Israel-Hamas War: Regional Escalation and U.S. Strategy

Monday, February 12, 2024
AFP via Getty Images

Nonresident Fellow, Middle East Institute

Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies; CFR Member

Associate Director, Institute for Future Conflict, U.S. Air Force Academy; Nonresident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; Author, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia (speaking virtually)


Global Affairs Analyst, CNN; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the regional escalation of the Israel-Hamas war, developments in flashpoints including in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, attacks on U.S. forces and the consequences for U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

DOZIER: Welcome, everyone, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on the Israel-Hamas war and regional escalation. I’m Kim Dozier, global affairs analyst at CNN, and I’ll be presiding over today’s on-the-record discussion. We’re joined today by CFR members attending in person in Washington, D.C., and more than 370 attending virtually on Zoom. 

Now joining me here on stage we have Nadwa Al-Dawsari—Nadwa is a fellow at the Middle East Institute; and Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and also a CFR member. And joining us virtually we have Gregory D. Johnsen. He’s associate director for the Institute for Future Conflict at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a nonresident fellow of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.  

So, we’re going to chat about a half an hour amongst ourselves, and then open it up to the audience and a virtual audience. 

I would like to start with the provocative question of how long can this go on. Nadwa? 

AL-DAWSARI: It can go on for at least the next decade, if we don’t address the problem. The Houthis seem to have a huge appetite for escalation. And their rivals, including, well, the Saudi-led coalition and the U.S. are playing into their hands. And so this could pretty much be a prolonged war. 

DOZIER: You remind me that I should say, how long can this go on and who’s winning? Sounds like you think the Houthis are winning. 

AL-DAWSARI: So far, the Houthis are winning the battle against their rivals and enemies—well, first regional enemies, which is the Saudis and the Saudi-led coalition. And now, again, the U.S. is playing into the Houthis’ hands.  


AL-DAWSARI: And so the Houthis will exploit this conflict for their long-term game. The Houthis are really good at instigating conflicts and then exploiting their enemies’ weaknesses, limitations, and also vulnerabilities. In this case, the U.S. wants to contain the Houthis within Yemen. They want to contain the problem of the Houthi threat to the Red Sea, where the Houthis are using that to promote their narrative they’re at war at the U.S., and use that to recruit more fighters, and basically build their enemy—sorry, build their army for future wars. The Houthis are not done fighting. The Houthis are still planning to take all Yemen. And their goal, their end game is not just Yemen. They want Mecca and they want Jerusalem. And they’re also armed with a strong belief that they are—that God is on their side and that they are in a holy war, so. 

DOZIER: So the West is looking at shipping and the war in Gaza and that fallout and they are looking at a much bigger strategic objective and using this for fundraising, inspiration, army building.  

AL-DAWSARI: Basically, dictating the narrative, too. I mean, Yemen is a country that has never really had as an anti-U.S. sentiment, and now the Houthis are using this for the war in Gaza, but also the strikes in Yemen to create that narrative, and that will have implications—and not maybe in the immediate term, but in the midterm and the long term, which is what the Houthis want. The Houthis think long term. The U.S. is mainly driven by how much votes they’ll get in the next election cycle, and that’s a huge problem. 

DOZIER: Greg, I’ve let Nadwa set the table on that, but take it from there. Who do you think is winning, and how long could it go on? 

JOHNSEN: Yeah, that’s a great question. And just before I start, I’d just say that I’m—my opinions here are only my own, and I’m only speaking on my own behalf and not on the Air Force Academy. 

I think Nadwa is exactly right in that the Houthis—the Houthis are playing what I would call a weak hand very well, and I think the U.S. has a strong hand that they’re playing particularly poorly. The U.S. is set up right now I think to—it has a couple of goals with the bombing strikes that we’ve seen go on over the past month. When we’re talking about Yemen specifically, the U.S. wants to deter the Houthis from carrying out attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea; and if that’s not possible, degrade the Houthis to the point where militarily they’re no longer able to carry out attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.  

I think the U.S. is setting itself up for failure in those two regards. One, I think it’s really difficult to deter the Houthis, because I think, at least in my opinion, the Houthis actually want this conflict and they want it for both regional and for domestic reasons; and two, I think it’s really difficult to degrade the Houthis to the point that they’re no longer capable of carrying out these attacks. Already we’re seeing significant percentages of Red Sea shipping traffic now avoid the Red Sea altogether, go around the Horn of Africa. And so when the Houthis present this threat, I think this is a problem for the United States. 

DOZIER: And yet, reports are that in the last four days or so there haven’t been any attacks on Red Sea shipping. So— 

JOHNSEN: Well, I think there was there was one just recently that I think just came across. But yeah, and there’s—I think there’s three variables to keep in mind here. So one, the U.S. has certainly degraded the Houthis over the past month with these airstrikes, but how much? Has the U.S. actually degraded them to the point where they’re no longer able to carry out the attacks? Or is it the fact that there are simply much fewer—or fewer targets going through the Red Sea and so there are just fewer opportunities for the Houthis? And also, it seems that the Houthis are getting significant targeting intelligence from an Iranian ship which has recently moved, and that may also play a role in sort of the fewer attacks. But again, there was just one over the last twenty-four hours. And so I think this is something that the U.S. will continue to need to deal with for the foreseeable future.  

