US strikes on Houthis risk triggering wider Middle East war


The deadly strikes by the United States and United Kingdom on Houthi rebels in Yemen risks instigating a wider war in the Middle East involving additional proxy groups connected to Iran.

The Houthis and their chief sponsor, Iran, have condemned the strikes, which they said hit 73 sites in Yemen and killed at least five people, and vowed the western alliance will pay a price for the attacks. 

Fears of a wider war had long been seen as a reason the U.S. was reluctant to attack the Houthis, even as they disrupted ships in the Red Sea. The U.S. and Israel have already been in battle with various Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza bloodily carries on.

The attacks on Thursday suggest the Biden administration’s patience ran out after a barrage on Tuesday — the largest one since the November attacks began. President Biden’s order for the Pentagon to take action followed those attacks.

Some observers argued that despite the breadth of the attacks, which were backed by other U.S. allies, the strikes appeared aimed at containing the conflict.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the strikes were not escalatory considering they were “isolated to the exact systems that were holding the Red Sea at risk.”

At the same time, he warned the Houthis will recover and continue their aggression, as will other Iranian groups. 

“To really eliminate the threat, you’re going to have to do something that is much more escalatory like attack the supply lines that are coming from Iran,” he said, adding that “Iran wants to continue to be a player in the region.” 

“So they got to demonstrate that their proxies are effective and proxies can’t be quickly eliminated,” Clark added. “They’re going to respond by just continuing to mount these attacks.” 

The strikes hit radar, drone and missile sites used by the Houthis, which a senior U.S. military official said Friday should weaken their ability to target commercial vessels. The official said the military was conducting an assessment of damages but explained the U.S. feels “pretty confident we did good work” and that it could deter more attacks. 

“The hope would be that any real thought of retaliation is based on a clear understanding that we simply are not going to be messed with here,” the official said. “What I would hope, though, is that they recognize [the Red Sea attacks are] generally fruitless.” 

Gregory Gause, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies international politics in the Middle East, said the strikes were impactful enough that they could push Iran to disengage the Houthis from continuing Red Sea attacks. 

“The American and British military response might actually lead to, if not a de-escalation in terms of words, perhaps a de-escalation in terms of actions,” Gause said. “It might get the Iranians to try to exercise restraint.” 

Gause said the Houthis are also vulnerable to the large strikes the U.S. and the U.K. launched on Yemen this week. 

“Their targets are relatively open, and they don’t really have a substantial air force,” he said. “They can’t even [provide] air cover for their sites, so these are pretty exposed.” 

Still, the Houthis on Friday vowed to keep attacking Red Sea ships in a campaign they say is intended to target Israeli-based ships and vessels headed to Israel in retaliation for the war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. 

‘America and Britain have become directly involved in the aggression, a moment we have been eagerly waiting for,” said Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Al-Bukhait in a statement shared online. “We have a bank of goals linked to American escalation and the positions of countries, and there will be painful responses.” 

Houthi fighters launched an anti-ship missile on Friday morning after the strike, according to the Pentagon.

The Houthis were bombed for years by a U.S. and Saudi Arabia-backed coalition and have taunted Washington for spending millions of dollars on strikes and defensive action against cheap Houthi drones or replaceable assets.

The U.S. strikes on Friday brought renewed attention to the group and its arguments about Israel, which has pounded Gaza with attacks that have left more than 20,000 dead. Even Middle Eastern governments aligned with the U.S., such as Oman, negatively compared the lack of U.S. action to constrain Israel’s attacks on Gaza with the forceful response to the Houthis.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Houthis also were getting what they want from the fighting — even though they would want to avoid an all out war.

“The Houthis derive prestige from being in a battle with the United States, as they present themselves as bravely standing up to U.S. and Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians,” Alterman wrote in an analysis. “Because their only option is asymmetrical warfare, they keep doing cheap things to get attention.” 

The Houthis have launched 27 attacks in the Red Sea since Nov. 19, including brazen assaults like hijacking a commercial shipping boat and firing at others with missiles. 

The U.S. launched a maritime task force last month to defend ships against the Houthi attacks after the armed group disrupted global trade and forced major shipping companies to reroute around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope instead of risk transiting the Red Sea shortcut. 

But the Houthi attacks continued, prompting Biden to discuss military action with senior national security advisers on New Year’s Day, according to a senior administration official.  

The strike order came about 24 hours after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Houthis for their most recent attacks, a sign of general international approval in a usually divided council. Russia and China abstained from the vote but did not block it. 

Thursday’s flurry of strikes hit the Houthis across the country, including the capitol city of Sana’a, and struck 16 locations with multiple targets at each spot and another 12 locations were hit after those initial strikes, according to the Pentagon. 

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN on Friday that the Houthis finally faced “consequences” and the U.S. “message was clear.” 

“No one wants to see a wider regional conflict,” Ryder said. “But we also cannot allow for this kind of dangerous, reckless and illegal behavior to continue.” 

The strikes on Yemen, a sovereign country even if the Houthis are not a recognized government, also risk undermining U.S. influence in the region, which is already low and has plummeted during the Israel war in Gaza. 

David Cortright, a professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame’s global policy school, said in an email to The Hill the strikes “contradict the recent message” from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to avoid widening the Middle East conflict.  

“The use of force to defend ships under attack in the Gulf may be justifiable,” he wrote, “but it is not clear that strikes on targets in Yemen qualify as self-defense or meet the requirement of military necessity.” 

The Yemen strikes also threaten to derail progress in a country torn for years by a civil war. A ceasefire in October 2022 led to a significant slowdown in fighting even after the agreement lapsed. 

In the spring of 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia spurred hopes for a peace deal when the countries announced the re-opening of embassies, making steps toward normalizing their relationship. 

Washington faced pressure to launch offensive strikes in Yemen for weeks but was reluctant – possibly over fears of disrupting negotiations between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. 

Hassan El-Tayyeb, legislative director for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a nonprofit advocating for peace and justice, said the Saudis have not joined the U.S.-led maritime task force or backed military action in Yemen, so the strikes this week might not disrupt the peace process. 

“But we are teetering on the edge of massive escalation, massive loss of life,” he said. “And the problem with these situations is it can totally get out of hand and escalate far beyond where we thought.” 

Further, the strikes in Yemen could empower and embolden the Houthis, said El-Tayyeb, arguing the escalation in the Middle East signals it is time to negotiate an end to the Gaza war, which he said is the root of the conflict. 

“Number one, ceasefire in Gaza now and then work diplomatically to resolve these other issues,” he said. “Because war is just not the answer.” 

But some analysts say the U.S. had no choice but to respond with military action against the Houthis, considering they were derailing a route that facilitates about 12 percent of global trade. 

“The trajectory was the Houthis were going to continue doing it,” said Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemen and Middle East expert with consultancy firm Navanti Group. “There’s no easy solution to the current dichotomy. If you let the Houthis continue without retaliation, then [you risk] mistakes and incidents that could go wrong.” 

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