The Houthis are an Iran-backed rebel group that has been fighting the internationally recognized government of Yemen in an ongoing civil war since 2014. In recent years, the Houthis have increased attacks in the Red Sea against commercial ships as well as launched missiles and drones against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In response, a Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels has been conducting airstrikes in Yemen, with support at times from the US and other allies. However tensions have escalated in January 2024 after the US redesignated the Houthis as a terrorist organization and has directly struck Houthi targets.
On January 22nd and 23rd, the US and UK conducted joint airstrikes in Yemen targeting Houthi defense systems and infrastructure. Sites struck included anti-aircraft and coastal defense systems which the Houthis have used to enable attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.
US Central Command stated these strikes were conducted “in response to imminent Houthi attacks on civilian sites in Saudi Arabia.” However they also continue an escalating US military action directly against the Houthis.
Over 20 strikes were carried out, described as:
- Strikes on warehouses containing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and anti-aircraft missiles.
- Underground complexes containing command rooms, living quarters and weapons storage.
The strikes were focused on degrading the Houthis capability to carry out attacks, though their overall efficacy has been questioned. A Pentagon spokesperson stated they have a “whole host of tools” to deter Houthis but there is no “light switch” to instantly end the threat.
Concerns Over Legality
The administration has continued to justify strikes under Article II of the Constitution allowing Presidents to protect US interests without Congressional approval.
However this month, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to the White House questioning the legality of strikes against the Houthis who do not directly threaten the US homeland.
In a recent interview, President Biden admitted current military efforts are “not working” to deter Houthis but he believes the US has a duty to support Saudi Arabia against Iranian proxies. Critics argue continuing strikes contradict his platform of ending US involvement in the war in Yemen and pulls attention from engaging in peace talks.
Despite over a year of sporadic US strikes, the Houthis remain a potent threat capable of attacking sites within Saudi Arabia and shipping in the Red Sea which is a critical global trade route.
Days after the latest US strikes, the Houthis launched a drone attack targeting a military base housing US troops in Saudi Arabia. The drones were intercepted and destroyed by Saudi and US forces according to CENTCOM.
Houthi officials vowed to escalate attacks on Saudi oil facilities, government sites, and any US troops stationed in the region. A Houthi military spokesperson recently declared: [“We will use more advanced technology and more sophisticated weapons… striking vital and sensitive enemy sites.”]
The UK has strongly backed US strikes as necessary to defend Saudi Arabia against Houthi aggression. Prime Minister Cameron stated the missile and drone attacks clearly show the Houthis intend to harm civilian populations and threaten maritime traffic.
Other US allies including France, Australia, Japan and Israel have made public statements supporting efforts to deter Houthi attacks. Regional neighbors Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have also signaled approval.
However America’s actions have been met with criticism from rights groups, journalists and some US politicians. They argue strikes are counterproductive to peace efforts and mainly serve to provoke dangerous retaliation from the rebels. There are also concerns over the high civilian death toll from the wider conflict.
With neither side backing down, many experts believe the situation risks spiraling into a dangerous regional war. The Houthis are determined to continue attacks until concessions are made, while the US and allies feel military action is warranted to force the rebels into compliance.
Analysts argue that without earnest diplomacy and efforts to address core Houthi demands, no amount of strikes will resolve the stalemate. Unfortunately prospects for negotiations remain extremely dim in the current climate of threats and violence.
The path ahead promises growing instability with American forces potentially being pulled deeper into the conflict. Lawmakers are pressing the White House to provide details on their long-term strategy in Yemen including how strikes fit with eventually securing peace.
Table 1: Timeline of Key Events in US Military Action Against Houthis
|January 17, 2024
|US redesignates Houthis as terrorist organization
|January 20, 2024
|US & allies conduct 1st directly coordinated strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen
|January 22-23, 2024
|Major escalation with over 20 US & UK joint airstrikes on Houthis
|January 25, 2024
|Houthis launch retaliatory drone attack vs US base in Saudi Arabia
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