WASHINGTON (AP) — When U.S. and British warships and planes fired waves of missiles at Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Sanaa early Friday, weeks of warnings to the militant group put an end to its drone and missile attacks on merchant ships stop in Yemen Red Sea or face serious consequences.
The U.S. had previously held off on retaliating, reflecting broader U.S. concerns about overturning Yemen's shaky ceasefire and sparking a wider conflict in the region. But on Tuesday, the Houthis fired their largest-ever barrage of 18 disposable attack drones, anti-ship cruise missiles and an anti-ship missile at a host of international merchant vessels and warships in the Red Sea.
While the U.S. and military partner ships and aircraft now protecting the waterways were able to repel Tuesday's attack, the scale and severity of the launch sparked international condemnation and left little choice but to enforce international warnings that further attacks would have significant consequences.
In response, the United States and United Kingdom attacked the Houthi's missile, radar and drone capabilities in an attempt to reduce the group's ability to carry out further attacks like Tuesday's barrage.
The militant group has already promised retaliatory strikes in response to the attacks in Yemen shortly before 3 a.m. local time on Friday.
Here's a look at the Houthis and their increasing attacks, and why the US believes it is more acceptable to bomb some Iran-linked targets than others.
WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS?
The Houthi rebels advanced from their northern stronghold in Yemen in 2014 and captured the capital Sanaa, sparking a bitter war. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government-in-exile to power.
Years of bloody, inconclusive fighting against the Saudi-led coalition led to a stalled proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, causing widespread hunger and misery in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country. The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including combatants and civilians, and caused one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more.
A ceasefire that officially ended more than a year ago is still largely being observed. Saudi Arabia and the rebels have conducted some prisoner exchanges and a Houthi delegation was invited to high-level peace talks in Riyadh in September as part of a broader détente the kingdom has reached with Iran. Although they reported “positive results,” there is still no lasting peace.
ATTACKS ON SHIPS
The Houthis have sporadically attacked ships in the region over time, but attacks have increased since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, reaching a peak after an explosion at a hospital in Gaza on October 17 killed many people and were injured. This hospital explosion marked the beginning of an intense militant campaign against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, as well as many merchant ships transiting the Red Sea. The attacks have damaged merchant ships and forced international shipping companies to reroute their ships around the Cape of Good Hope.
As of Thursday, the Houthis had launched 27 separate attacks on ships transiting the southern Red Sea, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a Pentagon news conference.
Houthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree said the group wanted to “prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and the Gulf of Aden) until Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip ceases.”
But only a few of the ships attacked had direct connections to Israel. In a recent attack, one of the merchant ships hit – the Unity Explorer – had a tenuous connection to Israel. It belongs to a British company whose managing directors include Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel. Israeli media identified Ungar as the son of Israeli shipping billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar. But any Israeli ties to other ships are unclear.
U.S. officials have argued that the Houthis did not technically attack U.S. military ships or forces — a subtlety that Navy ship captains watching the incoming drones may question.
In response to the attacks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, in which the United States and more than 20 other countries have created a protective shield for merchant ships that do not reroute and choose to transit the Red Sea.
Had this operation not provided escort for merchant ships and intercepted the incoming fire, “we have no doubt that ships would have been hit or perhaps even sunk, including in one case a merchant ship full of jet fuel,” a senior administration official said. Reporters spoke on late Thursday on condition of anonymity to discuss the strikes. “We had extremely close conversations.”
To date, Operation Prosperity Guardian has helped more than 1,500 merchant ships safely transit the Red Sea.
THE US BILL
While the U.S. has carried out airstrikes since Oct. 17 against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that have targeted American troops in 130 separate strikes, the military had not yet retaliated against the Houthis as of Thursday.
This reluctance reflects political sensitivities and is largely due to broader concerns in the Biden administration about overturning the shaky ceasefire in Yemen and triggering a wider conflict in the region. The White House wants to preserve the ceasefire and is wary of taking actions that could open another war front.
Iran-backed militias have fired unidirectional attack drones, rockets or ballistic missiles at close range at bases in Iraq on 53 occasions and 77 times on bases in Syria. Dozens of soldiers suffered injuries as a result of the attacks, in many cases traumatic brain injuries.
In response, the United States has launched multiple airstrikes in Syria since October 17, targeting weapons depots and other facilities directly linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and militias. And it hit several locations in Iraq late last month after a militia group fired short-range ballistic missiles at U.S. forces at Al-Asad air base for the first time.
But until Thursday, the attack on the Houthis had been a different calculus.
Pentagon officials had said in one breath that Navy ships shot down Houthi drones that approached them because they were considered a “threat.” But in the next breath, officials said the U.S. assumed the ships were not the target. This determination often occurs later, after intelligence evaluations have reviewed telemetry and other data.
However, that is certainly no consolation for the sailors on the ships who must monitor the radar trail of incoming drones and quickly decide whether they pose a threat to the ship.
At the same time, the United States has repeatedly stated that it wants to protect freedom of navigation on the seas. But the Houthi actions have prompted the International Maritime Security Construct to issue a warning for ships transiting the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb. It says ships should choose routes that are as far away from Yemeni waters as possible, sail at night and not stop because this would make them an easier target.
The Biden administration has insisted on the need to avoid escalating the Israel-Hamas war into a broader regional conflict. So far, attacks on Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have not expanded the conflict, Ryder said.
It is not clear whether targeted attacks against Houthi arms depots or similar sites – which are also backed by Iran – would cross the line and trigger a larger war.
“We will continue to consult with international allies and partners on an appropriate way to protect commercial shipping transiting through this region, while ensuring we do everything we need to do to protect our forces,” Ryder said.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.