In Yemen’s Houthis, U.S. and Britain face a ready, war-tested foe

President Biden said U.S.-led strikes on Houthi militants across Yemen sent “a clear message” that the United States would not tolerate attacks on its personnel or commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

But analysts say the assault early Friday, which the Houthis said killed five people, played directly into the hands of a battle-tested militant group whose standing in the region has only been enhanced.

In the aftermath of the U.S. and British strikes on dozens of Houthi positions, the movement was defiant. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the long-threatened operation would not go unanswered. Nor, he said, would it deter the militants from continuing to attack freighters and the warships that now escort them through the region — action that the Houthis say they are taking to end Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip.

That defiance, analysts say, is more than just bluster. The Houthis, targets of a years-long Saudi-led bombing campaign, have proved their ability to absorb such strikes. Friday’s attack provided them an opportunity to elevate their status among the constellation of Iranian-backed groups in the Middle East and among people, in the Arab world and beyond, desperate for any sign of resistance to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

U.S. and British leaders described the attacks as a success. But analysts say they lay bare a U.S. failure to contain the regional fallout from the Israeli offensive in Gaza — an operation that the White House has backed — and Yemen’s enduring civil conflict.

The West, particularly the United States, has been looking for “quick solutions to long, ongoing conflicts” in the Middle East, said Baraa Shiban, an associate fellow of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“There has been a lack of strategic thinking,” he said, including on Yemen, and a failure to invest the kind of attention that might have produced an alternative to the dominance of the Houthis.

Laurent Bonnefoy, a researcher who studies Yemen at Sciences Po in Paris, said the strikes were what the Houthis were “looking for.”

“They are gaining what they want, which is to appear as the boldest regional player when it comes to confronting the international coalition, which is largely in favor of Israel and does not care for people in Gaza,” he said. “This generates some form of support for them, internationally as well as internally.”

The Houthis deposed the Sanaa-based government of Yemen to seize power in 2014. A regional military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States to defeat the Houthis, struggled over the last decade to achieve that goal.

A furious Saudi-led bombing campaign killed thousands of civilians. As it wore on, the Houthis — with support from Iran — only grew stronger. The bloody conflict left areas of Yemen in ruin and sparked one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises.

Today, the Houthis rule large areas of Yemen, including the capital and the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeida, a powerful position when negotiating a postwar settlement.

Hamas and allied militants streamed out of Gaza on Oct. 7, and killed around 1,200 Israelis and took 240 more hostage, Israeli authorities say. Israel responded with a campaign that it said was aimed at eliminating Hamas. In three months, it has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, Gaza health officials say, reduced much of the enclave to rubble, and caused dire shortages of water, food, fuel and shelter.

If the United States intervened on behalf of Israel, the Houthis warned after Oct. 7, they would retaliate. That month, the militants fired their first salvo: cruise missiles aimed at Israel.

They were shot down by a U.S. Navy destroyer. Since early November, the group has launched more than two dozen attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The United States and Britain were supported in Friday’s airstrikes by Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and just one Arab country: Bahrain.

Several governments expressed misgivings or condemned the assault. Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. partner in the region that’s trying to conclude a peace deal with the Houthis, warned of the risks of escalation. The Saudi Foreign Ministry said it was “closely monitoring” developments “with great concern.”

Badr Albusaidi, the foreign minister of neighboring Oman, said the strikes went “against our advice and will only add fuel to an extremely dangerous situation.”

“I urge all parties to exercise restraint and focus on a cease-fire in Gaza now,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. Humanitarian and aid organizations also expressed concern.

“Yemenis across the country have woken up fearing a return to the conflict,” Jared Rowell, the Yemen country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement Friday. The Houthis’ Red Sea attacks were “already impacting the delivery of commercial and humanitarian aid to the country,” he said. “The US/UK strikes today underscore the risk of a wider regional and international confrontation.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the aim of the strikes was to “disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ capabilities.” But analysts say it would be difficult to accomplish even that goal.

Ibrahim Jalal, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, described the Houthis as a nimble militant group hardened by years of guerrilla warfare in Yemen and weathering years of Saudi-led airstrikes.

They have “little in the way of large-scale, permanent military sites,” he said, “and instead use mobile launchpads for rockets and drones in addition to networks of tunnels and caves that makes their targeting highly complicated.”

The strikes Friday, Jalal said, were “surgical, largely tactical and symbolic.” He doubted they work as a deterrent.

“The Houthis have too little to lose,” he said, and much to gain. The war in Gaza has enabled the group to position itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause in the region, winning public support at home and abroad and distracting from domestic discontent.

The Houthi challenge to the United States now is partly the result of Western “mismanagement” of the conflict in Yemen, he said.

“The U.S. was fine with a repressive regime that’s backed by Iran because they thought that this would be a Yemen problem, a regional problem,” he said. “This miscalculation takes us back to square one.”

As violence in Yemen’s civil conflict declined, opposition to the Houthis has emerged over complaints that include the group’s inability to pay public sector salaries, according to Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. But the Houthi attacks on Red Sea commerce have struck a chord in a country where support for Palestinians is universal.

“Now everyone is saying, ‘We support the Houthis in this issue,’” she said.

The attacks on shipping bolstered the group’s recruitment efforts, she said, and over the last few weeks — a period including a rare firefight between Houthi fighters and U.S. Navy helicopters — the number of recruits has soared, particularly in Yemen’s northern tribal areas.

Since the Houthis’ beginnings as a youth movement in northern Yemen decades ago, she said, the group had envisioned themselves as more than just a local actor — “they had ambitions of being a regional power.”

Now, as they confront the United States and its allies directly, she said, their wish has come true. They’ve proved their capacity to strike targets far beyond their borders.

“The Houthis will retaliate,” Shuja al-Deen said. “And they can.”

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