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February 22, 2024

Escalating Tensions Between US and Houthis Raise Prospect of Wider Mideast Conflict

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Jan 22, 2024

Recent Attacks Underscore Increased Hostilities

Tensions between the United States and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have dramatically escalated over the past week, with a series of attacks on commercial and military vessels near the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait and Red Sea prompting retaliatory strikes from U.S. forces.

On January 17th, Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for an attack on the Liberian-flagged crude oil tanker Chem Ranger, which is owned by an Israeli-led company. The vessel, carrying gas oil, was struck by an explosive drone boat while at anchor off the coast of Yemen, causing a fire on board. Two crew members required medical treatment. [1] [2]

This was followed by additional attempted attacks on January 18th and 19th targeting vessels associated with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. [3] [4]

Date Target Method Outcome
Jan 17 Chem Ranger tanker Explosive drone boat Fire on board, 2 injured
Jan 18 Saudi commercial vessel Missile Intercepted by Saudi defenses
Jan 19 UAE military supply ship Missile Intercepted by Saudi defenses

The attacks underscore the Houthis’ expanding maritime strike capabilities and willingness to directly challenge vessels linked to the Saudi-led coalition fighting them in Yemen’s civil war. They come shortly after the rebel group also carried out unprecedented strikes on Abu Dhabi using ballistic and cruise missiles and explosive drones. [5]

US Retaliates with Airstrikes

In response to the vessel attacks, U.S. forces have conducted multiple rounds of airstrikes targeting Houthi missile and drone sites in Yemen.

The first strikes on January 18th hit three locations, including a weapons storage facility and launch sites for missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and drone attacks targeting vessels in the Red Sea. [6]

Additional strikes over the next several days focused on preempting imminent Houthi attacks, destroying truck-mounted missile launchers, fixed launch sites, and logistics infrastructure before they could be used against commercial vessels or regional allies. [7] [8]

“These are defensive strikes designed to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region from Houthi attacks,” a Pentagon spokesperson said. [9]

U.S. Navy fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush have also participated in targeting Houthi missile launchers and logistics facilities. [10]

Date Targets Outcome
Jan 18 Weapons storage, missile & drone launch sites Successful strikes
Jan 19 Vehicle mounted launchers, fixed launch sites Successful strikes
Jan 20 Vehicle mounted launchers, logistics sites Successful strikes

So far, over half a dozen rounds of strikes have been carried out. But Houthi capabilities to threaten regional allies and commercial vessels remain largely intact. [11] [12]

“We’re going to do everything we can to help our Saudi partners defend their territory,” President Biden said on January 20th. “But these strikes have not removed the Houthis’ ability to attack.” [13]

Wider Regional Tensions

The escalating U.S.-Houthi tensions come against the backdrop of rising conflicts between Israel and Palestinian militant groups. A major escalation broke out between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza in late January, with hundreds of rockets and retaliatory airstrikes traded. [14]

Houthi leadership has expressed solidarity with Gazans and condemnation of Israeli actions. The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council stated, “It is a great honor for us to stand with the Palestinian people” and directly confront Israel, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE. [15]

Analysts see linkages between the various regional flashpoints. “Whenever tensions rise between Israel and Hamas or other Gaza-based groups, threats against Israel’s new allies in the Gulf seem to follow,” said one expert at a DC-based think tank. [16]

Others see the potential for direct Iranian involvement behind the scenes. “The Houthis are clearly acting as Iran’s proxy in attacking vessels linked to U.S. allies,” said a former Pentagon official. “Don’t be surprised if the mullahs eventually provide direct lethal assistance.” [17]

Terrorist Designation and Sanctions

On January 17th, one day after the attack on the Chem Ranger tanker, the Biden administration formally redesignated the Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), reversing a 2021 decision to revoke the designation. [18]

“The actions of the Houthis and their supporters continue to exacerbate the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. [19]

Reimposing the FTO label on the Houthis allows the U.S. to impose additional sanctions and penalties on the group, as well as states and entities providing support.

