The U.S. military directly entered Yemen’s war for the first time, launching three strikes on areas controlled by Yemen’s Houthi rebels after an American navy ship was targeted in two failed missile attacks this week.
The U.S. strikes from a guided-missile destroyer hit radar sites involved in “recent missile launches threatening USS Mason and other vessels” operating in international waters in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb strait, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement. The Houthis denied they were behind the attacks on the ships, according to a news agency under their control.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz called the military’s strikes “purely a self-defense measure” and not an engagement in Yemen’s “sectarian situation.” But if attacked again, the U.S. is “prepared to respond if necessary,” he said.
The conflict in Yemen is widely seen as a proxy confrontation between Middle East rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict has so far pitted Shiite rebels and their allies against a government backed by a Saudi-led military coalition. Iran denies that its support for the Houthis amounts to direct military assistance. The U.S. said this month it was reviewing its assistance to the Saudi coalition after an airstrike killed more than 140 people gathered at a funeral hall in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.
Cook said the operation was authorized by President Barack Obama. “These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” he said. “The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate.”
Initial assessments show the sites targeted in the strikes were destroyed, Cook said. At 4 a.m. local time Thursday, the guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze “struck three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen’s Red Sea” coast, the Navy said in a statement. The sites were used in the “unprovoked attacks” on U.S. ships, including one on Wednesday against the USS Mason.
“After thorough analysis and careful planning, the strikes were executed with precision,” the Navy said.
John Jenkins, executive director of the IISS Middle East think-tank, said the attacks aimed at U.S. vessels may have been intended to draw the Americans deeper into the Yemen conflict.
“But the U.S. will seek to do everything it can not to be drawn further into it,” Jenkins said. “The attempted attacks show the importance of continued interdiction efforts, which are an international issue. I’m pretty sure the U.S. –- and other navies in the area –- will be taking extra measures to ensure their defenses are robust.”
The U.S. has “shown considerable reluctance to entangle itself in the conflict in Yemen, and I expect that it will limit itself to narrow retaliatory strikes in response to attacks on U.S. Navy vessels,” said Graham Griffiths, an analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. “Absent a much broader campaign of attacks on shipping in Bab al-Mandeb, the U.S.’s priority in Yemen is likely to remain combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Al-Yeman al-Youm TV, which is loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi ally, said on Wednesday that the U.S. Navy struck positions used by Houthi and Saleh forces near al-Haimah port in the province of Hodeidah.
Rebels leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi condemned the U.S. strikes, saying it preludes “an inimical operation targeting Hodeidah.” The Houthi leader called on fighters to be on high alert and prepare “to repel the criminal invaders,” according to a statement carried by the rebel-controlled Saba news agency.
Iranian navy warships, meanwhile, were reported to have entered waters off Yemen earlier this month. Tasnim news agency, citing its defense reporter, said the ships began a “mission” on Oct. 5, and had headed for the Gulf of Aden. They were to “momentarily stay in the Gulf to protect commercial ships from pirates,” it said, without stating their present location.
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On Sunday, two missiles that the U.S. said were fired from Houthi-controlled territories targeted the USS Mason but hit the water, causing no damage. Later, Captain Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the ship came under attack for a second time. It deployed “defensive measures” at the first cruise missile, while the second “splashed and crashed,” he said.
The U.S. has conducted military operations in Yemen for years, launching drone attacks against al-Qaeda targets. It blamed the jihadist group for an attack in 2000 on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.