And just to add on to what it is that Nadwa said when she said this could go on for a decade, I think when you look at how it is that the Houthis view history, this is an organization that’s been fighting for most of the past two decades. So initially, they fought a series of six wars against the then Yemeni central government from 2004 to 2010. They’ve been involved in what’s essentially a regional and a local civil war since 2014. And now in 2024, they’re involved in this war against the United States. So if you see the world through the lens of how it is that the Houthis view history, they see this as a local war 2004 to 2010. They see a regional war 2014 to 2024. And now they see an international war. And in their view, they defeated Ali Abdullah Saleh, the local war, they’ve defeated the Saudis and the Emiratis in this regional war, and now they’re taking on the United States. 

DOZIER: So from your perspective, or at least from their perspective, they’re winning.  

Jon, you are our sweeper. You’re looking at the larger region, but also specifically focusing on Israel, Gaza, Jordan, and Iran. So who do you think is winning, and how long can this go on? 

ALTERMAN: We are not. What bothers me the most— 

DOZIER: Define “we.” 

ALTERMAN: We the United States are not, and what bothers me the most is that the Iranians adopted a strategy under President Raisi to reverse the efforts of President Rouhani to make a deal with the United States. The argument is we build deeper ties to Asia, build other great power supporters. We improve our regional relations. We build up this Axis of Resistance. And I would argue that all those things have paid off in spades. The United States is unable to shape Israeli behavior. The Axis of Resistance provides exactly what the Iranians want in terms of attributable but deniable operations. It looks like the United States is unable to stop these things.  

And when the United States is 99 percent successful and the Houthis, for example, are 1 percent successful, everybody talks about the 1 percent, right? And I think we are currently trapped in a situation where it looks like we’re losing international support, both among allies I mean. The small number of both regional partners and NATO allies who are involved in Prosperity Guardian I find disturbing—as I say, not able to really shape Israeli behavior, losing the Global South over Gaza.  

I think the Iranians, who normally believe that just survival represents victory, are doing more than surviving. And I think if you look at the negotiations over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, you’re starting to hear more rumors about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, I mean, it feels like the Iranian strategy, which is we need to get the U.S. out of the region, we need to persuade the region the United States is not nearly the protector that people think it is, they need to find accommodation with us—it feels to me like they’ve had a really good six months, and we’ve not had a really good six months. 

DOZIER: And to dive into the main driver of this right now, the conflict inside Gaza, how does it end? And to—before I let you answer that, let me set the table a bit. Prime Minister Netanyahu has, according to the polls, never been less popular among the Israeli public. He is staying in power thanks in part to a coalition with one of his enemies who is so popular there were elections held today, Benny Gantz and crew would probably get the lion’s share of the seats. He has his most extreme members of his government constantly threatening to pull out of the coalition and trigger new elections, if he says yes to things like the latest Hamas proposal to release Israeli hostages, but that would largely leave Hamas intact. Israeli military officials talk about Rafah as being a necessary target because of the labyrinth of tunnels they believe that are underneath this Philadelphi crossing that is controlled only by Egypt and Gaza. And they want to get back in there and see how weapons have been pulled in.  

So how long does it go on? Does Prime Minister Netanyahu keep it going on just to stay in power?  

ALTERMAN: So Prime Minister Netanyahu having coalition problems and having his enemies in his coalition is also known in Israeli politics as Monday. I mean, that’s the way he’s ruled, right? I mean, he’s always had his enemies, his adversaries in his Cabinet, and he has been skillful at keeping them at bay. It feels to me like his luck is running out. In the longer term, as you note, his approval rating is probably about 15 percent, and the only person jealous of that is Mahmoud Abbas, who’s about 10 percent. So I think, in general, this coalition is going to fall apart when there is a move toward accountability in Israel. 

And right now Israelis are focused on fighting the war. Just this morning before I came over I was looking at the Israeli press in Hebrew. It’s actually really useful. Chrome browsers will automatically translate Hebrew. You really get a useful sense of the stories that Israelis are reading every day. Nothing about humanitarian suffering in Gaza. It’s about our fallen heroes. It’s about the communication center under the UNWRA headquarters and the Nokia network that was built there, all kinds of things. The Israelis are still in fighting mode. And I don’t think the Israelis are feeling an ability to shift off fighting mode right now.  

But there is the hostage issue as a remarkably salient issue in Israeli politics. I sense that there is going to be a shift. Israelis will talk about accountability. They will be absolutely brutal when holding people accountable. And I got an email from a senior Likud person this morning who said that he expects that you’re going to have a transition where you have a lot of reservists coming into politics to sort of fix the strategic errors that Netanyahu made.  

So I think the reckoning is coming. I think it’s not imminent. I think we’re going to have some deal brokered by the United States with Arab states, with other allies. I think it’s going to move in that direction.  

But my guess is it will be episodic and interrupted. And it’s going to be a long time until people feel there’s actually a strategy for Gaza, partly because you really have three relatively weak political leaders in Joe Biden, Mahmoud Abbas, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Each one is trying to wait out the others. And I think that that’s going to hold back what people will be willing to commit to, because of a sense that especially with American politics you can have a whole different strategy come January. 

DOZIER: Nadwa, to the extent that the Houthis are using the Gaza conflict to build their popularity, et cetera, wow well is it working? But also, how is the conflict shaping Arab and Muslim world public opinion? 

