The United States and five of its allies carried out military strikes on more than a dozen targets in Yemen controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.
The American-led air and naval strikes came in response to more than two dozen Houthi drone and missile attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea since November.
The Houthis have defied American warnings to stop the attacks, saying their actions are a protest against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. This retaliation by the U.S. and the U.K. and other allies are feared by many to be a potential tipping point to a wider conflict in the region.
Michael Mosser, an associate professor of international relations and global studies at the University of Texas Austin, said the Houthi have gained prominence recently.
“The Houthis are a rebel group that has really been in the news, in the region anyway, since 2014, when they overthrew the Yemeni government, and they have been essentially in control of a fair chunk of the entire country of Yemen since then,” Mosser said. “The Houthi rebels were supported by Iran, and since 2014 they have set up a proxy state inside Yemen.”
Mosser said one possibility is the Houthis — and by extension Iran — are trying to draw the United States and its allies into the conflict more directly.
“For their part, the Houthis are being very cagey, I suppose is maybe one word, to say that they are not targeting U.S. forces and they’re not targeting international shipping, that what they’re doing is targeting ships with ballistic missiles and drones that are in support of Israel in Gaza,” Mosser said. “The United States doesn’t believe that explanation. It’s not supported by facts, according to the U.S. administration.”
Mosser said the Houthis have the advantage of flexibility in their operations, and were likely prepared for this strike.
The Houthis “already moved a number of their bases. The U.S. has been telegraphing the strike for a few weeks now,” Mosser said. “President Biden actually mentioned this all the way back on New Year’s Day. And so this is something that it’s not an enormous surprise. It was always a question of when rather than if. And so the Houthis had some time to prepare for this.”
Whether or not this initial series of strikes leads to broader conflict with the U.S. is still unclear.
“Iran, for its part, has said that this has the potential to [inflame a larger regional war], but it hasn’t made major moves in the region yet. I think what we could see is an escalation short of war,” Mosser said. “I think we’ll see sort of more tit-for-tat moves from Iran. We may see Iran using this as a justification for making some more empowering moves with Hezbollah, for example, in Lebanon.”