The US and UK have conducted a series of airstrikes against Houthi rebel targets in Yemen over the past week, in retaliation for Houthi attacks on commercial ships transiting the Red Sea. The strikes mark an escalation in the long-running conflict between the Iran-backed Houthis and the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Background of the Conflict
Yemen has been mired in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa and forced President Hadi into exile. In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition to battle the Houthis and restore Hadi’s government. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Despite a UN-brokered ceasefire last year, fighting has continued between pro-government forces and the Houthis, who still control much of northern Yemen including the capital. The Houthis have frequently targeted commercial ships passing through the Red Sea with drone and missile attacks.
Recent Ship Attacks Prompt US and UK Response
On February 3rd, a Marshall Islands-flagged chemical tanker was damaged by an explosion while at anchor off the coast of Hodeidah. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack.
This attack followed a January 29 drone strike on a Turkish cargo ship, part of the Houthis’ stepped-up efforts to disrupt Red Sea shipping. Over the past two years, the Houthis have attacked dozens of ships with anti-ship missiles, explosive drones, and remote-controlled bomb boats.
In response, US and British forces launched retaliatory airstrikes overnight on February 3-4, targeting Houthi coastal defense systems, air defense systems, and drone facilities. The US said the strikes were intended “to degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to conduct further attacks impacting civilian shipping and global trade.”
|Marshall Islands chemical tanker damaged near Hodeidah
|Turkish cargo ship attacked by Houthi drone
|US & UK airstrikes on Houthi air defense and drone sites
Iran Warns Against Targeting “Suspected Spy Ships”
Iran, which backs the Houthis with weapons and training, warned the US and UK against targeting “suspected spy ships” in the Middle East. This appeared to be a reference to a US Navy destroyer and Royal Navy frigate patrolling the Red Sea to protect shipping.
On February 4th, the Houthis said they fired missiles at “aggressor countries’ warships” in the Red Sea, but provided no evidence of damage. Later that day, they claimed attacks on a British cargo ship and sites belonging to the Saudi-led coalition. Most of these claims could not be independently verified.
Over February 5-6, the Houthis said they conducted several more attacks in the Red Sea against ships belonging to “aggressor countries.” They asserted firing 6 missiles at a “British spy ship” and using explosive drones against a “British warship” and “US battleship.” Again, no evidence was provided and none of the targeted ships reported being hit.
More US Strikes as Houthis Vow to Keep Fighting
On February 6th, US Central Command said it had struck two more Houthi bomb boats before they could be deployed. It called the bomb boats “an imminent threat…to free navigation in the Red Sea.”
Despite the airstrikes, the Houthis remain defiant. A Houthi military spokesman stated on February 6th that “the Americans and Brits should accept that the Yemeni people will not abandon their independence and sovereignty” and will continue fighting.
The US envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking said the strikes were a warning to Iran to stop arming and directing Houthi attacks. If not, he indicated the US and allies would take even stronger action targeting Iran’s support for the Houthis. However, Iran reiterated that the American strikes only “fuel insecurity” in the region.
Concerns Over Impact on Peace Efforts
There are concerns the uptick in violence could set back United Nations efforts to extend the ceasefire and ultimately resolve the conflict through negotiations.
In April 2022, the UN brokered a two-month truce between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis – the first nationwide ceasefire since 2016. Despite violations by both sides, the deal led to a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties and facilitated fuel imports into Hodaida port.
Last October, the truce was renewed for another six months. The UN special envoy said another extension would give space for political consultations and a possible prisoner exchange.
But the latest strikes and Houthi attacks have introduced new friction. On February 5th, the Houthis said they were suspending their involvement in UN-brokered talks on renewing the ceasefire over the “escalating attacks” by the Saudi coalition and US.
The UN Secretary General urged all parties to deescalate tensions and engage constructively with envoy efforts to find a peaceful solution. But with both sides seeming intent on more confrontation, the future of peace talks remains uncertain.
Potential Impact on Region and Key Takeaways
- Escalating strikes between the US-UK and Houthis risks widening the Yemen war and endangering the ceasefire
- A breakdown of UN peace efforts could prolong instability and the dire humanitarian crisis
- The exchange of attacks shows Iran’s continued influence over the Houthis
- The US seems set to take a more aggressive posture against Iran proxies after the strikes
The recent turmoil adds more volatility to an already turbulent situation in Yemen. While the US and allies want to halt disruptive Houthi attacks, their military action could undermine tentative political progress. Much rests on whether cooler heads can prevail and deescalation talks resume. Otherwise, the long-suffering Yemeni people will continue paying the price.
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.