AL-DAWSARI: The Houthis are still extremely unpopular. What is popular—within Yemen, what is popular with the Houthis is their actions to hold Israel accountable for crimes in Gaza. So I think there’s a lot of confusion and people tend to, like, conflate the two. The people go out in support of the Houthis’ action and people translate that into support for the Houthis per se. It’s not the case. But the Houthis are gaining a lot of support in the Arab and Muslim world, and even in the West. Yesterday, I was coming from the airport, and the taxi driver was singing the Houthis’ praises for being the only ones in the region to support Gaza.  

DOZIER: Where was the taxi driver from? 

AL-DAWSARI: He was from—well, he was originally from Ethiopia, of all places.  

DOZIER: Global South. 


DOZIER: Global South. 

AL-DAWSARI: Global South, exactly. So this is earning the Houthis a lot of support globally, of course. Within Yemen, it’s a different case. But this is also enabling the Houthis to exploit the Gaza war and the legitimacy of their war and the attacks in the Red Sea to further suppress the population and force them into supporting them, contributing to the war, and also even, you know, joining the fight. 

DOZIER: Greg, is there something militarily that the U.S. could be doing differently to stop this harassing of the ships at the very least and to somehow defang the Houthis? 

JOHNSEN: Yeah, the options that the U.S. has militarily, both before it started bombing on January 11, and then in the aftermath, are not particularly attractive. So the U.S. could have continued to basically play defense in the Red Sea. This was Operation Prosperity Guardian, option one, not carry out the airstrikes. That clearly wasn’t going to work, because despite the U.S. shooting down drones and missile attacks, the Houthis were continuing to attack. The U.S. had the option of sort of limited strikes, which is what it is that we’ve seen so far. These aren’t targeting Houthi command and control leadership. It’s targeting the missile sites. The U.S. could have elected on option three or what I consider to be option three, going in with very expansive strikes in trying to target the Houthis. The U.S. could have attempted to involve itself in the local civil war and said, look, we don’t want to just deter or degrade the Houthis. What we actually want to do is defeat them because we don’t see an option—as Nadwa laid out earlier for us—an option that the Houthis aren’t going to do this in the future. They’re always going to be a threat. They operate on very strategic territory right by the Bab al-Mandab. We need to deal with them. That’s sort of option four. 

Option five, go after Iran. If the U.S. says, look, Iran is the one behind the Houthis, we need to actually get to the source of the problem and deal with them. That was the fifth option I think that the Biden administration was going with.  

So you had do nothing, limited military strikes, expansive military strikes, get involved in the civil war in Yemen, or attack Iran. And when you think of the military options that way, they aren’t really great. None of them really get you to the point that you want, which is either deterring the Houthis from carrying out attacks or degrading them to the point where they can no longer attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea. 

And so I think what the Biden administration did when it was presented with these options was essentially choose the least bad one, and so that’s what the U.S. has been doing. If you sort of buy the argument that I just laid out, that’s option number two, which is limited military strikes. And the U.S. is hoping that over time, it will get to the point that it can slowly degrade the Houthis with a combination of other things like intercepting Iranian weapons shipments that are coming to Yemen and get the Houthis to a point where it will not—where the group will not be able to carry out attacks on commercial shipping. I think that’s very, very difficult to do. I don’t see the U.S. in a position where it can do that very quickly, which then that sort of begs the question, well, if the limited military strikes aren’t working, or at least if they haven’t worked yet, then when the U.S. comes to the conclusion either that they’re not working, or that they’re not likely to work in the foreseeable future, then what other options does the United States have in its toolbox? 

DOZIER: Yeah. 

ALTERMAN: But it seems to me that, Gregory, what you’re describing is not really a policy of deterrence or pursuing deterrence; it’s a strategy of pursuing compellance and having enough firepower to compel a different behavior. Deterrence is about presenting a political choice, that this way, this pathway provides pain and this pathway provides relief; you choose which path you want to go by. That would require a willingness to provide an assurance to the Houthis that there’s a more desirable pathway, perhaps in terms of the negotiations over the future of Yemen, that they’re involved with, with the Saudis. Or perhaps as a stepped-up military campaign, as you say, the idea that we’re going to compel the Houthis to comply probably requires a greater military effort than is wise to put into Yemen. The history of U.S. engagement in Yemen is a sine curve. It keeps going up and down. We get very concerned with security in Yemen, counterterrorism. We do everything for like three or four years, and then we get distracted or bored or something and we can’t find Yemen on a map of Yemen. And then—right? And we go back and forth. And that is one of the things that has gotten us where we are in Yemen. 

DOZIER: Yeah. And the more you intervene militarily in Yemen, the more you inspire.  


AL-DAWSARI: Yeah. So I just wanted to add to what Gregory and Jon have said. Well, first, targeting Iran is not going to weaken the Houthis. It might a little bit, but the Houthis are a strong ally and proxy of Iran, but they’re also fairly independent. They both have a long-term plan for the region, like Jerusalem extra, driven by ideology and regional interests. But at the same time, the Houthis are capable of acting on their own. So even if Iran is neutralized, the Houthis will continue to be a threat.  

