Attempted Attack on U.S. Ship Marks New Stage in Yemen War

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Eighteen months have passed since the Yemeni Civil War began, pitting the forces of President Mansur Hadi and his allies against former president Ali Abduhallah Saleh and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Yemen continues to be rocked by almost daily military skirmishes, as the conflict has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now the conflict is even wider after a missile was launched from Houthi-held territory against the USS Mason. The failed attack, which prompted a U.S. retaliation, has many in the region wondering if the Houthis are serious about UN-backed peace efforts currently underway in Kuwait. Most regional observers have condemned this recent escalation of violence and have urged the Houthis to participate in earnestness in the talks. Meanwhile, the Houthis and the Iranians have focused on condemning the Saudis for the mistaken bombing of a funeral procession in Yemen, a strike which killed over 150 civilians, and which the Saudis say they are investigating.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been accused of launching rocket attacks against both U.S. and Emirati naval vessels. To many, including the Khaleej Times editorial staff, the attacks are designed to increase the tensions and stir anti-Arab sentiment in the region: “The Houthis’ mode of operation has become very evident, as can be seen from past instances during the first and second round of peace talks in Geneva, and negotiations hosted by Kuwait for three months. They tried to undermine the peace talks by launching attacks on the Yemen-Saudi border and avoided round-table talks. The recent attack on an Emirati civilian ship, Swift, poses a great danger to freedom of navigation in the Bab Al Mandeb Strait….The rebels are using every trick in the book to stir up international public opinion against the Arab coalition that is fighting for the development of the country and its people. The militia are positioning their men and arms in schools and are using people as human shields. This cannot be allowed to continue. Millions of Yemeni lives are at stake. The Houthis should return to the negotiating table before it’s too late.”

The National’s editorial expresses a similar sentiment, arguing that the rocket attacks were a clear signal that the Houthis were not interested in peace negotiations: “The firing of missiles towards an American warship in the Red Sea from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen is another blatant example of the one inescapable fact of the conflict: only one side genuinely wants peace. The attack on the USS Mason destroyer on Monday has been rightly condemned by the Government….As The National and many others have said before: the pathway to peace is through talks aimed at a political solution. In Yemen, there can be no peace when one party is being deliberately obstructionist, as the Houthis have proven to be again and again. With assistance from Iran and in concert with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis have blocked all roads to peace….The UAE and others have provided, and will continue to provide, humanitarian aid. But the time is overdue for the Houthis to put down their weapons and come to the table.”

Notwithstanding fears of escalation, many in the region identified with the view expressed in a recent Gulf Today editorial that the U.S. response against the Houthi rebels was appropriate and much-needed: “The repeated assaults by the Houthis on ships in international waters are certainly an attempt to target the freedom of navigation as the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has mentioned. The recent targeting by the Houthis of the US destroyer USS Mason and the UAE aid vessel, HSV-2 Swift, near Bab Al Mandeb are among the various deliberate acts of escalation. The idea is to inflame the situation in the region. It is good that Washington has woken up to reality and given a fitting response to the unprovoked attacks by the Houthis….The Houthi-Saleh alliance’s continuous breach of commitments and violations of the agreement made at the National Dialogue Conference and its refusal to abide by the will of the international community and UN Security Council resolution 2216 are the root cause of the problem.”

Commenting on the Houthi attack on the USS Mason, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed writes in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat that, upon closer scrutiny, the Houthi fighters may not be that different from other terrorist organizations: “Do Houthi militias differ from Al-Qaeda and ISIS? Previously, the Houthis never attacked American or western targets and therefore were not included in the list of terrorist organizations. In reality, however, they are actually similar to Al-Qaeda in that they use religion to target civilians and declare war. Houthi political slogans are no different from Al-Qaeda, and they both call people to fight ‘the disbelieving west,’ kill those who do not believe in the same doctrine as them and impose their religious law on Shafi’i Sunnis and other Zaidis who disagree with them….Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Ansar Allah should all be classified as terrorist groups, rather than limiting terrorism to Al-Qaeda groups just because they attack the west.”

News that Iran may have supplied the Houthis with missiles, as this Al Arabiya report suggests, can be indeed troublesome for a region that continues to be rocked by instability: “The failed missile attack from rebel held territory in Yemen happened as news reports from Tehran revealed Iranian-made ballistic missiles — ‘Zalzal 3’ — were launched by the alliance of rebels and followers of ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hit Saudi targets….The former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaee, in a letter dated back to March 2015, urged Abdulmalik al Houthi, leader of the Shiite militants in Yemen, to continue ‘resistance’ against coalition operations to restore legitimacy in Yemen. The current Secretary of Iran Expediency Council, vowed to maintain support to the pro Tehran militants. With the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenie, Rezaee returned to IRGC last year, now he acts as an adviser to its units fighting alongside Tehran’s allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”

The Iranian daily Tehran Times, for its part, has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi Arabian involvement, recently demanding that the Saudis be held accountable for the death of over 150 civilians that resulted from a recent accidental bombing of a funeral procession: “The Saudi airstrikes on Yemen which left hundreds dead or injured on Saturday have drawn strong criticism from the Islamic Republic. A few hours after news of the attack surfaced, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan said Saudi rulers are ‘war criminals and should be put on trial.’…Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, also denounced Washington’s role in the Saudi airstrike, saying U.S. weapons were used in the attack. The Yemeni people at the funeral ceremony were bombed with American weapons delivered to the ‘aggressive Saudi army’, Shamkhani said in a statement on Sunday, stressing that the U.S. is an ‘accomplice’ in the crime and should be held accountable for it….Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi also said on Saturday that the international community is still keeping silent on Saudi military aggression and the killing of Yemenis for one and a half year[s].”

The criticism against Saudi Arabia is also evident in this article by Iran’s Press TV, which relates some of the demands issued by Houthi leader as a precondition for peace talks: “Saleh al-Samad, the head of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, in two separate letters addressed to outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President of the UN Security Council Vitaly Churkin on Sunday, said that the Saudi-led coalition has been committing ‘vicious and unprecedented’ crimes against innocent Yemeni civilians over the past 18 months….Meanwhile, the spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement has set preconditions for the resumption of UN-sponsored peace talks, which was earlier demanded by the US and the UK. Mohamed Abdel-Salam said on Sunday that any ceasefire for Yemen must be all-encompassing and the Saudi-led blockades on the war-torn Arab country must be removed before the peace talks can be resumed.”

Overall, despite the various international parties pushing for peace talks, according to a report by Gulf News’s Saeed Al Batati, the civil war continues unabated, with each side accusing the other of war crimes: “Army troops and allied tribesmen loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi battled Al Houthis inside their stronghold in the north of the country as other forces were clearing mines laid by the fleeing rebels. The governor of Saada, Hadi Tarshan, told Gulf News on Thursday the government forces secured their positions on the border with Saudi Arabia and made a “slow” headway towards Ketaf, the largest district in Saada.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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