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The US and UK hit Houthi targets in Yemen. It probably won’t stop Red Sea attacks.

It’s an escalation in the region, but we’re not actually headed to outright war with Iran.

Two men raise weapons against a blue sky: on the left, a man in a tan suit jacket holds a photo of Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi in one hand and brandishes a curved knife in the other; on the right, a man in a grey suit jacket raises an automatic rifle.
Houthi militants raise their weapons during a rally following a US and UK strike against their positions.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

President Joe Biden admitted on Thursday that continued US strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen over the past week have not stopped the group’s attacks on cargo vessels transiting the Red Sea — but told reporters that strikes would continue nonetheless.

The United States and the United Kingdom began the strikes last week against military sites used by Houthi rebels to antagonize the global shipping industry in the Red Sea, raising fears of further escalation of the simmering conflict in the Middle East over Israel’s war in Gaza.

The strikes have been the most significant action the US has taken against the Houthis — a militant group in control of much of northern Yemen, who are funded and trained by Iran, and who sympathize with the Palestinian cause — thus far. Their Red Sea operations, they say, are protesting Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians so far. In other words, the US/UK strikes are both part of and responding to the ongoing regional conflict that has included operations like targeted US attacks in Iraq and Syria for months. And as the continuing attacks demonstrate, that ongoing conflict shows little sign of slowing.

Houthi attacks on commercial vessels have been ongoing since mid-November, and have had serious effects on global trade. They have successfully deterred shipping giants like Maersk from traveling through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, an important route for trade between Asia and Western countries. The group claims it only targets ships headed to or affiliated with Israel to protest that country’s war in Gaza, though it seems to be abandoning that principle as the attacks continue.

The Houthis have carried out at least 30 attacks since November 19, and though they don’t typically cause casualties or damage, many companies have deemed the Red Sea route too risky and chosen to take the longer, more expensive route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, driving up prices for consumer goods. The US began threatening retaliatory strikes against the Houthis over the past week, after the group ignored a “final warning” from the US, and continued its attacks on ships.

In addition to the UK, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands have also taken part in coordinating the strikes, though their roles in the operation are not yet clear. But regional partners, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, expressed concern about maintaining stability in the region and the possibility that the situation could spiral even more out of control. Some within the US government, like Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Val Hoyle (D-OR) questioned the constitutionality of the move, and Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party, denounced it. The US Department of Defense has not yet released information about casualties and continues to assess the success of the strikes. The Houthis claim the attacks killed five of their troops and wounded six others.

The Houthis, for their part, have continued their attacks, targeting US-owned vessels and launching missiles in the vicinity of US Navy ships. “All American-British interests have become ‘legitimate targets,’” the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council said in a statement following the initial US and UK strikes. According to James Jeffrey, chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and former special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, while the initial strikes hit some significant targets, “they certainly didn’t take down the Houthis’ ability to launch these attacks into the Red Sea.”

So while there might not be a risk of confrontation between the US and Iran, it appears likely more — and potentially larger — tit-for-tat attacks are to come.

Expect continued, simmering hostilities in the future — but not an all-out war

While the strikes represent an escalation on the part of the US and its allies — marking a move from rhetoric to violence — they are unlikely to lead to a full-fledged war with the Houthis, or their sponsors in Iran, and may not change the reality on the water. The Houthis could continue to antagonize ships in the Red Sea, despite the known consequences, because they have much to gain by doing so — and little to lose, Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox.

“It’s hard to [eliminate targets] that the Houthis find valuable,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money trying to destroy some very cheap installations.”

What’s more, the US-led strike (and any future actions against the group) can be interpreted as the Houthis being elevated on the global stage, giving them a legitimacy and prestige they previously lacked. That symbolic victory is only strengthened by the perception among some supporters of Palestine and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad that the Houthis are the only force willing to take big risks on behalf of the Palestinian cause. “They’ve become consequential when few other groups are, and they’ve done it from a pretty low base,” Alterman said.

A large part of the reason Thursday’s strikes probably won’t lead to an all-out war with Iran, according to Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group, is that “there is only so far [Iran’s] command and control extend across its network.” Whereas Hezbollah in Lebanon is in lock-step with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there’s a spectrum of control that Iran has over its proxy groups. “It has the least amount of control of the Houthis,” Vaez said. And with its actions in the Red Sea, the Houthis are establishing themselves on their own terms, “painting themselves not as Iranian proxies,” Alterman said.

Iran has no appetite for an expanded conflict, Vaez said. But looking out over the wider region over the past week, it’s clear that lower-level conflict is already occurring on several fronts — in the Red Sea, in Lebanon, and in Iraq. So rather than Israel’s war in Gaza leading to a larger war between global and regional powers, it currently seems more likely the conflict could take the shape of “open-ended hostilities that you can’t find a reason to stop,” Alterman said.

Update, January 19, 3:20 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 12 and has been updated to include details of further attacks by the US and UK, as well as details on the ongoing attacks by the Houthis.

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