Having said that, I don’t think increased U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, through airstrikes or boots on the ground, is going to be helpful. And I think what—and the Houthis are not going to come to the table in good faith through negotiations. I think we’ve seen that since 2014. Every truce has been an opportunity for the Houthis to regroup and then, you know, launch another offensive. But we do have forces on the ground. We do have Yemeni forces in Marib, in the west coast and south. And so I think the smarter and the longer, you know, long-term way to go is to weaken the Houthis literally through supporting these forces.  

Now I have to mention one thing, is that the U.S. is now paying for its mistake, the U.S. and the U.K. in particular, but the West in general, because in 2018, Yemeni government forces were about to take the Hodeidah Seaport. That would have weakened the Houthis militarily. That would have probably forced them to come to the negotiations in good faith and compromise.  

But what happened and with the U.S., with all its mighty diplomatic power to force the Yemeni government to abort the Hodeidah retaking operation—and Yemenis, I have done that, a lot of Yemenis did, the Saudi-led coalition did, the Yemeni government did. We all warned that that is going to be—that that’s going to be—to enable the Houthis and also that’s to become a threat to the Red Sea. So what the Houthis did after that, they’ve regrouped, and they a launched massive military offensive and made huge military gains, and then they became more powerful. And that gives them less incentive to compromise in peace negotiations. So I think the U.S. need to own up to that mistake, and I think we need to learn from that. And, again, I don’t think that U.S. direct military involvement, airstrikes or otherwise, is helpful. 

ALTERMAN: To be fair, the U.S. assessment is it would have been a complete bloodbath for both the attacking forces and for the civilian population in Hodeidah. 

AL-DAWSARI: Where? In Hodeidah? 


AL-DAWSARI: I think that was blown out of proportion.  

ALTERMAN: OK. But that was the assessment. 

AL-DAWSARI: I don’t believe that. I think that that narrative was created by the UN agencies because they wanted to maintain their programs in Yemen. I think there was some legitimacy for it. Yes, it wouldn’t have been clean, for sure. I mean, this is war. But then that would have been a short-term pain for the long-term gain. Now we have a situation where this war can still continue for the next decade, when 80 percent of the population are literally struggling to find food. So there are no good options in Yemen. 

DOZIER: Iran can reach much of the Middle East, much of the region with its ballistic missile capability. And Hezbollah, with its 150,000-plus missiles, including very sophisticated ones, dug into the northern border just above Israel’s northern border, can reach all of Israel, all its major populated areas. Israeli military officials and government officials keep talking about not if there’s another war with Lebanon, specifically with Hezbollah, but when. What would trigger Iran to unleash that missile barrage, either its own, or to give the green light to Hezbollah? Because so far, Hezbollah has very carefully tried to say we’re doing this in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, but they’re not fully engaging. 

ALTERMAN: So there are some people who speculate that if it looked like Gaza was ending on very unfavorable terms to them, that they would do that. I think my assessment—and it’s, you know, it’s a guess—is that Iran really likes the status quo. They like the fact that Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles and rockets that can flood the zone and overwhelm Israeli air defenses. So like having it reserve, there’s a concern that if Israel were to really pound Lebanon in a war, that Hezbollah could really lose its privileged place in Lebanese politics, because Lebanon has gone from middle-income country to a country where 80 percent of the population is under the poverty line. And I think there’s some concern that Iran could lose the foothold in Lebanon and its spent billions of dollars developing. 

You know, one of the hard things to assess is how much of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s talk about attacking Lebanon is either meant for political consumption, is intended to deter Hezbollah or others. Hezbollah has been pretty cautious. Hassan Nasrallah has been very good at barking while keeping very tight rein on exactly how much escalation there is. My sense from what’s public is that both sides would rather have a little bit of a war of attrition, rather than go over, that Iran, as far as they’re concerned—as I said, the last several months have been awesome for Iran. So why would you risk that? I think every—but my guess is that we’re going to get through this period without a massive war coming from the north. But if there is a massive war coming from the north, it will be devastating for both Lebanon and also for Israel.  

The other thing, if you’re looking for nightmare scenarios, is I’m amazed that the West Bank has remained as quiet as it has, and I think we still have the danger of the West Bank going up in flames and that would completely change the regional picture. Recall that there is no separation really between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, and it would get very bloody, very, very fast, and the images would circulate everywhere, and there would be a lot of civilians on both sides that are caught up. 

DOZIER: Especially since in the West Bank a lot of the Israelis who are present there are armed settlers.  

ALTERMAN: Yeah, and armed. 

DOZIER: Yeah. 

At this time I’d like to invite members here and those online to join our conversation with questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, and we’re going to start with a question from here in D.C.  

Anyone in the audience? Gentleman in the blue shirt. Please wait for the microphone and please introduce yourself and my plea to everyone please make sure there’s a question in your question.  

Q: Thank you so much. My name is Jordan Reimer. I work at the Strong Cities Network. 

Nadwa, you mentioned that the Yemen aspect of the war could go on for another ten years. I’m wondering, I can’t imagine that Egypt would be OK with it losing revenue of Suez Canal access for ten years.  

I’m wondering—even now we don’t really hear about Egypt screaming about what’s happening and I’m wondering if someone can please discuss the Egypt factor in all this and when they’re going to start really screaming about the fact that they’re losing so much revenue in the Suez. 

Thank you.  

AL-DAWSARI: I think Arab leaders are in a really difficult position because the Houthis situated themselves or are posing as the defenders of Gaza and the Palestinian cause, which is really important for Arab nations, the people, and the Houthis have been calling Arab leaders. There’s been protests in Egypt, in Jordan, and throughout the Arab world against what’s happening in Gaza.  

