US attack on Yemen risks spreading the conflict in Gaza

Washington insists that it does not want an open war with the Iran-allied Houthis, although it warns that it will act again militarily ‘if necessary.’ Yemen rebels vow to respond

Ataques aéreos contra objetivos hutíes en Yemen
A military plane takes off from an unspecified location to take part in airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen early this Friday.US CENTRAL COMMAND VIA X (via REUTERS)

“We are not interested in a war against the Houthis in Yemen, we are not interested in a conflict of any kind. We want to see these attacks stop.” Aware that the attack launched this Friday by the United States and the United Kingdom against targets in Yemen of Iran-backed militia risks a spread in the conflict, White House Security Council spokesman John Kirby has insisted that Washington is not looking for a direct confrontation. It was the first major act of retaliation since the Houthis began attacking merchant ships in the Red Sea — through which about 15% of the world’s maritime traffic passes, according to US estimates — in response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza. The tension, which had already been increasing in the last two weeks, is now extreme, with the Yemeni rebels vowing to respond. Kirby has made it clear that the President of the United States, Joe Biden, “will not hesitate to take further action” to protect shipping, as a naval coalition he has led since December has done. Tehran has says that the attacks have fueled “insecurity and instability” in the Middle East, although experts do not foresee it becoming directly involved in the defense of its allies.

The White House maintains that the military action was carried out in accordance with US legislation and international law. “All [the attacked sites] were valid and legitimate military objectives,” added the spokesperson aboard Air Force One, in which Biden was heading to an event in Pennsylvania.

US and British forces attacked anti-aircraft surveillance systems, radars, and arsenals of drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles in different parts of Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. Both capitals have warned that they will repeat them if hostile incidents continue in those waters. Also on Friday, the car manufacturers Tesla and Volvo announced the temporary suspension of part of their production in Europe due to a shortage of components arising from changes in maritime traffic through the Red Sea.

In the end, three months after the Hamas attack on Israel, the expansion of the conflict in Gaza has not occurred where it was most feared: countries neighboring the Jewish State, such as Lebanon, with the Hezbollah militia; or Syria, with the pro-Iranian militias. The Israeli army has been engaged in daily skirmishes on both fronts since October, but it has been at the other end of the Red Sea where two of Israel’s allies have sprung into action. The US and UK have opened fire against a group that is backed by Iran and controls 30% of the territory of Yemen, including the capital. The Houthis have also occasionally launched drones and missiles against the Israeli city of Eilat, at the northern tip of the Red Sea and with tens of thousands of displaced people in hotels.

Since the crisis broke out in the region, following the massive surprise attacks by Hamas (resulting in about 1,200 dead and more than 200 taken hostage) and the Israeli offensive in Gaza that has already left almost 24,000 Palestinians dead (more than 1% of the population of the Strip), one of the great priorities for the United States has been to avoid the spread of the conflict. President Biden supports the Israeli campaign economically, militarily, and diplomatically, but is seeking to reduce his country’s role in the Middle East. Therefore, he does not want to get fully involved, and even less so in the middle of an electoral battle that begins this weekend with the Republican caucuses in Iowa.

Tension had been rising since December 31, when US helicopters sank three Houthi boats that were trying to board a ship. On Tuesday, the Yemeni movement launched the largest of 27 attacks on ships in the Red Sea. That same day, during his visit to Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned that his country’s Armed Forces would respond if they were “attacked or threatened.” “[The Houthis] are a threat not just to us or to Israel; [they are] a threat to the entire international community because they’ve been attacking shipping through the Red Sea that’s vital to providing about 15% of global commerce every day,” he said. With abstentions from Algeria, Russia, China, and Mozambique on Wednesday, the Security Council approved resolution 2722, which ordered the Houthis to immediately cease their harassment.

In theory, attacks in response to the Gaza invasion have targeted merchant ships supposedly linked to, originating from, or destined for Israeli ports, although this has not always been the case. The main maritime transport companies are avoiding the passage and choosing to circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, which has seen freight rates increase by 170%.

Naval coalition

To address the problem, the United States forged the Operation Prosperity Guardian naval coalition with 11 other countries in December. Now, the European Union has proposed creating a new special naval security mission to patrol the Red Sea. It would be independent of Prosperity Guardian, but they would share secret intelligence, according to a confidential proposal sent on Thursday by the EU External Action Service (EEAS) to the member states, and to which EL PAÍS has had access. Even if it goes ahead, Spain will not send ships to patrol the Red Sea, Minister of Defense Margarita Robles clarified this Friday.

The attack not only increases the scope of the conflict to other actors and geographical spaces. It also reveals the gap between the United States and almost the entire Arab world over its support for Israel. Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan — a Washington ally that has had formal relations with Israel since 1994 — blamed the “growing tension in the region” on “Israeli aggression in Gaza and the constant commission of war crimes against the Palestinian people and violations of international law with complete impunity,” according to the state agency Petra.

The only Arab country publicly integrated into Operation Prosperity Guardian is Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet and forged diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, despite the importance of maritime traffic for others, such as Egypt, with over 930 miles of coastline along the Red Sea. Neither are Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the two leading countries in the coalition that fought the Houthis since 2015 and then gradually reduced their involvement. Riyadh, which has been negotiating a definitive ceasefire with the militia for months and reestablished diplomatic relations with Tehran almost a year ago, has expressed its “great concern” and has called for “containment” to avoid an escalation.

Support for the Palestinian cause on the streets of Arab countries (including the five that recognize Israel) has generated little appetite to make a significant contribution to a mission led by the United States at this time, despite the economic impact caused by the naval blockade and the differences they maintain with Tehran.

In Washington, voices have emerged in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party criticizing the attack. Once Biden gave the go-ahead, the White House notified Congress. But critical legislators point out that Article I of the Constitution obliges the government not only to notify it, but also to request express authorization from Congress to carry out this type of military action. Thursday’s attacks are “an unacceptable violation of the Constitution. Article I requires that military action be authorized by Congress,” legislator Pramila Jayapal stressed.

On top of military pressure, the United States added diplomatic and economic pressure this Friday. The Treasury Department has announced sanctions against two companies, one based in Hong Kong and the other in the United Arab Emirates, for shipping Iranian goods on behalf of the network of Iran-based Houthi financial facilitator Said al-Jamal. It is supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Al Quds Brigade (IRGC-QF).

The Treasury’s Office for Asset Control (OFAC) has identified four vessels in which those two companies have interests. The sale of the goods they transported was going to finance the Houthi militias and their attacks against commercial ships.

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