The war in the Middle East has definitively broadened. The United States and the United Kingdom on Thursday launched strikes against targets in Yemen linked to Houthi militias, in the first major act of retaliation since the Iranian-backed groups began harassing merchant ships in the Red Sea in October. Washington has warned that such actions could be repeated if hostile acts by Yemeni rebels continue.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said the coalition strikes “are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea — including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history. These attacks have endangered U.S. personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardized trade, and threatened freedom of navigation.”
According to the White House, ships from over 50 countries have been affected by the 27 attacks perpetrated so far by Houthi rebels. “Crews from more than 20 countries have been threatened or taken hostage in acts of piracy,” Biden added, and more than 2,000 merchant vessels have been forced to detour thousands of miles on other routes to avoid passage through the Red Sea.
“These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes,” the U.S. president stressed, issuing a warning that Thursday’s strikes could be repeated. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”
In London, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed the participation of Royal Air Force fighter jets in the operation, the Ministry of Defense stated that “early indications are that the Houthis’ ability to threaten merchant ships has taken a blow.”
Missile strikes by Western forces hit targets in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, according to Yemeni sources. They also struck Hodeida, on the Arab country’s west coast, and about a dozen other locations, some in the vicinity of towns with cultural and historical significance, such as Ta’izz in the center of the country. U.S. military commanders speaking on condition of anonymity indicated that the strikes were not symbolic, but designed to send a message of deterrence.
“This action is aimed at impeding the operation and degrading the Houthis’ ability to endanger seafarers and threaten global commerce.... It sends a clear message to the Houthis that they will have to pay an even higher price if they do not stop their illegal attacks,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is recovering in a military hospital from complications in treatment for prostate cancer, said in a statement. Austin said the operation targeted radars, anti-aircraft protection systems, drones and ballistic and cruise missiles.
Hussein al-Ezzi, a Houthi official in their Foreign Ministry, acknowledged “a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines and warplanes. America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression,” al-Ezzi wrote online.
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesperson, separately described the U.S. and Britain as having “committed foolishness with this treacherous aggression. They were wrong if they thought that they would deter Yemen from supporting Palestine and Gaza,” he wrote online. Houthi “targeting will continue to affect Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine,” he wrote.
A senior Houthi representative, Abdul Salam Jahaf, claimed in a statement issued Friday morning that the rebels had launched retaliatory attacks against British and U.S. Navy vessels.
Drone and missile attacks, which are becoming more frequent and more dangerous, led the United States to create a coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, which now consists of 23 countries, to protect merchant ships as they pass through the Red Sea. Drone attacks by Houthi militias have forced shipping companies to seek alternative routes, including around South Africa, to avoid passing through the Red Sea, through which some 15% of the world’s maritime traffic travels.
“The Houthis claim they are proceeding in this way to bring about an end to Israel’s war in Gaza. That is a lie. They also say they attack Israeli ships or [ships] that are heading toward Israel. That is also a lie. They harass any merchant ship that passes by, regardless of nationality,” says a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On New Year’s Day, according to the same source, Biden met with his National Security Council to discuss the hostile actions of the Yemeni rebels. There, the president gave instructions to increase pressure both diplomatically - through negotiations in the UN Security Council for a resolution condemning the attacks - and militarily, asking for options to be put on the table.
Two days later, on January 3, a group of coalition countries led by the United States warned the Houthis of serious repercussions if the attacks continued. Almost immediately, the militia resumed missile and drone launches.
On Tuesday, British and U.S. warships intercepted one of the largest waves of missile and drone attacks attempted so far by the Yemeni rebel group. For the Pentagon and the White House, which have made clear that after the collective warning issued at the beginning of the year there would be no second chance, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Biden himself issued the go-ahead for Thursday’s operation.
On Wednesday the Security Council approved Resolution 2722 - with the abstention of Algeria, Russia, China, and Mozambique - which ordered the Houthis to immediately cease their harassment in the Red Sea. The militias maintain that they are carrying out the attacks to force Israel to end its offensive in Gaza, which has already killed at least 23,000 Palestinians in retaliation for the Hamas attacks of October 7, in which at least 1,200 Israelis were killed.
The incursions by British and U.S. aircraft represent a new phase in the Middle East conflict and its expansion beyond Gaza, something Washington has been strenuously trying to avoid over the last three months through intense diplomacy and an increased military presence in the area. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday concluded his latest tour of the region, his fourth since the conflict broke out, in an attempt to cool tensions and prevent the crisis from escalating.
U.S. and British military aircraft took off from bases in the region to attack targets in Yemen. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, also deployed in the area, joined in the missile launches. A U.S. submarine fired Tomahawk sea-to-surface missiles. Forces from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands provided intelligence and logistical support, according to U.S. military commanders.
Following the attacks, a dozen coalition countries issued a joint statement insisting that the action “was carried out in accordance with the right to individual and collective self-defense consistent with the UN Charter.” Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, expressed its “concern” over the developments in its neighboring country and called on the parties involved to show “restraint to avoid escalation.”
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