The Biden administration, along with the UK and other allies, have conducted a series of airstrikes against Houthi rebel targets in Yemen over the past week. This comes as Houthi forces continue missile and drone attacks against ships in the Red Sea.
Background of Conflict in Yemen
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa and ousted the internationally recognized government. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Houthis have stepped up drone and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia and against ships in the Red Sea over the past year. The rebels are fighting to take control of the strategic province of Marib, one of the last government strongholds. Capturing Marib would strengthen the Houthis’ position in ongoing U.N.-brokered negotiations for a permanent cease-fire.1
Recent Houthi Attacks Against Shipping
On January 23rd, two cargo ships flagged by the U.S. and one by Saudi Arabia reported explosions in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.2 The ships were part of a convoy escorted by the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely.3
The USS Gravely detected and destroyed two inbound ballistic missiles using SM-2 interceptors. Debris from the missiles landed in the sea nearby without damaging any ships. The convoy subsequently turned around due to the threat.4
This follows a January 21st attack where the Houthis launched drones and missiles at a commercial ship off the coast of Oman, causing an explosion on the vessel. The ship was able to continue sailing without assistance.5
|Houthis attack commercial ship off Oman
|Houthis launch missiles at U.S. convoy in Red Sea, intercepted
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree has threatened further attacks against ships in the Red Sea, stating: “We warn all countries and companies to avoid the Red Sea for the sake of their ships’ safety.”6
US and Allies Strike Back Against Houthis
In response to the Houthi attacks, the U.S. and allies have conducted multiple rounds of airstrikes targeting Houthi infrastructure over the past week.
An initial set of strikes on January 21st hit three facilities including a drone storage depot. US Central Command stated the goal was to degrade the Houthis’ ability to conduct attacks threatening civilians.7
Further strikes were conducted January 24th by a coalition of U.S., British, Saudi, Emirati, and Yemeni forces. These targeted military storage and logistics facilities with the aim to disrupt Houthi attacks.8
CENTCOM stated: “We will continue to work with our partners…to degrade the threat posed by Iranian proxies.” Iran denies backing the Houthis militarily.9
Human rights groups have criticized the strikes, stating that the U.S. and allies are not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties. They have called for restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE over concerns the weapons are being used improperly in Yemen.10
Houthi Missiles Intercepted Near UAE
On January 26th, UAE air defenses intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis. The missiles targeted Abu Dhabi and were intercepted without causing damage.11 This follows a Houthi attack last week where drones struck oil facilities and ignited fires near the airport in Abu Dhabi.
The recent Houthi attacks have drawn condemnation from the international community:
- The U.S. and UK announced sanctions targeting Houthi military leaders responsible for the attacks in the Red Sea. 12
- 24 nations have joined the U.S. and UK in carrying out strikes against the Houthis.
- UN Secretary General Guterres has stated the Houthi attacks “threaten commercial shipping and international trade.” 13
Analysts warn the risk of further regional escalation remains high. The Houthis show no signs of halting attacks, while the U.S. and allies pledge to keep striking back when provoked. Much depends on progress in the U.N peace process, but talks have stalled.14
The Biden administration states it has no long-term strategy for engaging militarily with the Houthis, drawing criticism from Congress. With Iran’s backing, attacks against shipping in the Red Sea and strikes into Saudi Arabia and UAE will likely continue.15
Unless substantial progress happens in peace talks, the region faces an extended period of turmoil. Efforts to reach a diplomatic solution remain key to ending the conflict. But the road ahead seems long and complex.
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