The Biden administration is developing plans to a sustained military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen after what 10 days of attacks failed to stop the group’s offensive against maritime trade, stoking concerns among some officials that an open operation could derail the war-torn country’s fragile peace and drag Washington into another unpredictable Middle East conflict.
The White House convened senior officials on Wednesday to discuss future options in the administration’s response to the Iran-backed movementwho has promised to continue attacking ships off the Arabian Peninsula despite almost daily operations to destroy Houthi radars, missiles and drones. On Saturday, US Central Command announced its latest attack, against an anti-ship missile that was prepared for launch.
The intensification of the cycle of violence is a setback for President Biden’s goal of curbing the hostilities unleashed by Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Underscoring the threat, Iran on Saturday blamed Israel for an attack on Damascus, the Syrian capital, in which five Iranian military advisers were killed. The Israeli military declined to comment. In Iraq, an attack on the Ain al-Asad air base, which houses Iraqi and American troops, left one Iraqi soldier seriously injured, according to a Defense Department official. A faction linked to Iran said it was responsible.
The Houthis, a powerful faction in Yemen’s long civil war, have framed their campaign, which has included more than 30 missile and drone attacks against commercial and naval vessels since November, as a means of putting pressure on Israel, strengthening its position amid widespread regional opposition to the Jewish state. Likewise, the rapid expansion of the US response risks dragging Biden into another volatile campaign in a region that has repeatedly bogged down the US military, potentially undermining his attempt to reorient US foreign policy towards Russia and China.
Administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, described their strategy in Yemen as an effort to erode the Houthis’ high-level military capabilities enough to reduce their ability to attack shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden or, at a minimum, to provide sufficient deterrence for shipping companies to resume shipping vessels through the region’s waterways.
“We are very clear about who the Houthis are and what their worldview is,” a senior US official said of the group, which the Biden administration designated this week as a terrorist organization. “So We’re not sure they’re going to stop immediately.but we are certainly trying to degrade and destroy their capabilities.”
Biden acknowledged this week that the attacks had so far failed to deter Houthi leaders, who have vowed revenge against the United States and Britain, whose military has contributed to the attacks in Yemen.
“Are they stopping the Houthis? No,” the president told reporters. “Will they continue? Yeah”.
Officials say they do not expect the operation to drag on for years like previous U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. At the same time, they acknowledge that they cannot identify an end date or provide an estimate of when Yemeni military capacity will adequately decline. As part of the effort, U.S. naval forces are also working to intercept weapons shipments from Iran.
The Houthis, who made an unlikely rise from an obscure rebel movement in Yemen’s northern mountains in the 1990s to ruling large swaths of the country in 2015, previously withstood years of bombing by a Saudi-led military coalition.
“We are not trying to defeat the Houthis. There is no appetite to invade Yemen,” said a diplomat close to the issues. “The appetite is to degrade their ability to launch these types of attacks in the future, and that means hitting the infrastructure that allows these types of attacks, and targeting their high-level capabilities.”
The first US official said that the initial attacks by the United States and Britain had managed to “significantly degrade” the military assets attacked so far, but also acknowledged that they retain a significant arsenal. “That’s not to say that the Houthis don’t still have capacity, but there are a lot of things that they had that they don’t have now,” he said.
Western officials believe that the most advanced equipment is provided by Iran, which they say has run a smuggling operation for years that has allowed them to strike far beyond Yemen’s borders. The United States hopes that the attacks, along with its interception campaign that last week resulted in a shipment of missile warheads, will gradually deprive the Houthis of their most powerful weapons.
They note that more sophisticated attacks, such as a large-scale one on January 9, have not been repeated since the US-led attacks began. “Recall that prior to the attack, some US ships were attacked with more than 20 unmanned aerial vehicles and multiple missiles in a single attack,” a second US official said, using a military acronym for drones.
The Houthis now appear to be receiving help from Iran for their objectives, according to the first official. He described the group’s approach to attacking ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden as “incoherent”: at times they appear to have clearly identified the nationality and affiliations of the ships they attack; In other cases, no.
