US, UK strike back at several Houthi sites in Yemen

A still image from a video released October 13, 2016, showed U.S. military launching cruise missile strikes from U.S. Navy destroyer USS Nitze to knock out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Houthi forces.

The United States and Britain have launched a massive attack against Iranian-backed Houthis inside Yemen in retaliation for more than two dozen recent attacks against vessels transiting international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to talk to reporters, said American and British military assets struck more than a dozen Houthi targets Thursday,  ranging from training sites and airfields to drone storage sites.

"We hit them pretty hard, pretty good," a U.S. defense official, likewise talking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA, adding the strikes also targeted Houthi radar installations and air defense systems.

The U.S. and British strikes, carried out with the help of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Bahrain, were launched from fighter jets, surface vessels and submarines, the defense official said.

The official also said the targets were chosen both because of their threat to shipping and the lack of a civilian presence.

In a statement from the White House late Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden called the strikes a “direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks” on international shipping, saying they were necessary after attempts at diplomacy were ignored.

“These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes,” Biden said. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

It was the first time Houthi targets inside Yemen had been struck since the militants began attacking ships in the Red Sea following Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7.

There have been 27 attacks launched from Houthi-held areas of Yemen since mid-November, including one earlier Thursday using an anti-ship ballistic missile. The missile landed in the Gulf of Aden near a commercial vessel, causing no injuries or damage.

On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, said the Houthis launched a complex attack using 18 one-way attack drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward Red Sea shipping lanes where dozens of merchant vessels were transiting.

U.S. combat jets, along with U.S. and British military vessels, responded by shooting down the drones and missiles, averting any damage to ships or injuries to their crews in the area.

Before the U.S. and British strikes late Thursday, multiple U.S. officials warned both the Houthis and Iran against what they described as reckless and illegal behavior.

“There will be consequences,” Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder said Thursday in response to a question from VOA.

"The Houthis are funded, trained, equipped by Iran to a large degree. And so we know that Iran has a role to play in terms of helping to cease this reckless, dangerous and illegal activity," he said.

Last week, the U.S. and 12 allies issued a statement warning the Houthis of unspecified consequences if their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea continued.

"Let our message now be clear: We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews," the statement said.

Signatories on the statement included Britain, Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan.

The statement followed the launch in mid-December of Operation Prosperity Guardian by the U.S., Britain and nearly 20 other countries to protect ships from Houthi attacks.

Since the launch of Prosperity Guardian, at least 1,500 vessels have passed safely through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden.

The commander of U.S. Navy operations in the Middle East last week called it “the largest surface and air presence in the southern Red Sea in years.”

The U.N. Security Council issued its own resolution Wednesday, calling on the Houthis to stop the attacks immediately.

There are questions, however, as to whether the statements, backed now by the U.S. and British strikes against the Houthis, will do anything to deter Tehran.

“Iran has the luxury of really fighting a, what I would call, a hidden-hand operation with very few Iranians on the ground,” the former commander of U.S. Central Command, retired General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, told a webinar on Wednesday.

“They're choking world shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb [Strait] at a very low, very low price for Iran,” he said.

But McKenzie argued that even if Iran continued to encourage the Houthis, the risk of a wider regional escalation was slim.

“I do not believe the escalation ladder leads out of Yemen. I believe it stays in Yemen,” he said. “And I believe Iran will leave their partners down there, their proxies down there, to their fate.”

This is not the first time the U.S. military has targeted Houthi launch sites in Yemen in response to militant attacks against vessels in nearby waters. In October 2016, the American destroyer USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at three radar sites along Yemen's Red Sea coast in order to degrade the Houthis’ ability to track and target ships.