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Jan 12, 2024, 6:01pm EST

US, allies on high alert for Houthi reprisals

Houthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following US and British forces strikes, in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 12, 2024 amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. US and British forces struck rebel-held Yemen early on January 12, after weeks of disruptive attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed Huthis who say they act in solidarity with Gaza. The pre-dawn air strikes add to escalating fears of wider conflict in the region, where violence involving Tehran-aligned groups in Yemen as well as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria has surged since the Israel-Hamas was began in early October. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP) (
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

The Biden administration and its Middle East allies are on high alert for potential reprisal attacks following the U.S. and U.K’s joint airstrikes Thursday on the Houthi militia in Yemen.

Pentagon officials said the Iranian-backed rebels unsuccessfully targeted one international ship transiting the Red Sea on Friday. But they expected the Houthis to conduct other attacks in the coming days. The U.S.-led coalition struck nearly 30 Houthi locations with 150 precision guided munitions in a bid to degrade the militia’s ability to constrain commercial and military ships moving through the Suez Canal. Targets included Houthi command and control centers, radar systems, missile batteries and production facilities, U.S. officials said.

“My guess is that the Houthis are trying to figure things out on the ground and trying to determine what capabilities still exist for them,” General Douglas Sims, director of the U.S. Joint Staff, told reporters Friday. “We expect that they will attempt some sort of retaliation.”

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U.S. and Mideast officials told Semafor that reprisals might not be limited to attacks in the Red Sea. The Houthis are among an alliance of militias, militaries and terrorist organizations aligned with Iran — known as the Axis of Resistance — that have been attacking U.S. military sites in the wake of the Biden administration’s forceful backing of Israel in its war against the Palestinian military group Hamas. These attacks have largely focused on Pentagon bases in Iraq and Syria.

Arab officials also are concerned that the Houthis could again strike targets inside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that recently were at war with the Yemeni militia.

“All American-British interests have become legitimate targets for the Yemeni armed forces in response to their direct and declared aggression against the Republic of Yemen.” the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council said in a statement released on its media site.

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Jay’s view

Reprisals by the Houthis will likely spark a cycle of counter-attacks by the Biden administration, which is committed to keeping commercial traffic flowing through the Suez Canal. But a widening operation in Yemen could also divide the U.S. further from some of its closest regional allies, many of whom are already pressing the U.S. to force a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have feuded with the Biden administration over Yemen policy over the past three years. Saudi officials were livid when President Biden, in one of his first acts in the White House, ceased the sale of offensive weapons to Riyadh for its war in Yemen, despite ongoing Houthi missile attacks on Saudi territory. Riyadh has since agreed to a U.S.-backed ceasefire with the Houthis and have voiced concern that the U.S. attacks could undermine this fragile peace.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was “following with great concern” the U.S. and U.K. military operations and called on all parties “to avoid escalation in light of the events in the region.”

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized the U.S. coalition’s attacks on the Houthis as disproportional and compared them to Israel’s offensive on Hamas. “It is as if they aspire to turn the Red Sea into a bloodbath,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

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The View From Tehran

Iran, the Houthis’ principal military backer, also condemned the U.S. attack on Friday. And the government released footage of an oil tanker it seized in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday — the same one the U.S. captured last year for allegedly carrying sanctioned oil.

“These attacks are a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a breach of international laws,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, said in Tehran.

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Notable

European countries are split over the U.S. military operation in the Red Sea, with Italy, Spain and France declining to join Washington’s maritime coalition, called Operation Prosperity Guardian.

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