Critics argue that sanctions could hinder aid groups’ abilities to provide desperately needed food, medicine and other assistance to millions facing famine inside Houthi-controlled territory. [20] The U.S. Treasury Department has issued special licenses exempting certain transactions, but organizations still fear severe logistical challenges. [21]

Prospects Going Forward

With Houthi attacks continuing despite U.S. retaliatory strikes, the near-term likelihood of a dangerous escalatory spiral remains high. President Biden and his advisors are reportedly developing options for more sustained military pressure targeting Houthi capabilities. [22]

  • Additional interceptor systems may be deployed to strengthen Saudi and regional allies’ defenses against Houthi missile and drone attacks. [23]
  • Cutting off Iranian support could involve expanded efforts to interdict weapons smuggling and new targeted sanctions. [17]
  • Stepped up U.S. naval patrols, bolstered security for commercial vessels, and clearing Houthi mines in Red Sea/Bab el-Mandeb areas may help deter attacks. [24]

But these measures alone seem unlikely to change the Houthis’ calculus. Broader de-escalation will require tackling root causes of the Yemen conflict through diplomacy – a challenging task with the civil war stalemated, Houthi attitudes hardening, and skepticism on all sides. [25] [26]

Without a shift towards negotiations, the Houthi attacks and military reprisals could spiral into a larger regional conflagration. The recent events have demonstrated that the Yemen conflict should no longer be viewed as isolated, but as deeply interlinked with rising threats between Israel and Gaza, regional power competition, and Middle East stability overall.

References

  1. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/houthi-rebels-missile-attack-u-s-owned-commercial-ship-chem-ranger/
  2. https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-ship-catches-fire-in-drone-attack-off-yemen-as-houthi-rebels-defy-washington/
  3. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-says-escalating-tensions-amid-houthi-attacks-us-strikes-are-dangerous-2024-01-20/
  4. https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Houthis-Target-US-Owned-Tanker-in-Red-Sea.html
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-68031732
  6. https://www.politico.com/news/2024/01/17/us-military-missiles-houthis-yemen-00136256
  7. https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3649701/us-conducts-defensive-strikes-on-houthi-missiles/
  8. https://www.voanews.com/amp/us-continues-preemptive-strikes-against-houthi-missile-launchers-near-red-sea-/7448497.html
  9. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-20/us-says-air-strike-hits-houthi-anti-ship-missile-before-launch
  10. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2024/01/20/us-navy-fighter-jets-strike-houthi-missile-launchers-yemen-officials-say.html
  11. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/kirby-says-yemens-houthis-still-have-some-offensive-capability-despite-waves-us-strikes.amp
  12. https://breakingdefense.com/2024/01/biden-acknowledges-airstrikes-havent-stopped-houthis-says-more-to-come/
  13. https://www.cnbc.com/2024/01/19/red-sea-attacks-biden-admits-airstrikes-on-houthis-arent-working.html
  14. https://apnews.com/article/israel-hamas-war-live-updates-1-19-2024-b9afb917f9a566c2e254a60ebf681613
  15. https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/19/houthi-leader-it-is-a-great-honour-to-be-in-direct-confrontation-with-israel-the-us-and-the-uk
  16. https://foreignpolicy.com/2024/01/18/sanction-yemen-houthi-terror-group-biden/
  17. https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/article-782935
  18. https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/news/2024/1/17/us-redesignates-yemens-houthis-a-global-terrorist-group
  19. https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-the-houthis/
  20. https://responsiblestatecraft.org/saudi-arabia-us-houthis/
  21. https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2024/01/18/u-s–forces-strike-houthi-sites-in-yemen-for-fifth-time
  22. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/us/politics/2024/01/21/biden-draws-up-plan-for-sustained-military-action-against/
  23. https://www.forbes.com/sites/erictegler/2024/01/17/blinding-houthi-missile-and-drone-guidance-is-a-difficult-proposition/amp/
  24. https://news.usni.org/2024/01/19/u-s-strikes-more-houthi-missile-sites-in-yemen
  25. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2024/01/18/joe-biden-puts-the-houthis-back-on-americas-baddies-list
  26. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/middle-east/dont-bomb-houthis
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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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