I think Egypt will start to talk about the impact of the Red Sea attack on its economy when the Gaza war stops. Right now it’s difficult because they don’t want to be perceived as—you know, as being against any action that would hold Israel accountable.  

ALTERMAN: I think Egypt right now is preoccupied with the IMF talks to increase the amount of financial relief it gets. My guess is that’s what’s getting most of the attention now. 

But you’re absolutely right. I mean, Egyptian revenues from the Suez Canal are down 40 percent this calendar year over previous year and it’s a very important source of foreign revenue for the government, which has a foreign exchange problem, and there’s no way that Egypt can do what it needs to do economically when traffic through the Suez Canal is down as sharply as it is. 

But my guess is that the diplomatic piece is going to be deferred a little bit and, of course, there’s also the broader role—as Nadwa suggests the broader role in Egypt is going to be central to what happens in Gaza, completely central. It will be the principal foreign avenue to engage in Gaza, although—so Egypt, I think, is playing a very difficult, complex game and that’s going to keep them from focusing only on the Houthi issue.  

The other thing and just very quickly, Egypt got its clock cleaned in Yemen in the ’60s, right, and there is still a scar in Egypt about Yemen that realizes just how difficult Yemen is. They probably lost more than ten thousand soldiers in Yemen in the ’60s and it was a mess and it helped lead to a whole set of disasters for Egypt.  

DOZIER: Let’s take a question from our virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Gregory Gause.  

Q: Gregory Gause, Bush School, Texas A&M University. 

On a couple of occasions Houthi spokesmen have said that despite the crisis in the Red Sea they wanted to continue to engage with the U.N. political process on Yemen. Is that eye wash? 

There was some indication that at least some people were optimistic before the crisis about the progress of the U.N. process. Could folks speak to that issue internal to Yemen? 

DOZIER: Greg, can we go to you first—Johnsen?  

JOHNSEN: Yeah, absolutely.  

So thanks, Dr. Gause, for your question. I think there’s a couple of different things.  

So when it comes to negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia the Houthis, A, are very excited to be treated like a state. They enjoy that process. They enjoy sort of the pomp. They enjoy being invited to sit down at the table with the Saudis and leaving all the other Yemeni actors sort of off to the side. 

I’m less optimistic than I think a lot of people were that that was nearing a conclusion. That is, I think that Saudi Arabia is very much looking for an exit from the war in Yemen. But I think the Houthis were in a position where they continued to move the goalposts on the Saudis to see exactly how much it is that they could extort from Saudi Arabia.  

So, for instance, one of the things that the Houthis were pressing was that Saudi Arabia would be paying the salaries of all the fighters and militia members that the Houthis had, which is, obviously, you can’t really pay the salaries of the people who are taking up arms against you.  

I also think that the Houthis are in a position where even if—so even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE completely withdraw from Yemen and sign some sort of an agreement with the Houthis that doesn’t end the war in Yemen. That just transforms the war in Yemen from a regional war back into a local civil war.  

So the Presidential Leadership Council, this sort of Frankensteinian coalition of a variety of different anti-Houthi actors and the Houthis, they would continue to fight. In fact, I would argue that any sort of a Saudi or an Emirati peace deal would actually lead to more fighting on the ground in Yemen because the Houthis are in a position—and I think this is one of the reasons driving their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea—the Houthis realize that they need an economic base in order to survive long term in Yemen.  

They rule over or they govern fairly poorly but they still govern the vast majority of the Yemeni population in the northern highlands. But what they need is an economic base and in Yemen that primarily means oil and gas fields which are located in Marib, Shabwah, and Hadhramaut, these three governorates, and the Houthis don’t control any of those and in order to survive the Houthis need at least one or most likely two of these governorates and I think that’s, A, what’s driving some of the Houthi fighting in the Red Sea, that basically the war was ending. The Houthis still didn’t have what it is that they needed, which are these oil and gas fields and so by—they’re betting that if they can sort of continue this war, bait the U.S. into some sort of a conflict, they’ll eventually get there.  

It’s the same thing when it comes to Saudi negotiations. If the Houthis can get the Saudis out of there then the PLC, the anti-Houthi coalition, will lose Saudi air cover and the Houthis will be able to make a push on Marib, on Shabwah, on Hadhramaut eventually.  

DOZIER: Did you want to add anything? 

AL-DAWSARI: Yes. And then in time after Marib, Shabwah, and Hadhramaut, the south and all Yemen that’s something they’ve expressed publicly. They don’t recognize any of the other forces. So I agree with Greg that this is going to be the continuation of the civil war only at a much, you know, more brutal pace. 

ALTERMAN: Just the other point is, of course, one of the great traditions in Yemen is getting subsidy from Saudi Arabia and I would imagine that the Saudis are talking about basically subsidizing the Houthi constituencies. I imagine they’ll also be supporting the PLC and basically everybody will be on the Saudi payroll. I think that’s the Saudis’ strategy.  

DOZIER: Chris Isham? Mic’s right behind you. 

Q: Thank you. Chris Isham, CT Group. 

A question about the source of so much of the instability which Greg mentioned, that I mentioned—Iran. Should the U.S. or could the U.S., for that matter, increase the pressure on Iran not just from a military point of view but from an economic point of view? 

