U.S.-led Coalition Strikes Iran-aligned Houthi Militants in Yemen

UK MOD/Handout via REUTERS
RAF Voyager aircraft takes off to join the U.S.-led coalition from RAF Akrotiri to conduct air strikes against military targets in Yemen, aimed at the Iran-backed Houthi militia that has been targeting international shipping in the Red Sea, in Cyprus, in this handout picture released on January 12, 2024.

A U.S.-led military coalition struck Iran-aligned Houthi militants in Yemen on Thursday, a dramatic escalation after the group ignored repeated warnings from the Biden administration and other governments to stop attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

The operation follows weeks of hostility as the Houthis, protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, have disrupted global trade by making the vital passage a dangerous place for ships to transit. The group, which functions as the de facto government in parts of Yemen, has carried out at least 27 attacks since November, officials have said, leading to repeated altercations as the United States and partner nations have surged warships into the region to protect against the incoming fire.

In a statement, President Biden characterized the strikes as a necessary retaliation, saying Houthi violence has affected several countries. Thursday’s assault, he said, was directed at targets used by the Houthis to launch their attacks. He did not disclose whether there are indications anyone was killed in the operation.

“These attacks have endangered U.S. personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardized trade, and threatened freedom of navigation,” Biden said. ” . . . I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, hospitalized since Jan. 1 after suffering complications from a recent surgery, said in a statement that U.S. and British forces carried out the strikes, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands. The aim, he said, was “to disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ capabilities.” It was at least the third significant U.S. military action since Austin has been ill.

A U.S. defense official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the operation, said a consortium of military aircraft and naval assets, including submarines, were used. They took out Houthi air defenses before targeting radars and facilities used to store and launch unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, the person said.

Houthi Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam Jahaf said strikes had hit the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the port city of Hodeidah and in Dhamar and Saada. Earlier on Thursday, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said the militants would “not hesitate” in their response to any attack. “We will confront the American aggression,” he said.

Senior U.S. officials have blamed Iran for having “aided and abetted” the crisis in the Red Sea, saying the Houthis would be incapable of threatening the shipping route if not for Tehran’s technological and intelligence support.

Thursday’s strikes will almost certainly heighten tensions across the Middle East, which has seen widening violence since Hamas, another entity aligned with Iran, carried out a stunning cross-border attack on Israel in October. The ensuing war in Gaza has left the Biden administration deeply worried that a strong military response to the Houthis would invite further escalation by Tehran.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have stepped up their targeting of U.S. forces deployed in both countries. American troops have absorbed at least 131 attacks since Oct. 17, according to Pentagon data. The Biden administration has retaliated with occasional airstrikes, including last week’s killing of a militia leader in Baghdad, but until now had withheld a forceful response against the Houthis.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described Thursday’s action as “limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defense.” Despite repeated warnings, he added, “the Houthis have continued to carry out attacks in the Red Sea, including against U.K. and U.S. warships just this week. This cannot stand.”

The incident Tuesday marked a turning point, other officials said. U.S. and British forces shot down 18 one-way attack drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile that had been launched as dozens of merchant ships moved through the Red Sea, according to U.S. Central Command, which coordinates American military activity throughout the Middle East. The onslaught was repulsed by a combination of warships and fighter jets.

In a conference call after Thursday’s operation, a senior administration official said that Biden had been scrutinizing the issue and how to proceed. On Jan. 1, after an attack on a ship from Denmark, the president instructed officials to accelerate their work to build a military coalition and to refine targets in case strikes were deemed necessary.

Two days later, 13 countries released a joint statement demanding the Houthis cease and desist or be held accountable. But the attacks continued. After U.S. naval forces repelled the attack Tuesday, Biden again convened his national security team and was presented with military options to respond. The president, at the end of the meeting, directed action, the senior administration official said.

The senior administration official said that, while the coalition strikes will degrade the Houthis’ ability to carry out future attacks, U.S. officials will not be surprised if the violence continues.

At a moment when its strong support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas has put the United States at odds with numerous global partners, the Biden administration has attempted to enlist allied nations in intensifying pressure on the Houthis and to frame that effort as an international campaign. His statement Thursday was a reflection of that, noting that “more than 40 nations” also had condemned the Houthi attacks.

While the United States conducted a years-long air campaign against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, it has mostly avoided military action against the Houthis, who took power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. The U.S. Navy did launch missiles at radar sites in Yemen in 2016 following missile attacks on American vessels.

The Houthi takeover ignited a prolonged civil war in Yemen that eventually drew in forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and took a grisly toll on Yemeni civilians. U.S. and U.N. officials have conducted a years-long diplomatic effort to halt that conflict but have been unable to broker a political agreement between the warring Yemeni parties.

The violence has subsided substantially since a cease-fire, now expired, took effect in 2022.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), vice chair of the House Armed Services intelligence and special operations subcommittee, was among the Democrats who lauded the administration’s decision to fight back. She said the volume and complexity of Houthi activity “has made very clear to me that we need to reestablish deterrence.” That is done, she added, “by striking back at them, and you do it in a precision way, and we do everything we can to minimize civilian casualties.”

Republicans mostly questioned why Biden had not approved military action sooner. Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, called the strikes “two months overdue” but a “good first step toward restoring deterrence in the Red Sea.”

Some analysts were doubtful the operation would have the intended effect of curbing the Red Sea attacks.

“The Houthis win by taking a U.S. strike, no matter how heavy, and showing that they can keep going with the shipping attacks,” said Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Houthis are high on their successes and will not be easy to deter. They are having the time of their lives, standing up to a superpower who probably cannot deter them.”

Others have said a strong response was necessary. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, a retired general who led U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2022, said earlier this week that it was important to inflict “pain” on the militants responsible.

“And that means you’ve got to strike targets in Yemen that are important to the Houthis,” he said.

The Biden administration’s effort to build an international consensus against the Houthi violence was strengthened Wednesday when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution voicing strong condemnation of the attacks. The resolution, which was sponsored by the United States and Japan, was approved 11-0, with abstentions by Russia, China, Algeria and Mozambique.

Tehran itself also has pursued aggressive action. Earlier Thursday, the Iranian navy seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman while it was en route to Turkey, the U.S. Navy said. The crew’s status is unknown. Iran now holds five ships and 90 crew members “hostage,” officials said.

Adam Clements, a former U.S. Army attaché to Yemen and former Pentagon official, warned that the strikes Thursday were unlikely to have the desired impact of deterring the Houthis. “Saving face is of utmost importance,” Clements said of Yemeni culture and politics, adding that “the Houthis will absolutely need to save face, and this won’t deter them, and they will conduct more strikes.”

The group’s terrain in northern Yemen is extremely mountainous, which gives the Houthis the strategic advantage of geography to add to their years of fighting experience, and well established smuggling lines, Clements said.

“They’re already emboldened, and this will embolden them even more,” he said. “I think the Houthi movement will definitely use this narrative to help rally support around itself.”