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Biden Administration Faces Few Good Options Against Houthis

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the media before departing the White House for North Carolina, in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Biden Administration Faces Few Good Options Against Houthis

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January 19, 2024

By Iain Marlow (Bloomberg) —

US officials acknowledge that airstrikes against Houthi militants in Yemen won’t deter the group from attacks that have roiled commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Yet that doesn’t mean the military campaign will stop anytime soon.

President Joe Biden candidly described the dilemma Thursday when he was asked about the efforts to weaken Houthi capabilities after the Iran-backed group’s series of drone and missile strikes disrupted shipping in in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a vital trade waterway.

“Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes,” Biden told reporters in comments that fit his long habit of saying the quiet part out loud.

Analysts and outside critics — not to mention the Houthis themselves — have said the aerial military campaign won’t prevent them from firing on more ships, especially if the US refuses to target the group’s main backer, Iran. Yet in the absence of any better options for now, the Biden administration may have no choice. 

“I think that they don’t have any great expectations that this is going to succeed in deterring or degrading or defeating the Houthis,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, who’s now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Basically, they came to the conclusion that this was the least bad of the bad options that they had.”

The comments only further exposed the difficult balancing act Biden faces. He must confront the chaos in the Red Sea caused by the Houthis, who insist they’ll keep up their attacks until Israel halts its bombing campaign on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But he doesn’t want to go to war with Iran or pull in even more participants into the conflict. And he’s rejected calls at home and abroad to press for a cease-fire in Gaza — an idea Israel won’t agree to anyway.

The urgency is only increasing. The Houthi attacks, which the group says are motivated by Israel’s war against Hamas, and the US and UK response have driven down shipments through a waterway that previously handled 12% of global seaborne trade.

Shippers are diverting everything from oil and gas to livestock to commercial goods around the southern tip of Africa. Insurance costs have also shot up and some underwriters are trying to exclude US, UK and Israeli vessels from coverage.

Biden’s remarks on Thursday prompted hasty clarification from National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who said every strike — the US has launched five so far, starting last Thursday night — makes it harder for the Houthis to keep up their attacks. 

At the same time, a tentative strategy may be emerging, with a focus on continuing the strikes against the Houthis, pressuring Iran and seeking more international support for the campaign. That’s despite the understanding that the battle-hardened militants have already endured years of airstrikes from Saudi Arabia’s military, have little infrastructure of value to target and have been able to repair or replenish their weapons, thanks to Iran.

The Biden administration doesn’t think Iran initially prompted the Houthis to start attacking commercial vessels, but now believes that Tehran is helping the militants with a mix of supplies, as well as tactical and targeting information, one US official said. With the Houthis not backing down, the US expects it will take some time to resolve the situation in the Red Sea, the person added. 

The UK, which has been the only US partner actively participating in the Yemen strikes within a broader coalition, has tried to pressure Iran diplomatically but concluded that only military action against the Houthis could deter Tehran, a British official said. Still, UK is wary of an open-ended conflict and regional escalation, added the official, who was granted anonymity to speak about private deliberations. 

“The attacks on the Houthis, as we all know, are not about defeating the Houthis, which is what the Saudi aim was, it was about reestablishing deterrence,” Alicia Kearns, chair of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told reporters in Washington on Thursday. 

“Obviously, in some ways, deterrence has improved, because we have seen reduced attacks, but actually that’s only happened because we’ve degraded their capabilities — there will be more strikes, I’m almost certain of that,” Kearns said.

With clashes on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and the US already hitting back against Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria, the region is seeing even more flareups. Iran struck an alleged Israeli spy base in Iraq and, separately, a militant site in Pakistan. Islamabad struck back on Thursday morning against what it called “terrorist hideouts” in Iran.

Some US lawmakers are hoping for more international support for the US-led efforts to halt the Houthi attacks.

“I don’t think we have eliminated the threat — the threat is still there,” Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Thursday. “I certainly hope we’ll get the type of support internationally — we’ve gotten some — that we need to recognize that this is more than US shipping.” 

The US is now attacking in real-time as militants in Yemen mobilize missiles for attacks on commercial vessels. So far, it seems the military response has only emboldened the Houthis. “It is an honor for our people to be in such a confrontation with these evil forces,” Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the head of the militant group, said in a speech on Thursday, citing the US, the UK and Israel.

“The Biden administration is in bind,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official. “Biden’s preemptive and responsive attacks will have to do for now until the Israel-Gaza war ends and the Houthis ease up their strikes.”

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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