom govern significant populations) are motivated to provoke aggressive reactions to help justify their own actions and their continued presence. Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, in describing an interview carried out some years ago with Saleh el Houriri, the Hamas number two assassinated by Israel in southern Lebanon on January 2, noted that Houriri had said that one of Hamas tasks was to keep the Palestinian population radical as otherwise they would all accept peace and an easy life. When asked how Hamas did that, Houriri allegedly commented that luckily Israeli action makes it easy. US action against the Houthis with UK support in Yemen risks the same result. The Palestinian cause is popular in Yemen and beyond, and the Houthis have and will exploit that for their own interests. 

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak faces Commons grilling on Yemen airstrikes

Yemeni commentators have worried for some weeks that the strikes against shipping might provoke an attack on Yemen. Their concern, as with the aid agencies, is of the potential cost to Yemeni citizens already reeling from eight years of civil war during which at least 377,000 civilians have been killed (according to conservative UN figures) and resulting in more than 69% of the population (ie over 21 million people) in need of humanitarian assistance

Yemen depends on imported food. Essential wheat supplies have suffered from the fluctuation in prices and supplies because of the war in Ukraine but they are also very expensive because of the complicated checks on ships travelling to Yemeni ports. The air strikes and the threat of more action will make that situation worse. Continued military activity also threatens the wellbeing of all the peoples in the region, most of whom are amongst the poorest in the world; in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Egypt. The price of imports to all of them, including of food and fuel will likely increase over coming months with disastrous implications.

READ MORE: Oxfam report finds UK fuelling relentless violence in Yemen

The Houthis have shown over the last eight years that they have limited concern for most Yemenis; civil servants have gone unpaid for years and the population has lurched towards critical famine more than once. But they have also demonstrated that bombing them from the air has little effect.

And the timing of recent actions could hardly be worse. In December the UN envoy to Yemen announced a likely breakthrough in peace negotiations, prolonging a ceasefire agreed in 2022 and bringing respite and some hope to all Yemenis. That seems destined at best to be put on hold although it is noticeable that the Saudis have sought to call for restraint on US action.

The National:

Concurrently both the Houthi actions and the US response undermines the so-called Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) based in south Yemen which is struggling to assert any legitimacy and is now obliged to stay silent on Palestine. A more useful response might be to strengthen the ability of the IRG to patrol the coastline and prevent supplies of weapons reaching the Houthis. 

As uncomfortable as it might seem, the proposed designation of the Houthis as a specially designated global terrorist entity by the US government, also risks setting back peace in Yemen. The US will use the 30-day pause to attempt to ensure humanitarian support can continue but it will be fraught: US support represents more than 50% of funding for aid in Yemen and nearly all of that goes to Houthi-controlled areas. 

An immediate ceasefire in Gaza remains the best route to relieving tensions in the Red Sea. But the Houthis have reminded the world why Yemen has been fought over for centuries, largely to the detriment of both invaders and the Yemeni population. The British should know better and use the lessons of history to demonstrate restraint.