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White House Goes for War with Houthis, Not by Miscalculation but Non-Calculation

The Washington Post reported last night that the Biden Administration is developing plans for a sustained military campaign against the Houthis. Six waves of airstrikes have failed to “deter” the Houthis from attacking ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, so the administration is now considering its “options,” which senior officials discussed during a meeting at the White House on Jan. 17. The planning, according to the Post, is stoking concern among some officials that an open-ended operation could derail Yemen’s fragile peace and pull Washington into another unpredictable Middle Eastern conflict.

Unnamed administration officials described their strategy in Yemen as an effort to erode the Houthis’ high-level military capability enough to curtail their ability to target shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden or, at a minimum, to provide a sufficient deterrent so that risk-averse shipping companies will resume sending vessels through the region’s waterways. “We are clear-eyed about who the Houthis are, and their worldview,” a senior U.S. official said of the group, which the Biden Administration designated this week as a terrorist organization. “So we’re not sure that they’re going to stop immediately, but we are certainly trying to degrade and destroy their capabilities.”

Officials, as usual for the past 65 years, don’t expect that the operation will stretch on for years like previous U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. At the same time they acknowledge they can identify no end date or provide an estimate for when the Yemenis’ military capability will be adequately diminished. As part of the effort, U.S. naval forces also are working to intercept weapons shipments from Iran.

“We’re not trying to defeat the Houthis. There’s no appetite for invading Yemen,” a diplomat close to the issues said. “The appetite is to degrade their ability to launch these kind of attacks going forward, and that involves hitting the infrastructure that enables these kind of attacks, and targeting their higher-level capabilities.”

The Houthis, meanwhile, say their actions are only aimed against Israel and that they have no desire to expand the conflict. Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam, who is also the chief Houthi negotiator in peace talks over the country’s decade-old civil war, told Reuters the group had no plans to target longstanding foes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “We do not want the escalation to expand. This is not our demand. We imposed rules of engagement in which not a single drop of blood was shed or major material losses,” said Abdulsalam. “It represented pressure on Israel only, it did not represent pressure on any country in the world.”

“What the Yemeni people did in the beginning was to target Israeli ships heading to Israel without causing any human or even significant material losses, just preventing ships from passing as a natural right,” said Abdulsalam. “Now, when America joined in and escalated the situation further, there is no doubt that Yemen will respond,” he said.

“Yemen is concerned with responding, and is interested in verifying or maintaining its position by preventing Israeli ships from heading to the occupied Palestinian territories,” Abdulsalam said. As for Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., “We do not find justification for taking any action against them, and we call on them to reject the militarization of the Red Sea or the presence of military forces inside the region.”