The U.S., Britain and key allies issued what officials described as a final warning to the Houthi Yemeni rebel group Wednesday to cease its attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea or bear the consequences.
“Ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” says the statement issued by more than a dozen nations. “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”
The U.S. military has prepared options to strike the Iran-backed rebel group, U.S. officials say.
Should the U.S., Britain and other nations use force, potential targets could include launchers for antiship missiles and drones, targeting infrastructure such as coastal radar installations, and storage facilities for munitions. Among the challenges to striking Houthi targets is that many of their weapons systems are mobile, the officials said.
The Biden administration has been cautious about using force, seeking to protect the prospects for a diplomatic resolution to the Yemen conflict and avoid becoming entangled in a tit-for-tat confrontation with Houthis, whom some American officials view as an unpredictable wild card.
Houthi fighters overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014, which led Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to mount a military campaign against the rebels. Months of talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, have produced a road map that the U.S. hopes could lead to resolution of the conflict.
But the conflict between Hamas and Israel has spurred the Houthis to launch missiles and drones at Israel and shipping traffic in the Red Sea.
“The president has made clear the U.S. does not seek conflict with any nation or actor in the Middle East,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, who recited a list of U.S. naval and air military forces in the region. “But neither will we shrink from the task of defending ourselves, our interests, our partners or the free flow of international commerce.”
As of Tuesday, the Houthis have carried out 24 attacks on commercial ships since mid-November, according to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East. Tensions escalated further last week when Houthi fighters on four small boats fired at U.S. helicopters that came to the rescue of a Singapore-flagged vessel in the Red Sea. The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire, sinking three of the Houthi boats.
The Houthi attacks have had an effect on the global economy. Most oil tankers and containerships are still avoiding that route and going around Africa. On Tuesday, the Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk said it would avoid the Red Sea route.
“Nearly 15 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 percent of global grain trade, 12 percent of seaborne-traded oil and 8 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade,” the joint statement read. “International shipping companies continue to reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, adding significant cost and weeks of delay to the delivery of goods, and ultimately jeopardizing the movement of critical food, fuel, and humanitarian assistance throughout the world.”
The U.S. and Britain led the effort to issue a fresh multinational warning to the Houthis. For days, diplomats discussed the text as they sought to broaden the list of the number of nations that were prepared to join it.
The list of signatories included the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen has been ramping up attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets in retaliation for Israel’s strikes in Gaza. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday reports on the group’s rise in Yemen, and the threats it’s currently posing in the Middle East. Photo: Mohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
An emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on the Houthi threat to shipping in the Red Sea has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the request of the U.S., Britain, France and other nations.
The USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier battle group is in the region along with other American naval assets, British ships and ships from other nations.
The Houthis have said their attacks are a response to the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and were quick to join the fighting. On Oct. 19, the Houthis launched land-attack cruise missiles and drones at Israel, according to U.S. officials. Those weapons systems were designed by Iran, according to American intelligence.
The USS Carney guided-missile destroyer, which was sailing in the northern Red Sea, shot down several of the cruise missiles, while one was intercepted by Saudi Arabia, according to people familiar with the episode.
The Houthis soon turned their sights to commercial ships, including by using the same kind of ballistic missiles that Iran has provided to the group, U.S. intelligence says. Houthi officials have said they are aiming only at ships linked to Israel, but the Pentagon has tracked attacks on vessels flagged or owned in other countries.
Houthi attacks against international shipping have been carried out by drones, small boats and missiles, “including the first use of anti-ship ballistic missiles against such vessels,” the joint statement noted.
On Tuesday evening, the Houthis launched two missiles that landed in the Red Sea, without causing any damage, U.S. Central Command said. On Wednesday, the Houthis claimed they had targeted a Malta-flagged container ship they said was bound for an Israeli port. The group attacked the ship after its crew “refused to respond to calls from the Yemeni naval forces, including fiery warning messages,” a spokesman for the group said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the U.S. and Houthi reports referred to the same incident.
“The Houthis appeared to be striking maritime targets given that they have failed to strike Israel on land,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that has highlighted the threat it says Iran poses to the U.S. and its allies. “Iran is using the Houthis to generate economic costs that it hopes will pressure Washington to wind down Jerusalem’s war against Hamas.”
Some U.S. officials have expressed hope that Israel’s plans to lower the intensity of its fighting in Gaza might lead to a reduction of the Houthi attacks on commercial ships and thus ease the pressure on the U.S. and Britain to respond.
The Obama administration carried out cruise missile strikes in 2016 against coastal radar sites in areas controlled by the Houthis, which the Pentagon described at the time as “limited self-defense strikes” after the Houthis fired missiles at a U.S. destroyer.
Iranian state media said Monday that an Iranian destroyer was moving toward the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a key crossing between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
William Mauldin contributed to this article.