Many of the sanctions have been relaxed, allowing them to gather more foreign reserves. What could the U.S. or should the U.S. do to increase the pressure and would it have any impact on so much of the instability through the whole region at the moment giving the—what you described as an awesome six months for the Islamic republic?  

ALTERMAN: So one of the challenges—so just let me start first. The Iranians didn’t really get squarely behind the Houthis until 2017. That’s two years into the Saudi attack, and I think the Houthis’ ability to torment the Saudis is what made them attractive to the Iranians.  

It was partly a Saudi effort to get the Iranians to knock it off that led to the March deal negotiated in Beijing. But I think the Houthis are sort of a fringe part of the axis of resistance. They’re not really central in the way that Iraq is, in the way that Syria is, in the way that Hezbollah is. 

They’re sort of—it’s an opportunistic relationship. How much the Iranians are able to really press the Houthis as Nadwa suggests a little bit unclear. You could sort of turn the spigot down, intercepting shipments. You know, there are other things we can do to weaken the Houthis and we probably should and partly it’s about, I think, giving the Iranians a choice between things potentially getting better and things potentially getting much worse. 

I don’t think they trust anybody in the administration saying things are going to get better. And it’s hard to find ways to really hold things for the Iranians in part because we have had so many sanctions on Iran for so long that all the bad guys are completely embedded in networks that bust all of our sanctions.  

So there are huge neighborhoods outside of Tehran that are full of guys tied to the regime who make hundreds of millions of dollars busting our sanctions and they’re part of the movement in Iran that doesn’t want a rapprochement with the United States because their business model is having this conflict.  

DOZIER: Because the common wisdom is that sanctions are painful for about the first six months to a year until workarounds—permanent workarounds are created.  

ALTERMAN: And all the bad guys—you know, and they drive sports cars and whatever—the kids drive sports cars. So I’m not sure we have a lot of really great options to turn up the pressure on Iran.  

My sense is that it’s a broader regional issue and ultimately we have to have the Iranians make a political choice rather than a military choice and we’re not close in our political process to be able to present them with a political choice.  

DOZIER: So just to pivot slightly, does China have a role to play here in that China brought about the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement such as it is and China is being affected by the Houthis hitting the Red Sea because it’s raising costs. 

ALTERMAN: Although they’re—well, not for them and not for Chinese shipping lines that are advertising we can get your stuff safely through the Suez Canal.  

The other thing is the Chinese are so delighted at how much of a licking we’re taking in the Middle East and how much of a beating we’re taking in the Global South that I think the Chinese have decided this is awesome. We could get them to stop giggling because I think they’re thinking that of all the—I mean, the Chinese economy is melting down but they love seeing U.S. leadership looking ineffectual.  

They love the fact that we couldn’t build Prosperity Guardian into a robust, multilateral effort. From a Chinese perspective this is so much better than merely being the diplomats who brought the Iranians and Saudis together. 

DOZIER: I hear you, but China did—used to use the Red Sea because it does do a lot of business in the countries in the region that make more sense to go through the Red Sea than to go in the other direction than Suez.  

ALTERMAN: But I think they’re more preoccupied with us— 

DOZIER: Got it. Right. 

ALTERMAN: —than with what it might take in terms of money and time to get things around the Horn of Africa. 

DOZIER: They’re appreciating our pain more than they’re heeding their own.  


DOZIER: Let’s take another question. 

JOHNSEN: And I would just— 

DOZIER: Sorry. Oh, sorry, Greg. Please jump in.  

JOHNSEN: Yeah. I would just add to back up sort of Jon’s point that I think the PRC is excited to see the U.S. bogged down in the CENTCOM area as well, moving assets away from INDOPACOM or potentially being in that situation where then the Chinese, which view what the U.S. is doing as containment, feel that they’d have a much freer hand in sort of the Pacific region.  

And so I think despite—I agree with your point, Kim, on the economic concerns but I think if you take sort of the PRC—if you take a step back then they see a loss for the U.S. in the Middle East as a gain for them closer to home.  

ALTERMAN: And even more importantly our inability to build a broader national coalition to protect international norms, right, which I think the Chinese think a lot about when it comes to Taiwan.  

DOZIER: And they are masters at the long-term big strategic picture.  

So let’s go to another question from our virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Barbara Slavin.  

Q: Hi. Barbara Slavin from the Stimson Center.  

Thank you for this. To Jon in particular but anybody else who wants to answer, why can’t we exert more pressure over the Israelis and get them to stop? And then, obviously, from what you’re saying it wouldn’t necessarily end the war in Yemen but it would defuse a lot of what is going on in the region.  


ALTERMAN: So I would argue, Barbara, there are two parts to your question. Why is—why can we not exert more pressure on the Israelis and the answer is of course we can. The second part is would it get the Israelis to stop and that’s a whole different question.  

My assessment of President Biden’s actions is he felt that by going to Israel right after October 7 he made a deposit with the Israelis that gave him a card he can play at some later point. 

My understanding is he remains the most popular politician in Israel and that’s a card he can play at some point when you think there’s an option to really move the Israeli public. I think his assessment, and I would agree with you, is the Israeli public is not in a space where it feels that it can pull away.  

