Joseph L. Votel
Former Commander of United States Central Command and a Distinguished Fellow in National Security at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

Why the United States Had to Strike Yemen 

Last Thursday, military forces from the United States and the United Kingdom struck nearly thirty different locations across Western Yemen to degrade Houthi military capabilities and dissuade the rebel group from further attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. It will take a bit more time to assess the actual damage caused to Houthi radars, missiles, drone launch bases, and command and control facilities and even longer to determine a change in behavior by the Houthis.

Still, these strikes will unlikely have the full effect the International Coalition intended. That is why a follow-up round of strikes occurred the next day, and Operation Prosperity Guardian remains prepared for further military action.

The United States and its partners had no option but to conduct these strikes. Freedom of navigation and uninhibited flow of commerce through international waters are fundamental rights and long-standing US and international security interests. Not acting would be a reprehensible failure to enforce international norms and standards, one that would only encourage more bad behavior on the part of the Houthis and their primary backers – the Iranian regime.

These strikes came after a rather lengthy period of warnings, including a joint public statement by ten nations, as well as what was surely back-channel communications and threats to the Houthis and Iran. The United States and its partners deployed ships and other resources that effectively protected international shipping by destroying dozens of missiles, drones, and attack boats before they could reach their targets. Defensive measures are not enough.

It is not the first time we have had to do this. In October of 2016 – Houthis attempting to attack the USS Mason with coastal defense missiles felt the wrath of US strikes on radar sites that supported their attacks. Quick action by the US Navy brought this relatively short period of provocation to an end. It was easier to do then because the Houthis were not as capable or as well supplied by their principal benefactor – the Iranian regime. Still – over the next couple of years following those attacks, we saw Houthi mining in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah that threatened international aid ships and posed grave danger to commerce through the Bab al-Mandeb. These actions became significant discussion points in the UN-led negotiations to deliver badly needed humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen and bring the civil war raging across the country to an end.

My point is this. Military action, while decisive and satisfying, is seldom solely sufficient to create deterrence or cause a behavior change. Other elements of national power must complement the military means that the United States and its international partners have mustered. We also need partners in the region to bring their capabilities to bear. If not through direct military action to punish and deter the Houthis, then in a way to protect and restore confidence by international shipping that operates in this critical waterway.

A more comprehensive approach means that we must now double down on diplomatic efforts to apply more pressure on the Houthis and the Iranian regime to stop these attacks. We must leverage regional partners with more open and direct relationships with the Houthis – countries like Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Our continued efforts to bring the Gaza conflict into another phase is also a vital corollary effort we must continue actively pursuing.

It also means we must actively use the information space and attribute clear accountability for these attacks to both the Houthis and the Iranian regime. The Houthis say they are attacking only ships that are coming to and from Israel – but the evidence conclusively proves otherwise. These Houthi attacks are indiscriminate, disproportional, and aimed at civilian mariners – all violations of the Law of Armed Conflict. We must do better at demonstrating the Iranian regime’s role in these attacks. Show the unambiguous evidence and hold the regime accountable in the court of public opinion.

We also must be prepared to leverage every tool we have to put a financial squeeze on the Houthis and the Iranian regime. We are already doing a lot – but more is available. Declaring the Houthis a terrorist organization and limiting the unregulated movement of military supplies from Iran is a good start.

In my view, it is not in the interest of the United States or the international community to become embroiled in a protracted conflict with the Houthis or Iran. That is not what I am arguing for in this opinion piece. An open-ended engagement would tie up precious resources and likely have a destabilizing effect on the region.

But the Houthi actions compel the United States and its international partners to act. And act we must – by bringing together the international community of nations, including partners in the region, to stop these unprovoked and unsafe attacks in the Red Sea. With a clear sense of urgency, we need to apply a skillful combination of all our tools to restore deterrence and make the Houthis understand that the cost of these attacks outweighs the supposed benefit they derive by being seen as a good member of the Iranian regime’s so-called “axis of resistance.”

We must also look to the source of all these issues – the Iranian regime. They are the provocateurs behind the instability in the region, and it appears they are prepared to continue the chaos indefinitely through their surrogate network consisting of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Syrian militia groups, and the Houthis. As the saying goes among US military officers experienced in the region – the Iranian regime will fight to their last proxy. They do not want a confrontation with the US because they know they will lose.

A practical and effective approach to stopping attacks in the Red Sea is not limited to the Houthis only – it must include the Iranian regime and their support, which fuels these actors on their behalf. A comprehensive campaign of military, diplomatic, informational, and economic actions directed at the Houthis and the Iranian regime will be the most successful approach to restoring the fundamental right of navigation and free flow of commerce in these critical international waters.