Why Did the United States Just Bomb Yemen?

In the overnight hours of January 11–12, U.S. and British forces used air-, ship-, and submarine-launched weapons against about 60 targets in Yemen.

Q1: Why did U.S. and British forces attack Yemen?

A1: In response to more than 25 attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels in Yemen in the last two months, the U.S. and British militaries attacked around 60 Houthi targets with more than 100 precision-guided missiles. They had support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands. The countries acted about 24 hours after the UN Security Council condemned the Houthi attacks. About 12 percent of all international trade passes through the Red Sea. While the Houthis said their attacks were in support of the Palestinians and only targeted shipping that involved Israel in some way, shipping costs shot up and many shipowners have been avoiding the Red Sea entirely.

Q2: Will this turn into another Middle Eastern war?

A2: Probably not. Neither side is looking to have an all-out war, and they are badly mismatched. But that is not to say that the Houthis will stop attacking shipping, or that the United States will stop attacking the Houthis.

Q3: What is the dynamic? What does “winning” look like for to either side?

A3: The Houthis derive prestige from being in a battle with the United States, as they present themselves as bravely standing up to U.S. and Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Because their only option is asymmetrical warfare, they keep doing cheap things to get attention. They have few valuable assets that the United States can hold at risk, so the United States has a hard time designing target sets that will change Houthi calculations. For the United States, leading an international coalition that can restore security is the clear goal, but that leadership has proven hard. Saudi Arabia has reportedly cautioned against military strikes on the Houthis, and France and Italy have declined to join a U.S.-led naval force.

Q4: If Houthis are supposedly Iranian proxies, shouldn’t the United States be pushing back at Iran?

A4: The Iranians have been supporting the Houthis for more than a decade, probably at a pace of about $100 million per year. They give them some weapons, training, and technology, but the two sides have always found that keeping each other at arm’s length serves both their interests. The Iranians certainly have influence over the Houthis, but it is probably a mistake to think they are directing them in these attacks. That being said, the Iranian leadership must be delighted that forces attributed to them are gaining global attention, that the U.S. military is struggling to build an international force to fight the Houthi threat, and that an underdog is willing to stand up for Palestinians against Western hegemony. One of the Iranian government’s innovations in recent years has been to support regional forces that they do not actually control. Their efforts are attributable but deniable, and the Iranians feel they enjoy benefits without paying the costs.

Q5: What does the attack on the Houthis mean for Yemeni peace talks?

A5: The Houthi insurgency has been going on for more than two decades, but before Gaza erupted in October, it had seemed headed toward a better place. Yemenis aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were in constructive talks with the Houthis, supported by U.S. and UN mediators. While the ceasefire between the Yemeni antagonists has largely held, the Houthi attacks on shipping have made the mediation more difficult. It is possible that this gets unstuck as part of a broader regional peace push as Gaza violence winds down. For the most part, the Houthis have concluded that time is on their side, and they are willing to go through short-term pain to advance their long-term goals. 

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program