You know, when Nadwa was talking about how an attack on Hodeidah would be bloody in the near term but it’d be a long-term investment that’s exactly how Israelis see Gaza. Yes, it’s bloody now but this is necessary for a peaceful future.  

As a democratic country it’s—you know, you have to think what would move Israeli politics in a more constructive direction, and to me the problem is not what tools could the U.S. use to pressure Israel because there are a lot of tools the U.S. could use to pressure Israel.  

The question is would you get the result that you’re looking for and under what circumstances and to me that’s a much harder calculation to make.  

DOZIER: Question from the room? Looking around for hands. 

Question right here. Please wait for the microphone, and love to hear who you are. 

Q: Thank you so much. Fascinating discussion. Beverly Kirk from Syracuse University.  

And you mentioned the West Bank and how it has not yet ignited. What do you think is keeping the lid on, so to speak, right now and how much time is it before it does, given that wasn’t there an American teenager who was recently killed there?  

ALTERMAN: Actually, I think part of it is luck. Part of it is intelligence and law enforcement. Part of it is an effort by Israelis to try to tamp down the violence on both sides. Part of it is the efforts of the Palestinian Authority. 

I think there are a lot of things. Any one of those can fail. You know, I think one of the things that we’ve seen dating back to the first intifada is it takes one incident to just change everything, and just as—I spoke to an administration official in December who said, you know, the Iranians are trying to kill us every single day and one day they’re going to be successful and we saw with Tower 22 one day they’re successful.  

If they’re successful 1 percent of the time that changes the game, and I do worry that the longer this goes on the West Bank is a tinderbox and what is working might stop working and if it stops working it can stop working in a pretty spectacular way very, very quickly.  

DOZIER: Nadwa, if the fighting did stop in Gaza tomorrow what would the Houthis do, do you think?  

AL-DAWSARI: I think they would stop attacks on the Red Sea but that would be only temporarily. The Houthis will continue to be a threat to the Red Sea long term. 

And I just want to pick on something you said. I think the Gaza analogy with Hodeidah is a little—it’s not the same because with the Hodeidah operation in 2018 government forces were only three kilometers from the Hodeidah seaport and the Houthi leader himself announced that they were withdrawing forces tactically, which was basically a statement of withdrawal. 

So I don’t think it would have been bloody. I mean, in Gaza thirty thousand people have been killed. I think there might have been destruction to the seaport and that’s what humanitarian organizations were worried about more than the civilian population, and I think that’s something that would have been mitigated and resolved by the international community with some commitment and if—you know, if—but I think—I still think that the long-term implications for stopping the Yemeni government forces from taking Hodeidah, I mean, they’re manifesting now and God knows.  

But, yes, the Houthis are not going to stop long term. They will stop short term and that will buy them more legitimacy internationally because everybody is saying the Houthis would stop—solve the war in Gaza and the Houthis would stop.  

Yes, there is a connection between what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea and the Gaza war but that’s not the entire story. 

DOZIER: OK. Greg, in terms of—you know, from your perch in the military world right now what has the conflict in Gaza done in terms of raising the threat to U.S. troops, U.S. operations and also, in a sense, changing the thinking because there have been a big pivot from counterinsurgency to big power politics again—China, Russia—and now all of a sudden we’re hearing about insurgencies and terrorist threats again.  

JOHNSEN: Yeah. I think, obviously, the last thing the United States—the Biden administration—wanted was some sort of broader greater war within the Middle East focused on strategic competition with China, focused on getting set for all the problems that exist in the INDOPACOM world. 

So I think for the U.S., you know, it’s found itself sort of dragged into this by what happened, as Jon mentioned, in Tower 22, by what’s happened in the—with commercial traffic in the Red Sea and the U.S. is sort of attempting to manage this problem without escalating.  

But the problem seems to continue to be escalating and that’s something that, again, I don’t think the U.S. is set up well to deal with this because we see multi-front war basically in Syria, with Iraq, with what happened at Tower 22, then in the Red Sea with attacking the Houthis, what’s happening in Gaza.  

The U.S.—this is the last thing the U.S. wanted and I think the U.S. is right now struggling to come up with some sort of a solution that will basically put this problem back in the box, go back to what it was, you know, before October of 2023 without escalating and I think that’s a really fine and difficult line to walk and one that at least so far the U.S. isn’t particularly successful at mostly because the enemy gets a vote and gets to continue to try to press and a challenge and attack the U.S. where it can.  

DOZIER: So, Jon, Hamas with one day of atrocities managed to upset the entire U.S. strategic aim for the region.  

ALTERMAN: And, you know, I was just thinking as Gregory was talking do you remember Jake Sullivan and Dan Benaim wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs in May of 2020 saying, look, we have to get off this military answer to every problem in the Middle East. We have to use all the tools of statecraft. We have to, you know, be more economically engaged, all those things.  

True in principle. Harder to implement. I look at what Tony Blinken has been doing and it seems to me that the sort of good news from a diplomatic standpoint is that the United States is at the center of all the diplomacy that’s going on.  

I mean, it’s undeniable. For all the people who say the United States is no longer central, no longer relevant, all the diplomacy has an intersection with the United States and, yet, we haven’t been very good at broadening the toolkit because the toolkit is all slow and we keep having urgent needs, and that gets us to so what target do we attack that will solve this problem.  

