Biden facing growing calls to attack Houthi bases — report

Following joint task force’s first direct conflict with Iran-backed group, NYT reports some in Pentagon urge strikes against the Yemeni rebels’ military installations

US President Joe Biden arrives at the Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Delaware, November 17, 2023. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US President Joe Biden arrives at the Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Delaware, November 17, 2023. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Senior commanders in the Pentagon are imploring US President Joe Biden to take more aggressive action against Iranian proxies in the Red Sea, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps has expressed his country’s readiness to strike at the rebels, as Foreign Secretary David Cameron bluntly told his Iranian counterpart that the UK considers Iran culpable for disruption of the vital maritime route.

The warnings followed a confrontation between American troops and the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels on Sunday. US Navy helicopters sank three Houthi boats in the Red Sea when responding to a distress call from a commercial ship. In a statement issued later on Sunday, the Houthis claimed to have lost 10 fighters in the attack.

It was the first direct confrontation between Houthi forces and the American and allied forces in the Red Sea in recent months, since the Houthis stepped up their threats to maritime routes in support of Hamas in the terror group’s war with Israel.

Previously, the US-led coalition has shot down drones launched by the Houthis in the Red Sea. Last week, the US also carried out airstrikes against Iraqi militia Ketaeb Hezbollah, in retaliation for a drone attack by the Iranian proxy which injured three US troops on a base in Northern Iraq. In 2016, after the Houthis fired on American military and commercial vessels, the US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at three Houthi missile sites, ending the attacks.

Currently, however, the White House has been reluctant to strike at drone and missile bases in Yemen, fearing such a move would upend a delicate 2022 truce between the Houthis and the Saudi military, following a nearly decade-long war.

Moreover, some American military figures are concerned that the ties between Iran and the Houthi rebels would thrive off of direct confrontation with the United States. “The Iran-Houthi relationship greatly benefits from conflict, so why create more?” the Times quoted Adam Clements, a former US Army envoy in Yemen, as saying.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, talks with the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Navy Capt. Rick Burgess, during an unannounced visit to the ship on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023 (AP Photo/Tara Copp)

The formation of an international task force was, in part, a way to dilute the impression of conflict with the United States, as well as an attempt to isolate the Houthis. Called Operation Prosperity Guardian, it was announced mid-December by American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in response to the repeated Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The force consists of some 20 nations, including Spain, Britain, Canada, France, Norway, and Italy. Nonetheless, the Houthis remain defiant, dismissing the task force as ineffective and affirming their desire for conflict with the United States.

With the exception of Bahrain, Arab countries have been hesitant to join the task force, wary of appearing to cooperate with the United States on a military venture while Israel receives American support for its war on Hamas.

Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, a retired commander of the Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, told the Times that the United States would have to respond forcefully to Houthi aggression to protect troops in the region.

“Not responding when US forces are attacked in any fashion risks the lives of US sailors and marines if a missile were to make it past US defenses,” Donegan said, adding that “it also sets a new precedent that attacking a US ship carries low risk of retaliation, and as we have seen, invites more attacks from the Houthis.”

A Yemeni man carries a gun as he takes part in march to express solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on December 2, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The Red Sea is a vital trade route, with about 1,000 commercial ships at any given time, according to the New York Times. Though the Houthis originally threatened only ships coming to or from Israel, unrelated ships have also been attacked, disrupting maritime trade and causing some of the largest shipping companies in the world to opt for other routes. The White House has also blamed Iran for a drone attack on a Japanese boat near the coast of India last week, but Iran denies the allegations.

The Houthi rebels conquered parts of Yemen in 2014. After several failed uprisings since the 1990’s, the rebels, now armed by Iran and Qatar, were able to seize Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and take control of the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea coasts. Incensed by the increased Iranian presence at its southern border, Saudi Arabia fought the Houthis, effecting a civil war in Yemen that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. In 2022, the Houthis reached an informal truce with Saudi Arabia.

In the past, Hamas has tried to distance itself from the Yemeni rebels, in an effort to divert attention from the Palestinian terror group’s growing ties to Iran, which placed it at odds with more moderate Arab countries.

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