The Necessary Risk of America’s Military Strikes in Yemen

Supporters of the Houthis rallied in Yemen on Friday. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Supporters of the Houthis rallied in Yemen on Friday. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

By striking Houthi rebel targets in Yemen with Britain on Thursday, Washington sent a searing message to both the Houthis and its Iranian backers that the United States has ended its longstanding defense-only posture in the Red Sea and is determined to stop the group’s attacks against commercial ships in regional waters.

It’s unclear whether that strategy will work, given the intransigence of the Houthis and the fact that they stand to benefit from a fight with the United States. Such a clash boosts their credentials with U.S. foes in the region and distracts from their atrocious governance of northwestern Yemen and the country’s capital.

But because of the worsening threat the group poses to the freedom of commerce and navigation in the Red Sea — a major global shipping route and a core American interest in the region — the United States had to act.

President Biden said he stands ready “to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary”. If he commits to this new assertive approach, provides American forces in the region with the authority and resources they need and pairs any further use of force with diplomatic efforts to end the disastrous Israel-Hamas war, his chances of checking the Houthis will improve.

After Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault and Israel’s declaration of war, the Houthis vowed that the group would launch attacks aimed at stopping Israeli ships or other ships carrying goods to “occupied Palestinian ports” to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Since Oct. 17, the Houthis have attacked or harassed at least 27 ships in international shipping lanes. On Jan. 11 the United States and a small coalition of allies responded by hitting over 60 targets in Yemen, including Houthi radar systems, air defense systems and storage and launch sites. The U.S. carried out another round of strikes against the Houthis on Friday.

The risks and uncertainties of the attacks by the United States and Britain are clear. The Houthis, which the State Department removed from its list of foreign terrorist organizations in February 2021 in order to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian assistance to parts of Yemen under Houthi control, have already stated that they will retaliate. That could very well lead to escalation that Washington deeply wishes to avoid, as evidenced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s multiple visits to the region in recent weeks.

The record of politically defeating, militarily destroying or even meaningfully deterring deep-rooted, capable and resilient militias in the Middle East through the use of force alone is poor. For decades, Israel has tried to keep Hezbollah and Hamas at bay and failed disastrously. In the current war, Israel’s pledge to wipe out Hamas in Gaza is unfeasible.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty in this new confrontation is the nature of the Houthis’ partnership with Iran. Since at least 2014, Iran has increased its backing of the Houthis, in part, presumably, because the group gives Iran access to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait and for the opportunity to project power in the backyard of its rival Saudi Arabia. Iranian money, training and intelligence are believed to have helped enable the group to strike its recent commercial targets in the Red Sea. Without that generous assistance, the Houthis could lose their ability to significantly harm shipping there.

But how much direct control Iran exercises over the Houthi leadership remains an open question, including whether Tehran can order the group to stop its aggression. The rebels may have more autonomy than several other members of Iran’s proxy network when it comes to using strategic violence against its foes. Even if Iran were to come under intense diplomatic pressure or a credible threat of force and cease its support to the Houthis, that may not stop the group from using what arms it already has, which is not insignificant. The Houthis could also theoretically survive financially on their own, given their control of state revenues and resources in Yemen.

Yet for all these risks, the United States has little choice but to respond to the Houthis’ aggression. The United States and the international community have tremendous interest in the Red Sea, an entry point for ships using the Suez Canal, which handles 12 percent of the world’s trade.

And there are reasons to be optimistic that this flare-up will not descend into deeper conflict. While there is understandable concern that Iran could retaliate on behalf of the Houthis, Tehran is neither reckless nor undeterrable. U.S. military force seeking to keep Iran from undermining freedom of navigation in international waters in the late 1980s worked; in April 1988 the U.S. Navy launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian targets in the Persian Gulf in retaliation for its use of a mine against a large American warship — a move that ultimately helped bring an end to a long-running regional conflict. More recently, an American drone strike that killed the top Iranian commander Qassim Suleimani in Iraq in 2020 managed to prevent Iran from escalating its aggression against U.S. interests in the region, according to Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a former head of U.S. Central Command.

But the U.S. should not lean on a military approach alone. It must also continue to pursue more effective diplomacy regarding Gaza and the wider region. The Houthis claim their campaign is meant to support Hamas and stop Israel’s war, but the U.S. military has said that several of the Houthis’ recent attacks in the Red Sea have not targeted ships linked to or heading to or from Israel. Washington could call that bluff by achieving a diplomatic breakthrough in Gaza — or even a cease-fire, though the U.S. has yet to demand one. It may not stop Houthi aggression, but it would bolster Washington’s diplomatic efforts to assemble a larger international coalition aimed at addressing the Houthi threat.

The more intransigent and reckless the Houthis appear, the wider the international consensus on countering them and the greater the diplomatic pressure that can be exerted against them, including applying tough economic sanctions and redesignating them as a terrorist organization.

The Houthis are a problem that the world has ignored for too long, allowing it to metastasize. But it is not unmanageable. Finding a solution will require political will, international cooperation and, perhaps above all, humility in understanding the limits of U.S. power in an ever-changing Middle East.

Bilal Y. Saab is the senior fellow and the director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute, which receives funding from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Aramco Americas, among others.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *