US Goes to War with Houthis in Yemen (Openly)

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The US Navy in the Red Sea fired Tomahawk missiles into Yemen early Thursday morning, taking out three radar stations. Those facilities had allowed the Houthi rebels who control North Yemen to target US destroyers in the Red Sea on several occasions in recent days (they missed each time).

The Obama administration has backed the Saudi-led war on the Houthi government of north Yemen since it began in March of 2015, offering logistical support and even help in choosing targets for airstrikes. Presumably the Houthis were firing at US destroyers in an attempt to take revenge on the US for its involvement in the war on them.

The US Navy said that the Tomahawk missile strikes were defensive, without noting that the US has been deeply involved in helping plan the bombing of Yemen for a year and a half.

Last Saturday a Saudi airstrike hit a funeral, killing some 160 civilians and wounding over 500.

The Saudis and their partners in the war have often bombed urban areas indiscriminately, destroying some of historic downtown Sanaa. Even when advised by the US military against striking some bridges and other key infrastructure (because they are needed to get staples to civilian populations), the Saudis and their allies have nevertheless struck them. The US has on several occasions announced that it is becoming uncomfortable with the war on Yemen, but continues to be deeply involved behind the scenes.

The war has killed 4,125 civilians and left 7,207 wounded, and made over a million Yemenis out of 24 million food insecure.

The US is concerned with Yemen for geostrategic reasons, since about 10 percent of world trade goes through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and Yemen is in a position to disrupt that ship traffic. Also, some southern provinces of Yemen are bases for the radical al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is stalking the United States. (The Houthi Shiites hate al-Qaeda, and so could potentially be allies for the US against it. The Saudis have not seemed overly concerned with taking out AQAP, putting all their efforts into rolling back the Houthis instead. This course of action has left the US less secure).

Yemen joined in the revolutions of 2011 and by January of 2012 the president for life, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to step down. In February of 2012, there was a nationwide referendum in which 80% of voters cast their ballots in favor of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice president. Mansour Hadi formed a government of national unity and pursued a political settlement, involving a new constitution and elections for a permanent parliament. These arrangements were proceeding along, too slowly, but proceeding, in September of 2014 when the Houthis abruptly marched into the capital of Sanaa and staged a coup.

By January and February of 2015, Mansour Hadi and the rest of the UN-recognized government had to flee, and the Houthis took over entirely. They they fought their way down to Aden in the south and conquered it. (They’ve since been pushed back up to Taiz).

The Houthis derive from the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam and are based in northern tribes of Saadeh. They formed a guerrilla movement to protest the increasing influence of Saudi Wahhabi Islam on Yemen, writing refutations of Wahhabi doctrine and practice and at some points vowing to see the Saudi royal family overthrown.

Saudi Arabia is enormously wealthy because of its oil, while Yemen is among the poorest countries in the world, so the Houthi animus toward an expansionist Wahhabism is a protest of the poor and not just theological.

The Saudis justify their intervention on the grounds that the Houthis are Shiites and allied with Iran. However, Zaydi Shiism has no ayatollahs and is in no particular like the Shiite Islam of Iran and and Iraq. There is no evidence of any significant Iranian support for the Houthis; perhaps Tehran sent them a few million dollars. The Houthis are an indigenous Yemeni movement. Houthi weaponry is largely American, looted from Yemen military storehouses after they took over. The Houthis are allied with the section of the Yemeni army still loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the deposed dictator, who seems to be trying to use the Houthis to come back to power.

In my view, the Houthis were wrong to make a coup against the government in fall of 2014, and they have derailed the country’s political process. They have ruled in an authoritarian manner. But apparently the Saudi airstrikes have made them relatively popular with many people in Sanaa, and they are now seen as a national force (this was not true in 2014). In August hundreds of thousands came out for them in Sanaa.

On the other hand, the Saudis and their allies are wrong to have launched an air war on Yemen. For one thing, you can’t defeat a guerilla movement from the air. The Saudis and others are not committing ground troops in more than token numbers, and the Sunni Yemenis of the south and east are not motivated to fight into Zaydi North Yemen. But aside from the practicalities, the Saudi air force has hit Yemen so indiscriminately that it stands accused of war crimes.

My guess is that the Houthis and the Saudis will eventually find a political settlement (brave little Oman has been trying to negotiate one).

My advice to the Obama administration would be to dissociate itself from the Saudi war and to open its own lines of communication to the Houthis. Seeing the latter as Iranian proxies is a form of geopolitical paranoia, and failing to recognize that Wahhabi proselytizing is a cause of a lot of the problems in the Muslim world is shortsighted on the part of the US.

The Saudis want to install a government in Sanaa that is in their back pocket, just as they tried to buy the Egyptian government and just as they are backing Salafi Jihadis in hopes of taking over Syria. Saudi Arabia is a small country of some 20 million citizens with a small army but a well-equipped air force, and is trying to punch above its weight in seeking to establish hegemony over the Middle East.

For the US to back this dangerous adventurism is foolish, and this week’s events demonstrate that the Yemen misadventure could eventuate in yet another American war in the Middle East.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Missile Attack Targets U.S. Navy Ship Off Yemen For Second Time | NBC Nightly News

37 Responses

      • No, she’s aligned with the neocons and Bibi Netanyahu. Who, after all, promoted Victoria Nuland? Who approved Nuland’s coup in Ukraine? Of course, Obama would have had to approve the coup, too, but I believe John Brennan stands behind him, whispering in his ear, “Remember thou art a mortal. Remember Dallas, 1963.”

  1. The United States is not “going to war” with the Houthis in Yemen. The Tomahawk missile strikes on the three remote radar stations was a defensive move to render them incapable of locking on U.S. warships that have been exercising the right of passage in international waters. Prior to the firing of the Tomahawks, the Houthis had targeted the vessel twice, on Monday and Wednesday.

    Regardless of one’s position on U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, the U.S. is not a belligerent in the conflict under international law and the Law of War. Under those very same laws, the U.S. has every right to defend its warships against further attempted strikes by taking out the radar stations and blinding those launching the strikes.

    Of course, one can argue that the Houthis consider U.S. support for Saudi Arabia as constituting indirect aggression against them, thus rendering U.S. assets open for targeting. So be it. But the Houthis must understand that if they target U.S. assets, they can expect retaliatory strikes in return.

    • Yes, the law is always a convenient thing to hide behind (at least when you get to make it).

    • Also under international law the U.S. is subject to war crimes prosecution if it provides material support for war crimes, as evidenced by Saudi’s continual bombing of civilian targets! I mean, on the one hand they want the Syrians and Russians charged for their bombing of civilians, yet they’re quiet about the Saudis!

    • Starting to smell like a Gulf of Tonkin scenario-gosh, the neo cons imagination knows no bounds!

    • I can’t be sure, but from the Wikipedia article on the Iranian Noor Missile or the Chinese C-802, it doesn’t look like there is land-based radar needed. The last few miles certainly is controlled by on-board radar, not outside, land-based radar, which makes the missiles hard to jam. The land based radar may be necessary to spot the ships in the first place, but is not needed to hit the ships. Of course I could be wrong, not having access to an actual operator’s manual.

    • Don’t you agree they need at least an “Authorization for Use of Military Force” from Congress to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Houthi installations?

      • No. When U.S. naval vessels are transiting peacefully in international waters and are fired upon by Houthi installations (whether by Houthis or Iranian Revolutionary Guards) they have every right under international law to defend themselves by taking out those installations. It is no different than if an Iranian gunboat were to fire on a U.S. destroyer. Would you suggest that the captain of the U.S. ship would have to obtain an AUMF from Washington before he could return fire after being fired upon by a hostile naval vessel? Whether an attack on a U.S. warship is by land or by sea makes no difference. The right to defend against attacks requires no AUMF.

        • @William:

          The link to the article cited above suggests that Pres. Obama authorized the Tomahawk strike – so it appears that a captain did not order return fire while under attack – but proceeded a significant interval later and if they had the time to obtain presidential approval perhaps they should have made an effort to procure an AUMF from Congress.

          Also, the allegation was that the radar stations were somehow implicated in the Tomahawk strike – however radar stations do not themselves launch the missiles at the U.S. destroyers and it is unclear what proof the U.S. has to suggest that the three radar stations in Houthi-controlled territory were actually involved in targeting U.S. Navy destroyers.

        • Do you have any idea how long it would take to obtain an AUMF from Congress, particularly when it is unnecessary in order to mount defensive action?!

          Radar stations do not themselves launch missiles, but they do have the targeting function. Take out the radar and you blind the launchers.

  2. You are so correct (once again),Juan.
    Having over-demonized, if there is such a term,Iran (and Asad and Putin), we find ourselves in a near hopeless box of flailing against former partners and potential future friends.
    What is shocking to me is that our foreign policy establishment seems to have lost its ability to pursue a nuanced foreign policy. Is that all driven by an agenda to achieve minimal gains before November 9 or January 20 ?

  3. we took the three radar stations in Yemen in order to protect the sea lanes. The reason about the attack, questionable, I still remember the golf of tonkin

  4. I have lost count. Iraq. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Somalia. Pakistan. How many wars is the US currently fighting either through special forces or air strikes?

    • I think it’s now 17, but I couldn’t name them all. We have to include Somalia and, I think, Chad and The Central African Republic. Certainly Djibouti, too.

    • Thanks for this comment. It reminds me of what my father said to me in the early 1970’s, “The U.S. fights it’s wars in the Third World.”

  5. To sound like a broken record, once again we see a conflict in the Middle East where neither side is particularly worthy of support. And, once again, the best US course is to stay out. If only we would learn.

  6. Even when advised by the US military against striking some bridges and other key infrastructure (because they are needed to get staples to civilian populations), the Saudis and their allies have nevertheless struck them.

    Obama often refers to “our values,” as in “these are not our values” after some Americans have been caught committing some shameful act. Is our alliance with Saudi Arabia an example of our values?

  7. My understanding is that Hadi was the only candidate on the ballot. How is that fair?

    • In 2012 Hadi was “elected” to a 2-year term via a UN-imposed process in which no other candidates were allowed. He extended his own term an additional year in 2014 and it was scheduled to end February of 2015. This never happened, however, because Hadi resigned in January 2015, and the Saudis launched their war to reinstall him in March of that year.

      Unbelievably, the international community not only considers this fair, they deem it worth the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.

  8. “There is no evidence of any significant Iranian support for the Houthis;”

    True to some extent. However, those sandle wearing rebels didn’t just trip over those C802 missiles in a warehouse. In fact, I have a hard time believing the Houthis fired those missiles at all. It makes no sense strategically from their POV. Its doubtful that the technical skill is within their ranks. My guess is IRG. This was the same missile that did in the Israeli patrol boat a few years back. That was Hezbollah who do have IRG ties.

    My $.02
    I’ll take the change.

  9. What a mess. Thanks Juan for the analysis.
    A UAE ship was sunk just recently in a similar attack:
    link to
    This is a very dangerous situation. On the one hand, the US Navy has to protect itself. On the other, why are we giving such critical support to the Saudi’s apparently ill-advised
    and brutal onslaught?

  10. Listening to the NBC report last night I think they mentioned Iran four times in the one minute report. It sounded like AIPAC wrote the script for the reporter.

  11. > Few hours before Reuter’s announcement of a U.S. Navy destroyer came under missile attack off Yemen on Sunday, Saudi official accounts on tweeter like Journalist Fahd Kamely and Saudi-24 News had tweeted that the Royal Saudi Naval Forces targeted what they thought to be an Iranian ship for suspicion of supplying Houthis with weapons! They immediately deleted their tweets following this announcement, but many people have saved a picture for those tweets before being deleted and since then are circulating them on tweeter…

    link to

    > KSA newspapers talked about targetting #Iranian navy destroyer in the red sea the same day US destroyer was attacked
    > The original tweets (if authentic)
    > @Akhbaar24:
    > استهداف مدمرة ايرانية أثناء تزويدها للحوثيين بأسلحة مضادة للدروع
    > Translation: Targeting Iranian destroyer supplying anti-tank weapons to Houthis
    > @fahadkamly:
    > القوات البحرية الملكية تستهدف تهدد سفينة ايرانية أثناء محاولتها تزويد الحوثيين بأسلحة مضادة للدروع
    > Translation: Royal Navy aimed at threatening the Iranian ship during its attempt to supply Houthis with anti-tank weapons.
    link to

  12. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook admitted that the US still hasn’t actually made any determination who fired those missiles in the first place. It is unclear why they retaliated against the Houthis, who denied involvement, apart from Cook saying that the US believes Iran has “been supportive of the Houthi rebels.”

    Still, this act in haste and repent at leisure attitude doesn’t appear to be changing, with Cook vowing the US would “be prepared to respond again” if they think ships off the Yemeni coast are threatened, with the implied threat that they’ll attack the Houthis some more, whether or not they ever determine if the Houthis did anything.

    Pentagon officials are also trying to insist that their attacks on the Houthis are totally distinct from the ongoing Saudi war against the Houthis, which the US is already heavily involved in, meaning this amounts to a second, separate war against the Houthis, with even less of a pretext. The Pentagon appears uncomfortable with connecting their heedless attacks to the myriad war crimes in the extent war.

    The Houthis reiterated today that they had nothing to do with the missiles fired near the US ship, and insisted they consider the US attacks “unacceptable.” They warned that they have the right to defend themselves from future US attacks.
    link to

    • This incident is making conspiracy theorists wax eloquent and nostalgiac about Operation Northwoods – the Pentagon’s 1960s false flag plan – nixed by JFK – to have a U.S. Navy ship explode off the Cuban coast so that the Castro government’s patrols would board the boat to investigate and then blame the incident on Cuba, then also use the incident to warrant an attack on Cuba by the U.S.

  13. The Saudis, corrupt and duplicitous to the hilt, have been playing Uncle Sam as a stooge and sap in the Middle East for generations. Americans are being used as a catspaw in regional squabbles by all sorts of factions and we’re either too stupid to realize it or we’re foolishly pursuing our own schemes and mischief, thinking WE’RE calling the shots. Whatever the case, it’s long past time to get out of bed with these Saudi dynasts and schemers.

  14. More fundamental question for me is what does American ships were doing in Red Sea or for in general anywhere? We question the 800 + land bases that US has around the world but I haven’t heard anyone talking about the role of US Navy. Are they fighting imaginary pirates? What do they do in Persian Gulf ? Their posture is definitely offensive. I know they are protecting the vassal states in Persian gulf but why? BTW it costs more than 4 billion just to maintain the 4th fleet in Persian Gulf. (For comparison the federal budget for retraining workers is about 4 billion dollars. And we all know how important is the issue of retraining workers with outsourced jobs in this election cycle is. )

    • It is the 5th Fleet, not the 4th Fleet, and it is based in Bahrain and has been for decades. The U.S. Navy’s posture in the Persian Gulf is definitely not offensive. It is strictly defensive.

      They are not fighting “imaginary pirates” as you suggest, a statement that reveals a stunning lack of geopolitical awareness. The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of about 17 million bbls. Roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil and 20 percent of oil traded worldwide pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The 5th Fleet protects the seaborne oil shipments and would swing into action should any other country attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz.

  15. For years after we left Vietnam we advocated the reason we could not win is that we got “caught” in a civil war. Apparently we did not learn from Vietnam. We are caught up in a civil war without an exit. As long as we are involved militarily in the Mid-East we will be involved in religious wars (as long as our armed enemies call it a religious war.)

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