Huthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following US and British forces strikes, in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 12, 2024

Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following US and British forces strikes, in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 12, 2024

(Photo by Mohammaed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

US Attack on Yemen Will Makes Things Worse Not Better

In addition to being ineffective, the strikes against Yemen entail other—very serious—harms.

The war in Gaza has just expanded, and it was not along the Israeli-Lebanese border or some other much-watched trouble spot that may still see further escalation. Instead, it came Thursday night in the form U.S.-led airstrikes against targets in the portion of Yemen that the Houthi regime controls.

Make no mistake: this action is an escalation from, and a result of, Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. The Houthis have repeatedly made clear that their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea — to which the U.S. airstrikes were a response — are themselves a response to Israel’s lethal attacks against the Palestinians of Gaza. The attacks on shipping will stop if and when the Israeli assault on Gaza stops.

The Houthis have been loose and inaccurate in their targeting, and their actions have affected shipping that has no connection to Israel. But that fact does not negate the reality that if there is to be a lasting solution to the current violent confrontation in the Red Sea region, that solution would be political and not just military, and it would involve not just Yemen and the Houthis but also Israel, the Palestinians, and a cease-fire in Gaza.

[The US attack on Yemen] moves the United States farther away from the sort of policy toward Israel that would have a chance of ending rather than prolonging the devastation.

“Restoring deterrence” is the rationale that is most often given for this kind of U.S. strike, and that has been voiced on Capitol Hill by those supporting the new attack on Yemen. What gets forgotten is that the other side has no less a desire to “restore deterrence” than the United States does. That means a U.S. attack stimulating counter-retaliation rather than causing an adversary to cower in fear of what the U.S. military might do next. The recurring tit-for-tat between the United States and certain militias in Iraq, where the 2,500 American troops there frequently get attacked, demonstrates this dynamic.

The Houthis have given ample reason to believe that they will strike back rather than cower. They welcome an armed confrontation with the United States. In addition to their principal motivation of supporting the Palestinians of Gaza, the Houthis, by flexing some muscle in the Red Sea, show themselves as a regional player to be taken seriously rather than just a poor relation in a corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi declared in a televised speech, “We, the Yemeni people, are not among those who are afraid of America. We are comfortable with a direct confrontation with the Americans.” A Houthi spokesman later said about the U.S. strikes, “It’s not possible for us not to respond to these operations.”

The most likely Houthi response will be more operations in the Red Sea. Other forms of violent asymmetric response against the United States are also possible.

It is unclear how much the airstrikes this week degraded the Houthi regime’s capability to conduct such operations, or how much any follow-on U.S. attacks would degrade them. But one clue to an answer is that some six years of Saudi Arabia’s war — backed by the United States — in Yemen, which included a devastating aerial assault and a naval blockade, did not prevent the Houthis either from striking back with missile attacks in Saudi Arabia or conducting their more recent operations at sea.

In short, these U.S. airstrikes are unlikely to alleviate, let alone solve, the problem of hazards to shipping that uses the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Military escalation in an already unstable area is not going to reassure shipping companies or the underwriters who issue their insurance policies.

In addition to being ineffective, the strikes against Yemen entail other harms. One is to jeopardize the chances of reaching a lasting settlement of the war within Yemen. That war had generated what was probably the largest ongoing manmade humanitarian disaster in the world until passed for that odious distinction by the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

A de facto cease-fire, with mediated peace negotiations, has prevailed in Yemen for most of the last two years, since Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman concluded that continuing the war was a feckless proposition and extraction from what had become a quagmire was in Saudi Arabia’s best interests. That is still Saudi policy, and the official Saudi reaction to the U.S. strikes was to call for restraint and “avoiding escalation.” But the U.S. escalation that already has occurred complicates the picture and can only hurt, not help, the prospects for Yemeni peace.

A more general harm consists of costs and risks associated with any expansion of the Israeli war in Gaza. These include the risks of stimulating further escalation elsewhere by other players touched by that war, as well as increased U.S. military activity leading to unintended incidents that spin out of control.

Finally — given both U.S. policies toward Israel and the Houthis’ rationale for attacking Red Sea shipping — the U.S. strikes will be widely seen as more U.S. support for the Israeli devastation of Gaza. As such, it moves the United States farther away from the sort of policy toward Israel that would have a chance of ending rather than prolonging the devastation. It weakens the willingness of Arab states to cooperate with the United States on other matters. And it increases the likelihood of terrorist reprisals against the United States from those enraged by U.S. complicity in what many in the world regard as genocide.

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