The US and Britain really didn’t think they had a choice about bombing Yemen in retaliation for Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea — one of the world’s busiest waterways, carrying almost a sixth of global shipping. But the airstrikes overnight are unlikely to stop the attacks and in the short term will probably make things worse.
The decision was taken after one of the most audacious Houthi attacks yet. They sent out a swarm of one-way attack drones and fired cruise missiles into waters where the US military said dozens of ships were crossing at the time. Many of the drones and missiles were shot down by a combined force of four American warships and one British — none found their target.
But this was, by the US military’s count, the twenty-sixth Houthi attack in the Red Sea. It happened despite a “final warning” from the US, Britain and a dozen other countries. The coalition had said in a statement issued ten days ago: “The Houthis will bear the responsibility for the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, or the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”
So overnight sixteen places across Yemen were hit. Submarines fired Tomahawk cruise missiles and fast jets dropped “precision-guided munitions.” The targets were missile batteries and drone launch sites, weapons dumps and radars. There was no news of whether any civilians had been killed. Rishi Sunak, the UK’s prime minister, said Houthi attacks against global shipping could “not stand.” President Biden said the US and its allies had sent a “clear message.” He added: “I will not hesitate to direct further measures…as necessary.”
He may have to. The Houthi foreign ministry said the US and Britain “must be prepared to pay a heavy price [for] their aggression.” This may not simply be posturing. Earlier this week, before the airstrikes, the Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, had said: “We are comfortable with a direct confrontation with the Americans.” The airstrikes overnight were nothing compared to the eight years of Saudi bombing the Houthis withstood. A comparative rap on the knuckles will not, by itself, be enough to quiet the Red Sea.
The Houthis say they are acting in support of Palestinians in Gaza. They say they want to stop any ship from reaching an Israeli port — though in reality they are attacking much more indiscriminately. Regardless, they believe they have God on their side. US and British airstrikes may even help a Houthi leadership increasingly unpopular among some Yemenis. Salaries are not being paid; people are hungry. This is a welcome distraction.
In fact, the Houthis seem almost to have been baiting the US. They seem delighted to finally be playing in the big leagues of the axis of resistance against “Great Satan and Little Satan.” If that has a familiar ring, it’s because the Houthis use Iranian slogans as well as Iranian weapons. “God is Great. Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
Perhaps Tehran’s proxies have slipped the leash
The US hopes — and has openly demanded — that the Israelis will wrap things up as quickly as possible in Gaza, where some 24,000 people have been killed, most civilians. If that happens — or at least if the tempo of Israel’s war in Gaza slows — then perhaps the Houthis would be less inclined to loose-off missiles at Red Sea shipping. But Israel seems prepared for a long war — and that might mean a long war in the Red Sea, too.
The question is to what extent the Houthi attacks are being ordered by Iran, for Iranian purposes. It’s the same question asked about Hamas after the October 7 massacre in Israel. Iran, presumably, wants to keep up the pressure on Israel but without escalating too much, risking US or Israeli bombing on its own soil. This seems to be why Hezbollah in Lebanon has not gone all out against the “Zionist entity.”
But perhaps Tehran’s proxies have slipped the leash, making their own decisions, one explanation for the “catastrophic success” of the Hamas pogrom. That shows how things can quickly get out of control. All sides are well aware of the risks of a regional war, with bloodshed on a vast scale. Still, we should expect a Houthi reply to last night’s US and British airstrikes. What then? What if the airstrikes do not, as intended, show the Houthis who’s in charge?
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.