And, you know, that’s partly the thinking that got us into trouble before that I think in patience and with deliberation you think, OK, we’re going to have to have a much, much broader toolkit.  

But when you’re in the moment and you’re trying to decide every day what do you do a scholarship program doesn’t solve your problem today and I think this is the challenge the administration has is even if you don’t want to principally favor military solutions how do you do things quickly that are consequential that aren’t military, and I think it’s interesting how difficult it’s been for the U.S. government to think that through.  

DOZIER: Let’s take a question from the virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We have no virtual questions in queue at this time. I’ll pass it back to you, Ms. Dozier. 

DOZIER: Sorry. There was one waiting and I kept them waiting too long. Do we have any more questions in the room?  

Well, then it’s—one right over here. Thank you, sir. There’s a microphone for you.  

Q: Right now we’ve got about two and a half million people that don’t even have a place to sleep and in the next couple of weeks we could have two and a half million people that are going to be on a beach and what’s going to happen to them?  

They’re not going to get into Egypt. Would the U.S. or would the international community evacuate by ship or whatever? In other words, what are the options?  

DOZIER: So what do you do with the more than 1 million people that the U.N. says are displaced in Gaza and the—in Rafah and the other million that are basically displaced to the south with Israel pretty much pushing ahead on the Rafah operation?  

Jon, I guess we’ll go to you for that one.  

ALTERMAN: I am skeptical that a large-scale evacuation from Gaza is going to be possible.  

DOZIER: I mean, Israel has said that—the Israeli prime minister’s office said it has ordered the army to come up with a plan. But we saw how well the plan worked to evacuate Khan Younis, that complicated map full of sectors that they put out.  

ALTERMAN: But in the broader—I mean, a number of Israelis on both the left and right have talked about how, you know, we have to get a bunch of people out of Gaza and then we can reconstruct Gaza and then people can come back or maybe not come back, whatever. I don’t think most Gazans are willing to take that deal because of the history of people who have left historic Palestine never being allowed back.  

So I think ultimately we’re in for a lot more muddling. You know, there will be efforts to change ways of getting food in. I saw something in the Israeli press about getting things in on ships. There are a whole series of problems about how you maintain security when you have aid coming in because we don’t want people attacking the convoys. It’s very complicated. 

But I think, frankly, it is likely to stay very complicated for a long time to come, partly because of Palestinian insistence on staying steadfast, partly because of an Israeli commitment to not let things return to normal until the Israelis think things should return to normal. 

DOZIER: And the majority of Israelis polled say that they don’t want aid going into Gaza, full stop, unless the hostages are released. So you have the Israeli government fighting against that one as the rest of us in the world watch tens of thousands of Palestinians in the middle of a nightmare. 

I want to leave the last couple of questions briefly to Greg and to Nadwa. If this operation goes forward in Rafah and is as horrible as we all fear it’s going to be what does that do to the threat to U.S. interests in the region?  

Greg, over to you first.  

JOHNSEN: Yeah. Thanks for that.  

So I think what we’ve seen so far is both the U.S. and the Houthis, obviously, it would continue to escalate and the Houthis would want to take more aggressive action than they’ve taken so far and one of the challenges, I think, is that the U.S. seems to view that if they can degrade the Houthis’ military capabilities they can forestall or at least prevent or delay more attacks on commercial shipping.  

But this isn’t the only way I think that the Houthis can threaten the United States, and so as the—there’s sort of an escalatory spiral, if you will, with some of these conflicts. The U.S. has already—back even before the bombing campaign started on January 11 the U.S. had carried out an attack that killed ten Houthi militiamen.  

There have been some casualties in the U.S. strikes so far, and as those different reasons sort of build upon one another what I think you could see is the Houthis taking more direct action or attempting to take direct action against both U.S. military targets and other targets. 

And so how what started as sort of a localized thing in Gaza and then spread, obviously, to Yemen and to Syria and to Iraq from Yemen it can continue to spread further. So I don’t think this is something where the Houthis are going to—even if you think back to at the very beginning the Houthis started by firing missiles at Israel. Those weren’t particularly successful and they shifted then to attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea.  

I think you could easily see a further evolution of their tactics where they’re attempting to strike at different U.S. targets and then that means that the war itself or at least this conflict has a rationale all its own that can then survive whatever it is that takes place in Gaza, and I think that’s very concerning both for the U.S. and the region as well as for sort of U.S. broader national security interests around the globe.  

DOZIER: Thank you. 

And, Nadwa, the last fifteen seconds to you. 

AL-DAWSARI: Yes. Added to what Greg said, and I completely agree with him, is that any more—any further escalation in Gaza and in the region will further reinforce or create anti-U.S. sentiment, especially in Yemen.  

Like I said, we didn’t have anti-U.S. sentiment in the past, not strong anyways. But now this sentiment is coming out really strongly and so the Houthis will exploit that, Iranian proxies will exploit that, and that will be a challenge for the U.S. in the long term. 

DOZIER: And the U.S. intelligence community has been watching this potential rising threat with growing concern.  

And with that, I want to thank everyone for joining today’s session. Thank you to Nadwa, Jon, and Gregory for speaking with us today. Please note that the video and the transcript of this session will be posted on CFR’s website.  

Thank you. (Applause.) 


Top Stories on CFR

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…


In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 


During Kenya’s state visit, the United States should work toward building a more resilient model of U.S.-Africa partnerships.