U.S. Denounces Houthi Attack on Ship Bringing Food to Yemen, but Fails to Warn Iran

“Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists fired two anti-ship missiles at M/V Sea Champion, a Greek-flagged, U.S.-owned bulk carrier bound for the port of Aden,” CENTCOM said.
Ship reportedly sinking after Houthi attack. (Photo: AFP)
Ship reportedly sinking after Houthi attack. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) –Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller denounced the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, underscoring the Houthis’ extreme irresponsibility.

U.S. officials now regularly identify the Houthis, as well as Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, as-Iranian-backed, but at the Pentagon, Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh refrained from any attempt to warn Iran about the consequences of its support for the continued attacks.

The risk in the Pentagon’s caution is that the wrong signal is being sent, and Iran may well conclude that it can continue to back the Houthis without suffering significant consequences.

On Sunday, the Houthis struck a cargo ship, which is now at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden. The Wall Street Journal, in a report on Tuesday, described that attack as “the most significant strike” since the Houthi attacks began last fall.

Early on Wednesday, the Houthis claimed that the U.S.and Britain carried out six airstrikes in Al Hudaydah province in western Yemen, although neither the U.S. nor U.K. have yet confirmed that report.

Houthis’ Extreme Irresponsibility

At a State Department press briefing on Tuesday, Miller, asked about the recent escalation in Houthi attacks, responded, “We continue to condemn the reported reckless and indiscriminate attacks on civilian cargo ships by the Houthis.”

He focused on one attack in particular: on a ship, the Sea Champion, which, as Miller explained, “was bringing corn and other food supplies to the Yemeni people in Aden.”

Those supplies, Miller continued, “have nothing to do with Israel, have nothing to do with the conflict in Gaza,” as the Houthis claim. 

“This was a reckless attack on a ship delivering humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people,” Miller added, stressing that the attack revealed how “the Houthis continue to demonstrate disregard not just for international shipping,” but “ultimately for their own people.”

CENTCOM provided more details of the Houthi attack in a tweet on Tuesday. As it explained, on Feb. 19, “Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists fired two anti-ship missiles at M/V Sea Champion, a Greek-flagged, U.S.-owned bulk carrier bound for the port of Aden.”

“One of the missiles detonated near the ship,” the tweet continued, “causing minor damage.” But the ship continued and was able to deliver the food supplies that it was carrying to its intended destination: the Yemeni port of Aden..

“M/V Sea Champion has delivered humanitarian aid to Yemen 11 times in the past five years,” CENTCOM continued, as it slammed the Houthis’ aggression, which “has exacerbated already high levels of need” in the country, where “nearly 80 percent of the entire population is in need of humanitarian assistance.”

Somewhat similarly, the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported last week that the Houthi attacks were having a “catastrophic” impact on humanitarian aid to Sudan, “driving up costs for cash-strapped humanitarian agencies,” in a country “where conflict has put millions at risk of famine.” 

Nail-Biting at the Pentagon

The Houthi attacks “have put a chill on global shipping, with ongoing economic shock waves spreading across the globe,” Tuesday’s report in The Wall Street Journal said. “The volume of traffic from North American and European vessels transiting the Red Sea was down by 67% in the week to Feb. 17 compared with October.”

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency detailing Iranian support for the Houthis. Above all, that includes the transfer of major weapons systems and training on those weapons.

All the missiles and drones that the Houthis fire at ships in the Red Sea comes from Iran.

Read More: U.S. Intelligence: Iran Supplying Houthis with Missiles, Drones

Moreover, the Houthis lack the ability to find and target ships offshore. That capability, too, comes from Iran. There is an Iranian ship that loiters in the area and acts as a spy ship for the Houthis, enabling their attacks. It has been identified as the Behshad.

The easiest, most obvious way to stop the Houthi attacks is to bomb the ship. After all, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria kept on attacking U.S. forces until the Biden administration took meaningful action against them.

Indeed, there have been no attacks on U.S. forces in those two countries since Feb. 4. But before then as Singh explained, there were over 170 attacks going back to mid-October, following the start of the war in Gaza.

The attacks stopped—or at least paused—after the Jan. 28 deaths of three U.S. soldiers in northeast Jordan finally prompted the Biden administration to take serious action against those attacking U.S. troops. 

Until then, it engaged in a futile tit-for-tat exchange with the militias. But following those deaths, on  Feb. 2, the Biden administration launched its biggest attack ever against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, striking some 85 targets in seven locations.

Nonetheless, on Feb. 4, a militia attacked a U.S. base in northeast Syria, killing six members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the war against ISIS in that country.

Read More: Iranian-backed militias behind drone attack that killed six SDF fighters in Syria: SDF

Four days later, on Feb. 8, the U.S. assassinated a senior figure in the militia, Kata’ib Hizbollah, who had been responsible for planning attacks on U.S. forces in Syria. 

Read More: Pentagon Details Results of U.S. Strikes in Iraq, Yemen

The assassination was carried out by U.S. Special Forces operating in Baghdad. The attack took place in the city’s east, in an area that al-Jazeera described as a “stronghold for armed factions.”

The Special Forces team launched an explosive drone at an automobile carrying Wissam Mohammed Sabir al-Saadi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Baqir al-Saadi, killing him.

The strike was significant in itself. But it was also a dramatic demonstration of U.S. capabilities. Special Forces teams operating in Iraq can target a wide range of malevolent actors, if given sufficient reason to do so.

The two strikes, along with the threat that more could be forthcoming, have, so far, worked to deter further attacks in Iraq and Syria.

Read More: Biden: Response to Deadly Attack on Troops ‘Will Continue’—as U.S. to Maintain Forces in Iraq, Syria

But the U.S. has done nothing comparable to stop the Houthi attacks, and, at Tuesday’s press briefing, Singh seemed almost to signal that there will be no serious price for further attacks.

Asked about Iran’s spy ship, which is essential for the Houthis’ attacks, Singh responded as if the movements, and the presence, of the Behshad were a routine matter. 

“That’s not unusual. I wouldn’t get into necessarily our policy when it comes to the ship,” she said, missing a clear opportunity to warn Iran of the consequences of further attacks.

“We’re certainly aware of it. We track. We monitor,” she continued. “We did see more activity this weekend, but we, again, have been able to intercept some of the UAVs, the missiles that Houthis have launched,” and “we’re going to continue to do that.”

Not a word about the need to stop those attacks! Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, criticized the weakness of the U.S. position. 

“Failing to take overt and kinetic action against an alleged IRGC spy ship will beget more of the same, by both patron and proxy,” Ben Taleblu advised Kurdistan 24. “They will judge the resolve of, and play to the edge, against the U.S. and its partners, acting in accord with their understanding of how the U.S. will respond.”