Officials said ideology, rather than economics, was the main driver of Biden’s decision to mount the current campaign. Although the attacks have so far affected Europe more than the United States, which depends more on Pacific trade routes than those in the Middle East, The Houthi campaign is already beginning to reshape the global shipping map. Some companies have chosen to reroute ships around the Cape of Good Hope, off southern Africa, while major oil companies, including BP and Shell, suspended shipments through the area.
The officials said Biden believed the United States had to act as what they described as the world’s “indispensable nation,” with a powerful military and the ability to organize diverse nations behind a single cause. Nations including Canada, Bahrain, Germany and Japan jointly issued a statement on January 3 condemning the actions of the Houthis.
They compared Biden’s decision to confront the Houthis with his stance in support of Ukraine, where he has authorized donations of billions of dollars in weapons to help Kiev counter Russia’s violation of its sovereignty, a serious violation of international standards.
In this case, according to officials, the Administration is ready to ensure the safety of transit on key waterways and, in more general terms, to defend the principle of freedom of navigation. They hope that the signal sent by the American preemptive strikes will convince shipping companies to return to normal.
“It is impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen, and certainly not [predecir] future operations,” said the first US official. “But the principle that a terrorist organization … with these advanced capabilities essentially cannot be tolerated to essentially shut down or control shipping through a key international choke point is one that we feel very strongly.”
Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemen expert with the Novanti Group, said that the Houthis have a strong incentive to apply pressure.
“When the Houthis attacked Abu Dhabi airport, they attracted a lot of attention. When they attacked Aramco they garnered even more attention,” he said, referring to attacks in the United Arab Emirates and on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. “But the attention they are getting today for the Red Sea attacks is unprecedented, so they love this”.
The administration has sought to avoid being seen as fueling regional violence by working to rally international support, including finding partners to sign statements condemning Houthi violence and securing passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that denounce their actions a day before the initial US attacks. This week, the administration imposed a terrorism designation on the group.
State Department spokesman Matt Miller said nations that have joined the United States in trying to counter Houthi violence were playing “different roles.”
“There are more than 40 countries that issued a statement making it clear that they condemned the Houthi attacks. There is a coalition of more than 20 countries that we have brought together […] to defend ourselves from Houthi attacks,” Miller said.
Some U.S. officials have expressed fears about the U.S. military’s intervention, worried that it could undo hard-won diplomatic gains to end the war in Yemen or exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in the world’s poorest country. Arab.
Some officials at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development remain concerned that the U.S. strike could cause the Houthis to expand their attacks on Saudi assets – particularly oil refineries – and disrupt the efforts to forge a peace deal to end the nine-year war in Yemenwhich has killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Several steps have not yet been taken to consolidate a peace agreement between the Houthis and the Saudis, including a payment mechanism to former Houthi fighters who now act as local administrators. These types of measures are more difficult to establish amid active hostilities between US forces and the Houthis.
U.S. officials are also concerned that attacking the Houthis has pushed the United States into a conflict with little exit strategy and limited support from key allies. In particular, the United States’ most powerful partners in the Gulf have denied their support for the American operation. The prime minister of Qatar, a key US ally in the Gulf, has warned that Western strikes would not stop the violence and could fuel regional instability.
“We have to address the core issue, which is Gaza, so we can defuse everything else… “If we only focus on the symptoms and do not treat the real problems, (the solutions) will be temporary,” he stated, according to Reuters. Palestinian officials say Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which the country launched following deadly Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, has killed more than 24,000 people.
Although U.S. lawmakers have generally supported the strikes in Yemen, they have asserted that the administration has not yet outlined a clear strategy or end goal, and have suggested that the strikes have not eliminated concerns about an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in recent days that the administration’s plan to address the threat seemed to be “evolving.”
Lawmakers also expressed fear that the operation could prove costly and lengthy. Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that some of the missiles used to date could cost $2 million each. “So it begs the question of how long we can keep firing expensive missiles,” he said.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal noted that the United States had tried to weaken other groups in the past, such as the Taliban or Al Qaeda, even as they rearmed. “The Houthis were rearming even as the Saudis bombed them.” [durante años]. So he is humbling,” Blumenthal said.
“There is no doubt,” he added, “that we must be very clear about the difficulties here.”
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