Reckless and fearless: Yemen’s Houthis target U.S., Israel amid Hamas fighting

A series of escalating clashes between U.S. troops and Houthi rebel forces adds even more fuel to a powder keg in the Middle East, with analysts warning that the Iran-backed militant movement in Yemen is the most dangerous of adversaries — an unpredictable force with little to lose and no particular stake in stability in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

The latest in a steady string of confrontations erupted Sunday when a U.S. Navy destroyer and three commercial ships came under missile and drone fire from the Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen and have launched several attempted strikes on U.S. and Israeli assets in recent weeks. Those assaults began after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that, like the Houthis, is backed by the Iranian military.

The USS Carney shot down multiple Houthi drones Sunday. The flare-up seemed to signal that the rebel force is willing to escalate a showdown with the U.S., even with the knowledge that the Pentagon could soon be left with little choice but to strike back directly against Houthi targets in Yemen.

Iran has built and armed a network of allies across the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and powerful militias in Syria and Iraq. The Houthis, a Shiite movement locked in a civil war with Yemen’s internationally recognized government backed by Saudi Arabia and other regional players, have stood out as the most aggressive force against Israel and its allies in the nearly two months since Hamas first attacked.

In the days after the Hamas rampage in early October, crowds of Houthi supporters gathered in the streets of Sanaa, the capital the rebels control, waving Yemeni and Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israel and anti-U.S. chants. Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader, warned Washington at the time that his forces were prepared to fire on U.S. and Israeli targets should Washington intervene in the crisis to support Israel.

The White House said Monday that the weekend attacks show what loose cannons the Houthis have become.

“It goes to show you the level of recklessness that the Houthis are operating on,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.

Indeed, specialists warn that the Houthis are something of a wild card and don’t necessarily abide by the same cost-benefit analyses that drive the decision-making of other Iran-affiliated groups, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, which have engaged in sharp but more limited confrontations with the U.S. and Israel since Oct. 7. The Houthis are among the most battle-hardened of Iran’s regional collaborators, having spent the past decade battling a United Nations-backed government and a Saudi-led coalition for control of Yemen.

Fearless and reckless

Unlike Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and various other proxies across the Middle East, the Houthis may not fear U.S. or Israeli retaliation. They also may be banking that the Biden administration will be more reluctant to strike Yemen given that U.N.-backed peace talks seem close to ending Yemen’s decade of civil war.

“What’s different about the Houthis is, they don’t have to be careful,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely tracks Iran-linked militias operating across the theater.

“The Houthis are just sitting there in Yemen, much farther away than Lebanese Hezbollah is from Israel,” Mr. Knights said in an interview. “They’ve been bombed for the last eight, nine years. They have a very high pain threshold. All their leadership is extremely well hidden so that the Saudis couldn’t assassinate them during the war. They’re locked down. And they’re actually much more ideologically pure and determined than Lebanese Hezbollah or the militias” backed by Iran.

Mr. Knights described the Houthis as the true “hard-liners” of the Iranian axis of resistance across the Middle East. He said the group has “less to lose” and is “more crazy” than other actors threatening the U.S. and Israel.

Houthi actions back up that argument. Shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Houthis began launching attack drones and missiles toward Israel. U.S. naval assets in the Red Sea shot down many of them. Houthi missiles landed near American ships at least once, though Pentagon officials say the U.S. vessels weren’t the intended target.

Last month, the Houthis shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone operating in international airspace off the coast of Yemen.

All of those incidents led up to Sunday’s clash, which the White House and Pentagon say Iran “fully enabled.”

The U.S. Central Command in the region said it would “consider all appropriate responses” to Sunday’s missile and drone attacks on three civilian cargo vessels and the USS Carney. The Navy destroyer was responding to distress calls from the merchant ships off the coast of Yemen.

At 9:15 a.m. local time, according to U.S. military accounts, the Carney was patrolling in the Red Sea when it detected an anti-ship ballistic missile attack toward the M/V Unity Explorer, a bulk cargo ship owned and operated by a British company but registered in the Bahamas. The missile struck the water near the Unity Explorer​, and the Carney shot down a drone launched from a Houthi-controlled area in Yemen hours later.

No U.S. troops were injured and no American naval vessels were damaged, but the seriousness of the incident led to a stark warning from U.S. defense officials.

“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security. They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement late Sunday. “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran. The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.”

The war in Yemen and the humanitarian suffering it has caused were leading factors in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s February 2021 decision to remove the Houthis from the U.S. list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”

The Houthis were placed on the list in the final days of the Trump administration. At the time, Mr. Blinken said he was swayed by those who argued “that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel” and complicated efforts to negotiate a diplomatic end to the civil war in Yemen.

In light of the ongoing attacks, critics say it’s time to reapply the designation.

“By prioritizing politics over security, this administration emboldened the Houthis, enabling them to develop more advanced weapons, deepen ties with Iran, and further entrench their control over millions of innocent Yemenis,” Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Monday. “We must end this policy of appeasement and get serious about actually responding to, rather than enabling, the Houthi threat, including through an FTO designation.”

A wider war

As Israel battles Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the U.S. has tried desperately to keep the conflict from escalating into a much wider war. Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a much larger, better-trained and better-equipped force than Hamas, so far hasn’t fully engaged Israel in battle, easing fears that the Jewish state would be forced to fight a two-front war.

Other Iran-linked groups seem perfectly willing to capitalize on the regional chaos. Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias have launched dozens of rocket and drone attacks against American troops in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has responded with multiple airstrikes against those militias’ positions.

Some analysts say the Biden administration must do more and must recognize that Iran is the root cause of the danger facing American troops, Israelis and other allies across the Middle East.

“President Biden must face reality: The ayatollah in Iran is attacking Americans and American allies without fear,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg wrote in a Monday piece for the New York Post. Mr. Dubowitz is the foundation’s chief executive, and Mr. Goldberg is a senior adviser with the Washington-based think tank.

“America must defend itself and regional allies against any attempt by Iran to retaliate. … By striking Iranian and Houthi targets, Biden would advance the cause of Middle East peace. Whatever Biden does next, he must internalize one simple truth: Tehran will keep attacking Americans and U.S. allies unless and until he flashes American steel,” they wrote.

The Biden administration may be reluctant to launch a bombing campaign in Yemen, especially given Mr. Biden’s efforts to reduce the U.S. military role in the Middle East and focus more resources on the Pacific. Should the U.S. choose to strike the Houthis in Yemen, it’s a virtual certainty that the Pentagon has a target list ready.

“We’re regularly knocking out of the sky any Houthi drone system that we encounter. And we defend anyone against their attacks if we’re in position to do so. The next step would be to strike in mainland Yemen,” Mr. Knights said. “The most obvious targets would be Houthi anti-shipping capabilities, whether it’s radar, missiles, fast-attack craft, boats, as well as drones. And finally, we’re probably taking a very close look at their helicopters.

“It would be very easy for us to destroy those capabilities, which would be almost impossible for them to replace. In theory, we could finish off almost all of their aerial capability,” he said.

•​ Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

Source: WT