U.S.-led Coalition Conducts Retaliatory Strikes, as Houthis Win Domestic Support by Attacks

The strikes were supported by six other countries, including Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and has close ties with Saudi Arabia.
On Feb. 24, at approximately 11:50 p.m. (Sanaa Yemen time), U.S. Central Command forces alongside UK Armed Forces, and other allies conducted strikes against 18 Houthi targets. (Photo: CENTCOM)
On Feb. 24, at approximately 11:50 p.m. (Sanaa Yemen time), U.S. Central Command forces alongside UK Armed Forces, and other allies conducted strikes against 18 Houthi targets. (Photo: CENTCOM)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a statement on Saturday, explaining that U.S. and U.K. war planes had carried out a large-scale attack on military sites in Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen earlier that day.

The strikes were supported by six other countries. That group includes one Arab country: Bahrain, which has long hosted the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Bahrain has close ties with Saudi Arabia, and it is unlikely that it would support the attacks, if there was strong objection from its much bigger neighbor.

One serious problem the U.S. has had in stopping the Houthi attacks is that they are popular in Yemen! The attacks, which the Houthis claim are in support of the Palestinians in their war with Israel in Gaza, boost the Houthis in Yemen’s domestic political arena.

The Strikes

Saturday’s strikes were the fourth retaliatory assault by the U.S.-U.K. combination in response to attacks by the Houthis and the largest retaliatory strike since Feb. 3. 

The strikes on Saturday followed yet one more attempted Houthi attack on a commercial ship in the Red Sea: MV Torm Thor, “a U.S.-Flagged, owned, and operated chemical/oil tanker,” as CENTCOM tweeted.

A U.S. guided missile destroyer in the region was able to shoot down the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile that the Houthis had fired on the U.S. ship.

Seven hours later, American and British retaliation followed, as allied fighter planes attacked 18 targets in eight locations in Yemen.

“The targets included Houthi underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one-way attack and unmanned aerial systems [i.e. drones], air defense systems, radars, and a helicopter,” a CENTCOM statement explained.

Iranian Support for Houthi Attacks

Yemen is an impoverished country—“one of the poorest countries in the Middle East,” according to The World Bank. Some two-thirds of its population, nearly 22 million people, are in need of humanitarian assistance, the World Bank says.

All the weapons and other military hardware that the Houthis are using to fire on shipping comes from Iran. That was explained in a report released last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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

The U.S. tries to intercept Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, and two U.S. Special Forces soldiers died in just such an attempt last month. 

But Iran has managed to ship a lot of materiel to the Houthis. Tehran’s weapons smuggling is a fairly sophisticated operation, with arms transported to Somalia on a civilian boat, a dhow, and then transferred to another dhow, which carries the arms to Yemen.

Read More: U.S. Charges Four Men with Smuggling Iranian Arms to Yemen, as Houthi Attacks Continue 

Iranian-backed militias had been using the war in Gaza as a pretext to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria—but those attacks have stopped since Feb. 4, following two major U.S. retaliatory strikes, including the assassination of a Kata’ib Hizbollah commander in Baghdad.

Read More: U.S. Reiterates Continued Commitment to Fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria

However, the U.S. has taken no such steps in regard to the Houthis, and their attacks have continued. 

CNN, in a report published on Friday, noted that “the Biden administration is struggling to stop the ongoing attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis against ships in the Red Sea, and the group is continuing to fortify its weapons stockpile inside Yemen.”

“Outside the administration,” CNN explained, “some former officials argue the administration has taken too conservative of an approach altogether and needs to focus on targeting Houthi leaders rather than weapons stocks.”

Others point to Iran. An Iranian spy ship, the Behshad, operates in the area and provides the Houthis with targeting information. But Washington has avoided even as much as verbally threatening the vessel. 

That would be the easiest way to stop the attacks: threaten to attack the ship that is providing the Houthis with targeting Information. And if the ship does not leave, then sink it. The Biden administration, however, has limited its response to attacking Houthi targets, but not Iranian targets. 

The question arises whether that is enough to stop the attacks. Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, thinks not.

“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.”

How the Houthis Gain by Attacking International Shipping

One important reason why the Houthis have not stopped their attacks on Red Sea shipping is that they benefit by those attacks. Most of their targets have nothing to do with Israel, but the Houthis claim their assaults are carried out in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Their attacks, however, are indiscriminate. Indeed, the Houthis recently struck a ship bringing food to Yemen. 

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

Another ship struck by the Houthis, the Rubymar, is sinking, and that has created an environmental disaster, an oil slick 18 miles long in the Red Sea, off the Yemeni coast.

Nonetheless, the Houthis’ anti-Israel posture appears to be popular among at least some elements in Yemen, and it benefits the Houthis in internal Yemeni politics, as Al-Jazeera reported on Friday.

Reporting from Beirut, the Arab news channel spoke with both Houthi officials and independent analysts in Sana’a. The Houthis “have recruited and trained more than 200,000 new fighters since they began attacking international shipping, according to a spokesman for the group, it said.

“Yemenis are super-passionate about the Palestinian cause and it gives the Houthis leverage” a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Abdulghani al-Iryani, told Al-Jazeera.

“Even the Houthis’ sworn enemies are with them as long as they are standing for  Palestinians,” he said.