The U.S. and U.K. conducted airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Thursday after the group defied repeated warnings to halt its attacks on merchant and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, President Biden said.
The big picture: Biden said in a statement that at his direction the military forces, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, “successfully conducted strikes” against several targets “used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement Thursday evening the U.K. had “taken limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defense, alongside the United States with non-operational support from the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain against targets tied to these attacks, to degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping.”
Zoom in: An American military official said at a Thursday night briefing that the strikes were conducted by U.S. Navy warships and submarines, which launched precision-guided munitions in order to hit specific targets and avoid civilian casualties.
A spokesperson for the Houthi rebels said in a statement that the airstrikes hit the Yemeni city of Hodeidah.
Driving the news: Biden said the strikes were in direct response to the “unprecedented Houthi attacks against international shipping vessels in the Red Sea — including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history.”
The Houthis have launched more than two dozen attacks on vessels in the Red Sea since November, severely hampering the freedom of navigation in one of the world’s main commercial shipping routes.
Between the lines: The Biden administration had been considering taking military action against the Houthis for weeks, but the president was hesitant because of concerns it could drag the U.S. further into the crisis militarily and fears it could hurt the Yemen peace process.
Instead, the administration focused on building an international coalition of countries and a multinational naval task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, aimed at deterring the rebel group.
But the Houthis continued their attacks, including on Tuesday when they launched their largest drone and missile attack so far as commercial ships were passing through the Red Sea.
What they’re saying: “These attacks have endangered U.S. personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardized trade, and threatened freedom of navigation,” Biden said.
“More than 50 nations have been affected in 27 attacks on international commercial shipping. Crews from more than 20 countries have been threatened or taken hostage in acts of piracy,” he added.
“More than 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea — which can cause weeks of delays in product shipping times. And on January 9, Houthis launched their largest attack to date—directly targeting American ships.”
Meanwhile, the coalition issued a statement with partner governments of Germany, Denmark, South Korea and New Zealand, on Thursday evening, saying their aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea.
But they added they “will not hesitate to defend lives and protect the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”
Zoom out: The strikes come after the UN Security Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution demanding the Houthis halt their attacks.
An Israeli official who said its government was given advanced notice of the airstrikes in Yemen said the country was on high alert for any retaliation from the Houthis and other pro-Iranian proxies against Israel.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry called for restraint and de-escalation in light of events in the region.
The other side: Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi on Thursday said in a televised address that “any American attack [would] not remain without a response,” adding this would “be greater” than its attack on Tuesday.
The Houthis have said they began the attacks in an effort to get the Israeli military to halt its offensive in Gaza, which began after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
A senior U.S. official rejected this as “baseless,” noting that most of the ships the Houthis attacked had no connection to Israel and even if they had, this was “not a justification” for attacks “that threaten the entire world.”
What we’re watching: Two American officials said the U.S. expected the Houthis to retaliate and while they were not seeking an escalation, U.S. forces in the region were ready to defend themselves and launch more strikes against them if needed.