The US has insisted it wants no direct military involvement in the bruising war in Yemen a day after launching its first strikes on territory controlled by the Houthi rebel movement.
As the Iran-backed Houthi rebels denied firing missiles at an American destroyer in international waters, the Pentagon said it did not know who launched the attack on the USS Mason – an act which prompted another destroyer, the USS Nitze, to launch Tomahawk missiles at three radar sites on Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
“We don’t seek a wider role in this conflict,” said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary on Thursday.
Cook said the strikes were a limited reprisal to defend the Mason and the principle of freedom of navigation in the Bab al-Mandeb waterway, “not connected to the broader conflict in Yemen.”
But Cook also suggested the US might not have launched its last strike against Houthi-controlled terrain.
“Should we see a repeat, we will be prepared to take appropriate action again,” he said.
The Houthis have denied any role in the strikes on the USS Mason. Contradicting the US, the Houthis told the Saba news agency that the missiles did not originate from its territory and offered to aid in an investigation of the incidents.
The US, along with the UK, are the main backers of Saudi Arabia, which has led a coalition to reinstate the exiled president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and counter the advances of Iran-backed Houthi fighters, who control the capital, Sana’a, and large swaths of territory.
Following a Saudi airstrike on a funeral ceremony in Sana’a on Saturday, which killed 140 people, among them many civilians, Washington gave an unprecedented warning that its security cooperation with Riyadh was not a “blank cheque” and that it was reviewing its “already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led coalition”. Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s attack on the funeral was “an apparent war crime”.
Yemen’s Saba news agency, which is aligned with the Houthis, quoted an official who denied the rebels had fired at the destroyer, and accused the US of attempting to cover up Saudi “crimes”.
“These allegations are unfounded and the army as well popular forces have nothing to do with this action,” the official said, according to Saba. “The US allegations just came in the context of creating false justifications to pave the way for a Saudi-led coalition to escalate its attacks against Yemen, to cover for crimes continually committed by the coalition against the Yemeni people, and to continue an all-out blockade after refusal stances have been increasing against such heinous crimes on the Yemeni people.”
Meanwhile Iran’s Tasnim news agency, which is close to the elite Revolutionary Guards, reported that Iranian navy was sending two warships to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, where the US warship was located. But Tasnim said their final destination was the east African country of Tanzania.
Cook repeatedly deflected questions about Iranian culpability in the attack on the Mason or the missile systems employed in the unsuccessful attempts on the ship, saying that the US was still assessing responsibility.
Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations who was previously based in Yemen, said it was unusual for the rebels to deny targeting the US warship because they have frequently exaggerated and bragged about their capabilities. “Either way, it’s quite clear that someone wants to drag the US further into this conflict,” he told the Guardian.
Although the US had not previously directly targeted Houthi-rebelled areas, Baron said it was important to bear in mind that Washington has already engaged in military operations in Yemen, including targeting al-Qaida supporters in drone strikes. “It remains to be seen whether this will be a one-off or another key milestone in a week that’s seen significant escalation in Yemen’s war,” he said.
Stephen Seche, who served as the US ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010, said the Obama administration was “paying the price for its relative inattention” to the Houthi-Saudi conflict and would be “very, very careful about being drawn into this.” While the US has provided midair refueling and arms sales to the Saudis, it has kept the 19-month war at arm’s length, particularly as civilian casualties have accumulated and efforts to end the war have foundered.
Seche doubted that the Houthis would find deeper US involvement “a particularly appetising prospect,” but suspected their Iranian backers saw the matter differently.
“It’s not at all a stretch of the imagination, to my mind, that the Iranians benefit from seeing the US drawn into this,” Seche told the Guardian.
Saudi airstrikes, which began in March 2015, escalated this summer after the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks that had brought a period of relief to parts of the country. One in three Saudi air raids on Yemen hit civilian sites, according to the findings of a survey obtained by the Guardian.
Since then, the humanitarian situation in Yemen has steadily deteriorated, with fears growing that the war and a Saudi maritime blockade are creating famine conditions in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.
There were reports on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had ordered an easing of the blockade to allow the evacuation of those wounded in the funeral attack.
Cook denied that any US military or intelligence assets contributed to the funeral strike. The White House announced a review of US contributions to the Saudi war effort in Yemen in the wake of the funeral attack. Cook said the US military had already downgraded its targeting efforts following a failed attempt at a ceasefire this summer, but maintained a “fusion cell” with the Saudis.
Many see the Yemen conflict as a proxy war between the Middle East’s two main rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their western or regional backers. Houthi fighters, who are loyal the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have also launched indiscriminate shelling in Yemen during the conflict, as well as retaliating with missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. This week, there were reports that Houthi missiles have struck deeper into Saudi Arabia, including striking the Taif airbase near Mecca.
Rafat Al-Akhali, a former Yemeni minister of youth and sports, said the US decision to target radar sites would further complicate the conflict.
“That’s a concerning development; it just further complicates things,” he said. “We do not understand what exactly happened and what was the attack that prompted this response, and the details are unclear on all sides, but if anything it means that rather than working towards finding a solution and ceasefire and peace agreement, it could signal that things are just getting more complicated.”
He said millions of Yemenis had not been paid for at least two months. “Since August, literally millions of people across the country, everyone from north to south, has been affected,” he said. “Nobody was paid in September, and the majority were not paid in August. The monthly salary is small amount but that has been the only means preventing famine. That’s the biggest challenge that everyone is facing.”