The USS Mason conducts manoeuvres in the Gulf of Oman. Warships had been targeted by rebels, says the Pentagon. Blake Midnight by Matthew Rosenberg and mark Mazzetti
A US warship stationed off the coast of Yemen fired cruise missiles on Thursday at radar installations that the Pentagon said had been used by Yemeni insurgents to target another US warship in two missile attacks in the past four days.
The strikes against the Houthi rebels marked the first time the United States had become involved militarily in the civil war between the Houthis, an indigenous Shiite group with loose connections to Iran, and the Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations. The strikes were approved by President Barack Obama, said Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, who warned of more to come if US ships were fired upon again
“These limited self-defence strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic.”
Until Thursday, the Obama administration had tried to navigate a treacherous course in Yemen, publicly pushing for a peace deal while quietly providing military support to a Saudi Arabian-led bombing campaign against the rebels since last year. Yet the main goal of the administration has often appeared to be keeping the United States from being dragged too deeply into a conflict that has shown few signs of abating and instead continues to grow deadlier.
That changed in the past four days with two separate missile attacks on a US destroyer, the Mason, that was sailing off the coast of Yemen in the southern end of the Red Sea. In both the first attack, on Sunday, and the second one, on Wednesday evening, missiles were fired from areas under Houthi control.
Limits on support
The missiles fell well short of the ship in both attacks. But US commanders believed that the attacks posed a real threat.
The retaliatory strikes Thursday targeted three radar installations “involved in the recent missile launches threatening USS Mason and other vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea” and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is one of the world’s most heavily trafficked waterways, the Pentagon said.
“Initial assessments show the sites were destroyed,” it added.
Up to now, the Obama administration put limits on its support for the Saudi-led coalition, providing intelligence and Air Force tankers to refuel the coalition’s jets and bombers. The US military has refuelled more than 5700 aircraft involved in the bombing campaign since it began, according to statistics provided by US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East.
This US role has drawn criticism from human rights groups, which condemn the campaign as reckless. More than 4000 civilians have been killed since the bombing began, according to the United Nations’ top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
That number includes at least 140 people who were killed in an airstrike on a funeral ceremony last weekend in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The strike prompted the administration to promise a review of US military assistance to the Saudis “so as to better align with US principles, values and interests”.
After the strikes by the United States on Thursday, a senior US military official stressed that the three radar installations were in remote areas. There was little risk of civilians being caught in the attacks, the official said, although there was no definitive declaration that civilians were unharmed in the strikes.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to provide details not included in the formal Pentagon statement, said the attack was carried out by the Nitze, also a destroyer, which fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at the radar sites.
The radar sites, which are in Houthi-controlled territory, were active during the failed missile attacks against the Mason and other ships. They were also active on October 1 when Houthi forces are believed to have fired a missile that disabled a United Arab Emirates military logistics ship, the Swift, the US official said.
Before Thursday’s attack, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed for a peace deal in Yemen, arguing that the United States could be an honest broker because it was not directly involved in the Saudi-led bombing campaign.
The military response could now make that a more difficult position to take.
Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at Chatham House, a London policy institute, said in an interview hours before the US strikes that “if they do intervene, it deepens the case that the Americans are party to the conflict”.
The Mason was sailing in the Bab el Mandeb, at the southern end of the Red Sea, when it was fired upon Wednesday. The ship responded with defensive fire before the missile fell into the water, according to the Pentagon.
A second US ship nearby, the Ponce, used to transport amphibious assault forces, was also untouched in the attack.
The senior US military official described the weapon used in the attack Wednesday on the Mason as a coastal defense cruise missile, designed to be used against ships. The official said the missile came from an area under rebel control. The situation was similar to one that unfolded on Sunday, when a pair of coastal defense missiles were fired at the Mason but failed to hit the ship.
How the rebels might have obtained the missiles was not clear. The Houthis, who are from northern Yemen, have seized ample amounts of military hardware in their two-year campaign to seize control of the country, and they are also believed to have received aid from Iran, possibly including advanced weaponry.
US intelligence officials believe that the Houthis receive significantly less support from Iran than the Saudis and other Persian Gulf nations have alleged.
The Saudi-led campaign began in March 2015, about a year after the Houthis and army units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began battling to oust the country’s current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Despite scepticism in Washington about the wisdom of the campaign, the Obama administration threw its support behind the Saudis, in part because it needed support in Riyadh for the nuclear deal it was then negotiating with Iran, a bitter enemy of Saudi Arabia.
Besides providing intelligence and refuelling help, the Pentagon sent a team of military personnel to Saudi Arabia to assist the planners of the air campaign.
Yet the Saudi campaign has failed to dislodge the Houthis from Sanaa. Much of Yemen is on the brink of famine, and reports of civilians’ being killed in airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have become routine.