The US attacks Houthi rebels during joint bombing of Yemen with Britain. How close are we to all-out war?

Coordinated US and British bombings of Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen early Friday were in retaliation for weeks of attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea. The question at hand: Is the US headed for war?

The attacks represent a significant escalation of US involvement in the Middle East amid Israel’s war in Gaza – and perhaps the most dangerous escalation of a conflict that threatens to spread across the region. Just a few days earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched his fourth urgent mission to the Middle East in three months, aimed at containing the fallout from the ongoing conflict.

Some foreign affairs and defense experts say the U.S. military response to the Houthis will not deter a battle-hardened group that emerged relatively unscathed from years of bombing by a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has emerged – and has pledged not to stop its attacks until Israel completely halts its military campaign in Gaza.

“The US has now put itself in a situation where more military action is all but assured if (or more likely when) the Houthis retaliate, resulting in a vicious cycle that could quickly spiral out of control,” said Daniel DePetris. , a foreign affairs fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington DC-based think tank that advocates for a smaller role in the world for the US military.

Regardless of whether this is a series of limited strikes or the start of a longer, more complex war, the timing could have broad political implications in a US presidential election year.

Why are Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea?

There have been 27 Houthi attacks since November – attacks designed in retaliation against Israel’s war in Gaza, which began after the October 7 Hamas attack.

Initial damage estimates from a barrage of US-led attacks on locations in Yemen used by Houthi militants to fire missiles and drones into commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea were positive, according to the Pentagon.

The U.S. military fired missiles from ships and submarines, and supported those attacks with airstrikes from U.S. and British warplanes, at Houthi sites hosting drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, and coastal radar stations. Several other countries supported the attack.

This courtesy photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, taken Oct. 19, 2023, shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red SeaThis courtesy photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, taken Oct. 19, 2023, shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea

This courtesy photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, taken Oct. 19, 2023, shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea

“Early indications are that they had good effects,” Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday. “We have not seen any retaliation from the Houthis yet.”

Still, the Houthis have vowed that the American and British attacks will not come without “punishment or retaliation.”

It’s a promise that risks pushing the US and a handful of Western allies closer to all-out war in the Middle East, experts say.

“Bombing them will very likely escalate things, meaning that not only will the attacks not be stopped, but the broader war that (President Joe) Biden is trying to prevent will likely become a reality,” said Trita Parsi of the Washington, DC-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, when the attacks started.

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“The attacks on the Houthis will not work,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities. “That is, they are very unlikely to stop Houthi attacks on shipping.”

Friedman said the “likely failure of the strikes will lead to escalation to more violent means that may also fail.”

Strikes against the Houthis in Yemen: what just happened?

The US and Britain, backed by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea, bombed more than a dozen sites in Yemen used by Houthi rebels. They have hit Houthi missile, radar and drone infrastructure to limit its ability to target international commercial ships and warships in the Red Sea.

The US Air Force’s Middle East Command said it struck more than 60 targets at 16 locations in Yemen, including “command-and-control nodes, ammunition depots, launch systems, production facilities and air defense radar systems.”

a Houthi military spokesman said at least five of its fighters were killed and six injured in the attacks.

Is this a war?

The Biden administration emphasized on Friday that the military action in the Middle East was not a large-scale war.

“There is no war with the Houthis,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during an Air Force One briefing for reporters. ‘We are not aiming for a war in Yemen.’

“This was intended to disrupt and degrade the military capabilities of the Houthis,” Kirby said, adding that they were still assessing the impact of the attacks.

Kirby also said the US would continue to hold Iran accountable for “their destabilizing activities” in supporting the Houthis, Hezbollah and Hamas, although he did not elaborate on specific plans.

Asked about the involvement of the still-hospitalized Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in planning the attacks, Kirby described them as “seamless.”

“His participation was no different than any other day, except that he informed the president about the options and was involved in the discussions from the hospital,” he said.

Who are the Houthi rebels?

The Houthis are an armed group from Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority.

Together with Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are part of a cluster of Iranian-backed militants in the Middle East who view Israel, the US and the wider Western world as their enemies.

In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Israel, Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi said his forces were “ready to move in their hundreds of thousands to join the Palestinian people and confront the enemy.”

The Houthis are militarily trained, financed and supported by Iran. Since 2014, they have been waging a heavy war with the internationally recognized government of Yemen. The Houthis control northwestern Yemen and the capital Sanaa.

One of the reasons why Iran is supporting the Houthis is because of its longstanding hostility toward Saudi Arabia, which along with the United Arab Emirates is trying to return Yemen’s exiled government to power. Some progress toward a peace settlement has been made in recent years, but it is temporary and fragile.

Years of waves of bombing of Houthis by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have proven ineffective in reducing the country’s military power. according to Thomas JuneauProfessor of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Britain and US bomb Houthis in Yemen. What now?

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the strikes “limited, necessary and proportionate.” President Joe Biden warned of possible further action to “protect our people and the free flow of international commerce.”

However, there was no indication that more bombings were immediately planned.

The proverbial ball is in the Houthis’ court for now.

Yet, Muhammad al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, said both countries would “regret” their “follies”. He said they “will soon realize that direct aggression against Yemen was the greatest folly in their history.”

And Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam threw down the gauntlet more directly, saying the group would continue to target ships bound for Israeli ports, as well as other ships transiting the waterway.

In Iran, Nasser Kanani, a spokesman for that country’s Foreign Ministry, wrote on the Telegram platform that the attacks “will have no other result than fueling insecurity and instability in the region.”

In an analysis written a few days before Friday’s retaliatory strikes by the U.S. and Britain, Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, seemed to agree with that assessment.

“The Houthis have not been deterred as the United States has shot down their drones and missiles and sunk their ships,” he wrote. “What if the missile strikes are no different? What if, instead of being deterred by US airstrikes, the Houthis are actually emboldened?”

Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemen-born expert on the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, a London think tank, said the Houthi sites targeted by the US and Britain were “really just peanuts.” were in the broader context of Houthi arms and weapons. military capabilities – especially their maritime weapons. They are smarter, better prepared and better equipped than anyone really acknowledges.”

Al-Muslimi said the strikes will not deter the Houthis from further attacks in the Red Sea.

“If anything, the opposite.”

Contributions: Swapna Venugopal

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US attacks Houthi rebels: America and Britain strike back as Yemen bombs