Biden administration faces growing pressure to strike back at Iranian-backed Houthis

Despite repeated warnings, the militia launched its largest attack yet.

January 10, 2024, 8:03 PM

Following weeks of warnings from U.S. officials to Houthi rebels that there would be repercussions if their assaults on vessels in the Red Sea continued, the Yemeni group launched its largest bombardment to date -- intensifying pressure on the Biden administration to retaliate against the Iranian-backed militia.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said Tuesday that the Houthis fired off a "complex attack" comprised of armed drones, anti-ship cruise missiles, and an anti-ship ballistic missile on Tuesday night -- the 26th strike on the region's commercial shipping routes since Nov. 19.

The barrage was intercepted by American and British warships and no injuries were reported, but the brazen nature of the strike has cast doubt that words alone will be enough to contain the threat posed by the Houthi fighters, which has already created significant disruptions to commercial shipping in the region, according to CENTCOM.

In a bold statement issued on Wednesday, the Houthis declared that the group had specifically targeted a U.S. ship.

"The Navy, Rocket Forces, and the Air Force of the Yemeni (Houthi) Armed Forces carried out a joint military operation using a significant number of ballistic missiles, naval assets, and drones, targeting an American ship that was providing support to the Zionist entity," said Houthi spokesman Yahya Sarea.

PHOTO: Yemen's Houthi loyalists lift their weapons as they take part in an armed parade for more than 20,000 members who have finished a military course, Dec. 20, 2023 in Amran province, Yemen.
Yemen's Houthi loyalists lift their weapons as they take part in an armed parade for more than 20,000 members who have finished a military course, staged to show their willingness to battle any potential attack by the recently created coalition by the U.S., Dec. 20, 2023 in Amran province, Yemen.
Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

In early January, the U.S. jointly issued a declaration with 11 other nations cautioning that the Houthis "will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region's critical waterways."

But in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's attack, high-level administration officials declined to say publicly whether the Houthis would indeed face the consequences that had been previously promised.

"I certainly won't speculate about any potential future military operations one way or the other," White House spokesperson John Kirby said. "We call again on the Houthis to stop these attacks."

The Houthis claim that they are conducting their campaign in the Red Sea in solidarity with the Palestinians, saying that they will lash out against ships linked to Israel until the country's siege of Gaza ends.

However, many of the vessels that have come under Houthi fire bear no link to Israel, according to the country’s military and international registries documenting affiliations of commercial ships.

Components of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (IKECSG), guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) and French Navy frigate FS Languedoc (D 653) transit the Strait of Hormuz, Nov. 25, 2023.
U.S. Navy via Reuters

Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- currently on a tour through the Middle East aimed at preventing the Israel-Hamas war from spreading -- addressed the latest Houthi aggression during a stop in Bahrain Wednesday, the only country in the Middle East that joined on to Operation Prosperity Guardian, the U.S.-led military coalition formed as a response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

"We had the biggest attack -- UAVs, missiles -- just yesterday. These attacks have been aided and abetted by Iran with technology, equipment intelligence, information, and they are having a real-life impact on people," Blinken said.

The secretary also drew attention to the plight of the more than two dozen seafarers who were captured by Houthi fighters along with their ship, a Japanese-operated vehicle carrier named the Galaxy Leader.

"We know all about the hostages in Gaza. Well, the Houthis have taken more than 25 hostages," the secretary said. "All of this has required us this -- this challenge, this threat to the interests of countries around the world -- has required us to respond."

But so far, American military assets in the region have only intercepted Houthi launches rather than taking any retaliatory action, as the U.S. has done against other belligerent Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in recent months.

In the wake of Tuesday's strike, British officials have taken a stronger public stance than their American counterparts, with U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps appearing to promise imminent military action.

"Enough is enough," Shapps said in an interview with Sky News on Tuesday. "We must be clear with the Houthis that this has to stop and that is my simple message to them today: Watch this space."